3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Of Light and Space
Readings: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-13 or 12-17
Picture: cc apdk
Sisters and brothers, have you ever had an argument with someone over space? Perhaps it was over a bedroom, or an office, a parking lot, or even the restroom...
The story is told of a king who wanted to see which of his three sons was wise enough to succeed him. So he called them to his throne room to test them. To each one he handed a bag of silver, telling them to use the money to buy something that could fill the whole room. The eldest son returned leading wagons laden with stones. But these were not enough to fill the room. The second son came back with cartloads of sticks. But these too were not enough to fill the room. When it was the youngest son’s turn, the king was surprised to see that he came in empty-handed. The prince reached into his robe and pulled out a candle. He placed the candle in the middle of the room, lit it with a match, and stepped back to watch, as the candlelight easily filled the entire space.
What we find in this story, sisters and brothers, is a reminder that there is more than one way to fill a space. There is the way chosen by each of the two elder princes, the more obvious way of sticks and stones. But there is also the way of the youngest prince, the way of light. And what makes the second way so amazing, and so different from the first, is that, unlike sticks and stones, light can fill a space without excluding other things from it. When I switch on the light in my room, I don’t have to leave to make space for the light. Light fills, and even improves upon, a space without itself taking up space.
It is useful to keep this in mind today, because our readings are all about light and space. Both the first reading and the gospel speak of how a people sitting in a very dark space have seen a great light. But what does this mean? One possible meaning is, of course, the political one. In both readings, the territory of the people of Israel has been conquered by foreigners. In the first reading it is the Assyrians who have occupied the land. And, in the gospel, it is the Romans who have done so. Faced with this political darkness, it is tempting to to think that the light comes to do only one thing: to drive out the foreign invaders and to reoccupy the land. Doesn’t the first reading foretell the smashing of yokes of burden and of poles of oppression?
And yet, it is clear that this is not what our readings mean for us. In the gospel, the coming of the light is associated with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. And, in his preaching, Jesus does not call for the overthrow of the Roman invaders, but for the conversion of human hearts. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The darkness that Jesus comes to dispel is first of all a spiritual one. Like the youngest prince in our story, in the gospel, Jesus comes to fill the land not with the sticks and stones of rebellion, but with the light of repentance. While the use of sticks and stones would bring only more violence and conflict, the light of Christ shines out with compassion and healing. We’re told that Jesus went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and curing every disease and illness. Jesus fills the whole space of Galilee with his healing light. And he even calls disciples, like Peter and Andrew, James and John, to join him in doing the same.
In the second reading too, it is with this same light of Christ that Paul wants the Corinthians to fill the space of their lives. According to Paul, the Corinthians have carved up their community into groups that exclude one another. When people claim to belong to Paul, for example, they mean that they do not belong to Apollos, or to Cephas. And vice versa. By using the names of the apostles in this way, the Corinthians have filled the space of their community with divisive sticks and stones. They are acting contrary to what Jesus preached. They remain in spiritual darkness. Which is why Paul reminds them that, instead of competing with one another, they should be united in the same mind and the same purpose of Christ. They should be filling the space of Corinth with the healing light of Christ.
But it is important for us to recognize that this is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy to choose compassion over conflict, healing over division, the way of light over the way of sticks and stones. It is not easy, because the way of light is also the way of the Cross. In today’s gospel, for example, the light begins to shine out at a very particular moment. We’re told that it is just when he had heard that John the Baptist had been arrested that Jesus begins his public ministry. It is precisely at a time when it is dangerous to be a prophet, that Jesus decides to become one. And he chooses to do this not just at a particular time, but also at a particular place. We’re told that Jesus withdrew to Galilee, a place that was under the control of Herod Antipas, the very person responsible for having John the Baptist arrested. And who would eventually have him killed. For Jesus, the way of light is also the way of the Cross. To choose to live in the light is also to choose, in some way, to die to oneself.
But still, although it is difficult to choose the light, it is not impossible. It is not impossible because, although the light of Christ does not occupy space out in the world, it has the mysterious power to make space within us, space for others. When we allow the light of Christ to shine upon us, we begin to find in ourselves a desire that is deeper even than our cravings for safety and security, for power and control. In the words of our responsorial psalm: One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. And what is this house of the Lord for us, if not the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims in the gospel, the kingdom of light, of justice, and of peace? To live in the house of the Lord. Isn’t this what each of us wants most of all? And it is important that we Christians kindle this desire within us especially today, when we live in spaces that are so often torn apart by sticks and stones of various kinds. Whether it is in our families, in our country, or in our world, everywhere we turn, it is possible to find people struggling with one another for space of some sort. Even we ourselves, who claim to be followers of Christ, remain split apart into so many different denominations and groups. We, of whom the Lord said: This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).
Some of us may still remember that well-known story of the spiritual teacher who once posed this question to her disciples: How do you know when the night is ended and the dawn is breaking? One disciple answered: It is when you can tell from a distance whether a tree is a cherry tree or an apple tree. Wrong, replied the teacher. It is, answered another disciple, when you can tell from a distance whether an animal is a cow or a horse. Wrong, said the teacher.
You know it is dawn when you can look into the face of another and see there the face of your sister or your brother. Until you can do that, the light has not dawned on you. You remain walking in the dark.
Sisters and brothers, what will it take for the dawn to break in our hearts and in our world today?