Christmas is not over – 3rd Sunday in Ordinary time – MT 4:12-23 OR 4:12-17
So what if you have removed your decorations and have stopped popping marzipan sweets in your mouth; Christmas is not over! Matthew, the evangelist seems to agree with me; not with my liturgical incorrectness but with my trend of thought. We are in Chapter four of his gospel this Sunday, and have left behind the narrative of his birth, his baptism, his temptation and technically are somewhere at the beginning of his Galilean ministry. Yet I insist on wishing you a happy Christmas.
What is Christmas all about? It’s the celebration of God who gave us his son, the light of the world; a son who, as the evangelist John tells us, is the “light of all peoples”. So Christmas is not the celebration of a mere birth but the gift of light and life from God, His Son our Lord. As we say in the creed, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. So each time we dispel the darkness and welcome the light, we celebrate Christmas; we celebrate Him, who is the light of the world. Today’s reading does exactly that. It reminds us why Jesus came into the world; he comes in fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah, chapter 9: 1 (Mat 4:16) “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”.
Let us understand this ‘darkness’ that Jesus steps into. Matthew is deliberately quoting Isaiah to make a point. Jesus in fulfillment of the scriptures enters Galilee of the gentiles, and makes his home in Capernaum by the sea in the territory of Zebulum and Naphtali. To understand this text and its consequences we have to go back in time.
In 722 BC , Tiglath Pillesar, the Assyrian king had conquered the northern half of Israel namely Judah ( the region of Galilee in our text). Years later, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem in the south in 529 BC, destroying the temple and sending the people into exile. Seventy years later the exiles of the south returned to rebuild the temple during the Persian captivity (read the book of Haggai); but the north never really recovered and lost its strong Jewish identity to the cultural influences of the Gentiles who surrounded the land.
We are told that Galilee was bordered in the North and East by the Syrians, to the West and North by the Phoenicians, to the South by the Samaritans. To compound this already complex confluence of cultures was the via Maris, the way of the sea, ( note the reference in verse 15) which ran right through Galilean Capernaum connecting Egypt to Mesopotamia making Capernaum and Galilee a melting pot of all sorts. It is for this reason that the land was contemptuous called Galilee of the Gentiles (Mt 4:15) by the more traditionally religious south. Jerusalem scoffed at Galilee!
It is into this land, this culturally and religiously alienated people that Jesus CHOSE to minister. Christ walks into their darkness to become the light. Having said this, we must understand, that the darkness of the Galileans was not a metaphorical one; it was a moral, political, economic and most of all spiritual one.
Let’s highlight the spiritual darkness. The evangelist Matthew has not placed the prophecy of Isaiah here, quite by chance. To understand this we need to look at the larger text of Isaiah beginning in chapter 8:19. When Isaiah spoke this prophecy, the king of Judah (in the North) was Ahaz. It was he who had brought the practice of idolatry, particular the cult of Molak to his people. This God of the Ammonites was worshiped through a barbaric sacrifice. A cast iron image of Molak was heated to its near molten condition, only to have a new born baby placed in the images fiery arms to be consumed in smoke. Ahaz had sacrificed his very own son in this way. It is in this darkness that Isaiah prophecies (the reading we use on Christmas Eve) ‘the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. For unto us a child is born, a son is given.’
But darkness has shades, and Jesus walks into their darkest moment (as he does with us). It is so dark by the time the Lord enters that Matthew has changed the words of the prophet Isaiah. Compare the two verses. Isaiah uses the words, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. Matthew replaces just one word but by doing so he highlights the paralysis the darkness causes when he says “the people who SAT in darkness”. The darkness was so profound that the people could not even move!
For four hundred years, Israel had seen no prophet, heard no voice of the Lord. The ground swell of a disheartened people had reached a crescendo in their anticipation of the Messiah. It is for this reason that they ask John the Baptist, “are you the one or should we wait for someone else.” Jesus bursts into the darkness of Galilee and proclaims and teaches this alienated people, the good news of the kingdom of God. It is their midst that cures those with diseases and sickness. (Matthew 4:23)
The Gospel is also an invitation to others who wish to join his movement of light and life. In today’s Gospel he picks disciples who will be messengers of light and life. We call these special few, apostles; from the Greek, ‘to be sent’ (as messengers). Today, we open our hearts to Jesus the light of the world to be apostles, to be His messengers. We too like Peter and Andrew, James and John are invited to leave net, boat and father to follow Him, the light of the world. Christ chose the alienated Galilee over Jerusalem, chose simple working men over scholars and those with influence. His invitation to men and women to follow him is an invitation to make every day Christmas for others; dispelling darkness of sin and bringing in the Light of life. Happy Christmas!
Your comments are most welcome and encouraged
Fr Warner D’Souza