Father Donald Senior, CP

Jan. 22: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Sitting in darkness

Is 8:23-9:3; Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14; 1 Cor 1:10-13, 17; Mt 4:12-23

Editors’ note: It is with great sadness that we mourn the Nov. 8, 2022, death of Passionist Father Donald Senior, whose Scripture column we were honored to publish over the past six years. As we look for a new Scripture columnist, we will continue reprinting Father Don’s past columns, with the permission of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

A memory that has stayed with me all my life is a Christmas visit to Dunning Veteran’s Hospital in Chicago. I was there with a group of fellow seminarians, invited to sing carols by one of our Passionist priests who was a chaplain there.

At one point, an orderly led us into a room that was very dark. When he turned on the lights we were startled to see that the room was full of patients sitting on benches dressed only in hospital smocks, most of them stroke victims or patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia. We sang, but there was hardly any response. The scene of these human beings sitting there in the darkness haunted all of us that day and beyond.

Whenever I hear today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel that marks the formal beginning of Jesus’ ministry, I think of that scene again. “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen.” Matthew, who so frequently quotes the Old Testament, cites here a passage from the eighth chapter of the prophet Isaiah — the very passage that is our first reading today.

The evangelist notes that when Jesus goes from Nazareth to take up his mission in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, he is also entering the region where in ancient times the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali dwelt. Those northern Israeli tribes were consumed in the terrible invasion of the Assyrians seven centuries before Jesus. The Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, taking most of its population into exile and bringing in other peoples to populate the decimated region — forebears of modern ethnic cleansing.

Matthew asserts that the contemporaries of Jesus were also a broken and wounded people. In the place of the Assyrians of long ago were now the Romans who, through surrogates such as the Herodians, drained people of their livelihood and their dignity. Into that gloom and darkness Jesus would bring life and light.

As Matthew will illustrate in his Gospel narrative, Jesus reaffirmed human dignity and brought his healing touch to lift away the burdens that were crushing people and robbing them of hope. Jesus’ mission of reconciliation and healing was not directed just to individuals, but was also meant to restore his people as a whole to a life of dignity and peace. He announced, as Matthew notes, that the “kingdom of God” was at hand. God’s rule (Matthew, by the way, out of reverence frequently uses the euphemism “heaven” rather than directly referring to “God”) would bring justice and peace to Israel.

Note, too, that this dramatic scene is immediately followed by the call of the first disciples, the fishermen Peter and Andrew, and James and John. They were called to “follow Jesus” and to be “fishers of people.” In the course of the Gospel narrative they would witness Jesus’ mission firsthand — hearing his powerful Sermon on the Mount with its call to justice and compassion for the vulnerable, observing his acts of healing, his outreach to those on the margins, witnessing his blunt and courageous exposure of injustice, ultimately risking his life for the sake of God’s kingdom.

No matter what our political leanings may be, we are in a time of no little controversy and some anxiety about which direction our country will go. This Sunday’s readings pointedly remind us that the mission of Jesus — and, therefore, our mission as Christians and as a church — is to bring “light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Who are those people today? The test of our authenticity as followers of Jesus will always be how we treat those among us who are the most vulnerable and in desperate need. Will the voice of Jesus the teacher and healer be heard through us in the days ahead?

This column was adapted from the Jan. 15, 2017, issue.


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