Isa. 8:23-9:3; Ps. 27:1,4,13,14; 1 Cor. 1:10-13,17; Mt. 4:12-23
By Br. Isidore Matthew Minerd, O.S.B., Monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey
To the Catechumens and Candidates of Saint Bruno Parish, South Greensburg, PA
“The kingdom of heaven is at hand ” — This is a phrase that you will hear many times through your lives as Catholics. May it never lose the striking force that it had for those first Jewish disciples of our Lord. Of course, various preachers will present you with different concepts of “kingdom” when trying to exegete this term for you. Some will present it as a social construct, others as “loving service to others,” others as a “newly created family of God,” and still others as the Church on earth and in heaven. None of these are without merit, so long as we realize their provisional and partial characters. The kingdom is at hand because it is realized not in any finite, static concept but is instead the presence of a mystery, namely the mystery of God Incarnate-Christ Jesus. He is the kingdom, given Him by the Father and in turn returned the Father.
To attempt to give some meaning to the term “Kingdom,” I would like to discuss the subject of “light,” which figures prominently in today’s Gospel and Old Testament pericopes. In writing the narrative of his Gospel, Matthew thought it important to link the kingdom to light, so let us pay heed to that today. In the present day, we too readily forget the mystery and importance of light. Like so much else in our lives, we have well regulated the sources of light, bringing forth luminescence from the slightest motion of our finger on a light switch. Indeed, as many stargazers will lament, the very ubiquity of human-created light has profoundly impeded our ability to look into night sky. We are like citizens on Asimov’s planet of Trantor–ensconced within a fabricated manmade city that seemingly abstracts us from any dependence upon external sources of light (and many other things as well).
However, if we search our hearts and minds, we know that this power is less certain than it appears at first glance. Many of us do not understand the mechanisms that combine to bring about the lightening of a surface–be it a simple light bulb or the more complex backlighting on a laptop display. Even if we are aware of a number of the technical details surrounding such lighting, we still find ourselves to be overwhelmed by the dizzying number of variables at play in their functioning. In the end, we realize that we are naïve to believe that we have absolute authority over the light. We protest to nature and shine our manmade beams, but in the end, this is a feeble stand against the dark–a temporary fix to a situation that is obviously part of the condition of living on any planet that has a face that is not in the immediate light of its star.
This forgotten darkness: What does it imply? What may the dark communicate to us? Most primordially, the dark is the realm of unknowing in which we realize that our own powers can do nothing to make us aware of our surroundings. For all the loud protestations of our intellectual and technological prowess, if we are placed in the darkness we find ourselves unable to see around us. Although our other senses do not fail us in this case, the darkness serves to remind us that we are not the sources of all knowledge and beauty. We require the presence of light in order to become fully actualized. Stare as we may into the inky darkness, we see nothing.
In today’s passage from Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the people in darkness–the Gentiles. Unlike the Jewish people, they did not have the benefit of the “historical grooming” that God had undertaken with the people of Israel. Though doubtlessly aware of something of God’s presence to the world, it had not yet been assigned for them to receive revelation in the same manner as Israel. Therefore, their whole worldview was missing something. Like one without sight, they lived according to a worldview presented by partial messages. However, without inner sight, the Gentiles were missing the fundamental perception of reality. Therefore, the dawning of the new light is a cause for great rejoicing by them.
This light was lit in Bethelehem–in their own midst–on the great day of Christ’s birth. As we start the new liturgical year, we watch Scripture unfold from Advent and Christmas like the dawn of light. Here in the northern hemisphere, this is vividly symbolized in the lengthening of the days that accompany this dawning proclamation. I suppose this slow dawning must be the way to understand the unfolding of Jesus’ life in the midst of his people. As we were told on Christmas Day: He came among his own but they did not know him 1Jn. 1:10,11) –a theme that we will see repeated again and again, from Jesus’ family’s reaction to him (cf. Mk. 3:21) to the questions posed by the people of Nazareth, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (cf. Mt. 13:53-58) So–the light dawns in the midst of those who need it most but they do not realize it! The light has dawned, but they seem not only to have been in the dark. They also seem to have blindfolded themselves!
In a spirit of self-satisfaction, we often assure ourselves that we have been saved in baptism or that we are clearly on the way as Catechumens. We have the light of Christ– we are no longer in the darkness. However, may we really believe this assertion? Do not the words grow cold upon our lips and stick in our throats? In contrast to such boldness, I believe that we know that we too live in the twilight. The Church herself reminds of this fact each year in the season of Advent. Indeed, at each Mass, we are reminded of this during the Penitential Rite. We are still on the way. We still fashion our own blindfolds and have lived as though we were groping in the dark.
