Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27, 1 Cor 3, Matt 4:12-18
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).
These words from the great Prophet Isaiah are a pivotal communication of our Lord’s work in the world. They are stirring, and come bellowing off of the page: Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Think about darkness and about light. We live in a world today where darkness is something hardly ever seen. Lights litter our cities, our streets and our homes. We light our cars and put lights in our children’s rooms. Darkness is a rare – and sometimes coveted – thing. What does it mean, then, for Matthew to say that these people have walked in darkness, when many today seek darkness in the wilderness as a prize and a rest from the lights of our lives? Who, we ask as people who spend almost every hour in light, are these people who walk in darkness? Surely not us. Surely not this city.
“The people” – Matthew writes, showing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Jesus – “who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
We must ask, then, who are these people? Wherefore this darkness? And, importantly, whence this great light?
The first clue about who these people are is that the Church gives us this text in the season after the Epiphany. Epiphany celebrated the revelation of the Lord of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the Lord of all – of all the nations, of all the peoples of the earth, as the one Lord and King to whom all other lords and kings owe obeisance. The people who walk in darkness are all of us Gentiles. They were the nations whom the Lord came to bring into His fold. The nations walk in the darkness of a devastated and fallen world – as ones who have lived without the LORD for all of their history up until Christ.
And yet, this prophecy from Isaiah moves us, too, as those who are already part of the Church – some of us our whole lives. We rightly know in our hearts – as do Simon, Andrew, James and John – that the call to Light is for us, too. The words mov us because they state the deep reality of what we are, here and now: a people who walk, and all around (and in) whom there is darkness as well as the light.
This makes sense, since darkness is all of a kind. The darkness of the Gentiles, the darkness of the fallen world, is a darkness that continues to be present around us and, as Christians short of full holiness, within us as well. In fact, it is only those who know this darkness and face it that may come to Christ – for those who know the darkness are in no danger of finding the present life so satisfactory as to not be willing to turn to God.
But all of this leads us to the question: what exactly is this darkness of which Isaiah, and Matthew, write? What is the darkness that has been present since the Garden of Eden, the darkness in which the Gospel shines, the darkness that surrounds us and lies within us?
Let us be clear, this is not simply an emotional or sentimental matter. Jesus and His followers mince no words: “Whoever hates his brother” – writes the Apostle John – “is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11). Jesus Christ makes this clear: if we love the Lord and neighbors, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us. St. Paul exhorts us to consider: “Has Christ been divided?” He knows well that the work of Satan is division – this is clear in that devastated world. The world around us, currently and throughout history, is a bloodbath of division. There is also divisiveness amongst believers. It is in heresy, schism, apostasy, anger, bitterness, slander, malice, vengeance and lies. In all of this we see the true nature of the darkness: the darkness is the life of pride. It is the cold heart, the heart that refuses forgiveness, hates reconciliation, insists on its own way, is irritable, resentful, and secretly joys in the pain and wronging of others. This is the darkness – and it is the darkness out of which we all are called.
It is tempting to point fingers. It is tempting to assume that this darkness is all around us. It is easy to see the darkness in those people, in the people who aren’t like us. But what about us? What about the darkness we carry in ourselves? Do we let the Light come in?
To see the great light is to reject the works of Satan in us. We are called to regularly examine ourselves, and make regular confession of our sins, to turn away from that darkness. Let’s look at a couple of the works of darkness: vengeance, for one. Do we cringe to bear with those who hurt us? Do we resent the person who causes us pain or who puts us down? Or what about pride: Do we always broadcast our own accomplishments in conversations? Do we diminish – or ignore – the good work of others who may surpass us? Do we insist on being right, refusing to give way in our lives, our habits and our minds to the good of the other? Or patience: Do we refuse to strive for peace amongst ourselves – in the Church, in our parish, in our marriages, in our families, or our friendships? Do we gossip and revel in the faults of others? Do we insist on maintaining the divisions? Is Christ divided? Are we walking in darkness? “Repent,” we are called, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
But, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Is 9:1). Despite appearances, despite our own cynicism at times, the darkness does not have the last word. What, then, is the light?
St. John tells us, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” On the part of the people there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience and rebellion. But in the Lord there is always Light. “The True Light shines in the darkness.” Which light? The one that says, “I am the Light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” How, then, do we follow this light? We are told to “put on the armor of light,” the armor which is “The Lord Jesus Christ” Himself. How do we get this armor? It is “those who do what is true who come to the light.” These are the good works that bring us to the light and allow that light to “shine before others.” The works of light are the opposite of those works of division. They are humble love of God and neighbor. Forgiving injustices. Patience in frustration. Self sacrifice. Temperance. Refusal of retaliation. Counting oneself the servant of all. Renouncing control. Gentleness. Showing mercy to those who do not deserve mercy. Giving to those who beg. Looking foolish in the eyes of others. Associating with the lowly. Esteeming those who despise us. Prayer for our worst enemies. Quiet attentiveness. Refusing, rather than seeking, the place of honor.
This is the way of the cross because it is the way of the Light that the world cannot comprehend. Light really is glorious. And yet – is it too glorious for us?
Why, over and over again, do we turn away from the Light? Why do we refuse the way of being the lowest, the way of being played the fool, the way of risking being outcast, alone, helpless? In other words, why do we turn from the way of the cross?
Are we not all afraid what this Light may show? Are you afraid of our brokenness? Are we not all afraid of realizing our sins, of confessing them to another person – afraid that we may be rejected? That we may be left without our defenses? Afraid of being made vulnerable, of being hurt, damaged, wronged, played the fool, misunderstood? Afraid we may not survive that reckoning?
If this is the case, at the heart of all of this fear, are we not all afraid that if we let the Light enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves, and our sins, totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?
But once again the LORD says: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and goodness. And so, today, the LORD says to you, on the basis of the lives of the saints, the apostles, of the martyrs, on all of the lives who have given themselves, their weak, worthless selves to the LORD: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open wide the doors to Christ, the Light of the Gentiles and the Light of the World – and you will find true life.
N.B.: Portions of this sermon are taken from the Christmas Eve 2013 homily of Pope Francis and from a homily from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI given on his Inauguration to the Pontificate on April 24, 2005. It is indebted as well, in part, to his own Christmas Eve sermon of 2012.