Kingdom…Light…I have proposed these as our two themes today. There are many ways to understand the coming kingdom–many will be seen in coming weeks as we read the Sermon on the Mount. Today, we emphasize that it is a kingdom of light–that is, a kingdom that liberates us to see reality more clearly. The light of Christ is nothing short of the illumination of all creation so that it may be seen according to God’s mode of sight. Let us not be fooled: This mode of site makes high demands upon us! Above all it means that we are not the ones who will make this kingdom come about. We are not the light; we are merely those who walk in the Light. In the final analysis, we find that it is not even we who do the walking but Christ walking in us, for He who is the Light of God is also the Way to the Father. We literally walk within the Light that is Christ. The Church has always affirmed this: “It is Christ who preaches, baptizes, etc.” (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7) All of this is a practical outgrowth of his own words: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn. 15:5) — “you are grafted onto My Life–you are My Body.”
Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all men called to be inaugurators of the kingdom. What a band of giants in the Church’s history! Did they begin their discipleship by activism at Jesus’ side? Were they necessary for the kingdom? Strictly speaking, no. When Jesus finds them, they are busy with their own business. They have their own problems to deal with: Nets to be cast and mended, loads to be brought in, etc. Jesus calls them, promising to “make them fishers of men.” He does not promise, “Come, let us fish men together.” Indeed not! He will make them fishers of men by conforming them to His Image. They must travel with Him, they must learn from the Chief Fisherman, who at the time of their calling is the only one preaching and healing. They are not necessary– is only one thing necessary, namely God (Cf. Lk. 10:38-42). The beauty and the mystery is that God calls and draws us into His life work, through Christ, in His Body, the Church.
Light…Christ is the world’s light–he and none other. This light dawns and is not seen, for men must be attuned to God’s light. The Rule of Saint Benedict uses a provocative phrase to refer to God’s light: deificum lumen. In the recent English translation of the Rule, this is translated “the light that comes from God,” though it is more appropriately rendered: The God-making light-the deifying light. This Light answers our deep sense of need for meaning but also must make us into the only subject capable of walking in it-God. This is the whole point of the sacramental life in the Church-to be able to be containers of God’s light.
To receive this light, we must drop our nets and follow Him who calls us. That is, we must turn from our distractions and realize that we are like the people in Plato’s cave –perhaps even sadder than Plato realized. We grope about but do not even see the shadows on the wall–or if we do see, it is by fragmented light. However, if we realize that we cannot fabricate true and complete insight into life, we turn instead to Him from whom we have strayed by our disobedience. This is a painful process, one of self-emptying, of denying the final efficacy of those things by which we believed that we had power over our lives. It is our hope, however, that we might become like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, of whom Gandalf spoke regarding all of his suffering up to his arrival at Rivendell, “Still, that must be expected…He may become like a glass filled with a clear light for eyes to see that can.” We must be polished so that God’s light may shine from us.
Of course, the discernment of life in God is no simple matter. Though there are moral norms and Church legalities, it is far more than just that. We learn in time that we hear God like Elijah–in the small, still whispering sound (cf. 1 Kg. 19:10). God is present in mystery–think here of the Real Presence. This is the Light of the World, present on our altars. Most monstrances communicate this by making the host the central point of outgoing rays of light. However, here is the great mystery–the whole of the Godhead, the heavenly hosts, the whole Church, that is, the whole Christ is here present but under the guise of earthly form. In the end, God is mystery. I have to smile when people speak of heavenly locutions &$40;or something akin to them) as the source of their vocation to the monastic life. Perhaps they did have some absolute moment of illumination. However, I must say that even at my young age, I am beginning to appreciate what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers said of Jeremiah’s principle insight regarding reality: God is. All else seems to fade, but that one truth stands. I would qualify this by adding, “God is for us.” We must always tread carefully beyond this, for we always risk building a fence around the mystery of God.
With the words of the Psalmist, I invite you to learn to gaze upon the loveliness of the Lord in the Eucharist and in Scripture, for here you will learn that we must wait on the Lord’s own stirring of our lives. He comes to us and is the one who is in power. We merely have to let Him be our Light, which means we must let Him illuminate every moment of our lives. If He is for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31) We therefore sow in the hope of Him giving the growth (Cf. Ps. 126, 2 Cor. 9:10, etc). This will be our great rejoicing, if only we learn to “be stout hearted and wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14) –that is, if we dwell in His house all our days (Ps. 27:4) by learning and living in the continual light of obedience, discerned in accord with our daily living situation. This is the life of patience, about which Tertullian so wonderfully said, “God has enjoined us to deal calmly, gently, quietly, and peacefully with the Holy Spirit, because these things are alone in keeping with the goodness of his nature,” for, “every sin is ascribable to impatience.” Let us therefore respond in hope–against all doubts–to the call to become Children of the Light, that we may be made into Him who is the Light and, together in Him, inherit the Kingdom in which there are many mansions (Jn. 14:2).