Sunday, 23 January 2011

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today, both Naphtali and Zebulun are mentioned in the first reading and the Gospel. At the time of Jesus, these lands were collectively known as Galilee. Geography places them at the northerly region of Israel. They border the pagan territories and for the people, especially of the south, concerned with purity of blood, of dietary practices and of worship, these lands are viewed in less than complimentary light. They are looked upon as lands of darkness which is the reason Christ chooses to appear there. This we hear in the first reading as it echoes the Christmas Midnight Mass’ declaration that the people that walked in darkness has seen a great light. Thus, Jesus of Matthew is the fulfilment of Prophet Isaiah’s beautiful words: The light that has dawned on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death.

The liturgy brings out this point clearly especially at Easter Vigil. The rubrics recommends that it should be celebrated only when there is sufficient darkness. All artificial lights in the Church are dimmed and only then will the service of light make sense when the Paschal Candle is lit and the “Lumen Christi” is intoned. The Paschal Candle processing into the Church signifies Christ’s light piercing and breaking through the darkness of our sins. Progressively the other lights are switched on until the time when the Exultet is chanted, the brightness of the artificial lights lend themselves to the light of the Paschal Candle bathing the baptised faithful in Christ’s light and more symbolically, for the catechumen, waiting for the wash of regeneration, they are awash by bright light of Christ first before they enter the waters of baptism.

Now, you begin to appreciate the contrast between light and its absence. In the above, I am simply describing a case that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The absence of light or what we normally call darkness helps us value light when it shines. Therefore, it is in the context of a world darkened by sin that we call Christ the Light of the world.

However, for now, I would like to speak not so much of the darkness associated with sin, the darkness of sin or the darkness caused by sin. Instead my concern is a glaring lack of contrast because we have this hopeless addiction with artificial light so much so that to speak of Christ as Light of the world may not make much sense. Take a look at one of the night satellite maps of the world especially of Europe, North America and North-east Asia. The night map of Japan shows the entire archipelago completely lit—no shadow of darkness. Artificial light is now turning our night into day so much so that we seem to live in perpetual light.

But, darkness is necessary for a balance in life. In short there is a rhythm, a regularity between light and its absence that makes life possible and not just meaningful. There are some of us who dare not sleep or who do not want to sleep. Here I am not referring to insomniacs—those who for medical reasons cannot sleep. Instead, there are those who party all night. They sleep very little because there is life to be lived; there’s happening to be at.

When we refuse to sleep it could be a sign that we are running away from ourselves. When we flood ourselves with too much light, it is a symptom of our running away. Sleep is a momentary embrace of death. To flee from darkness and to prefer total light do not indicate a life of virtue. Instead, both are symptoms of a fear and a denial. We run away from death because we unwittingly deny the reality of the resurrection. Too much light facilitates this denial. Think about it, turning a 12-hour day into a 24-hour day is tacitly implying that there is not enough time to eat, to enjoy and to live—that all living has to be done in this life or never at all. In short: no resurrection. I used to think that nuns are boring because they sleep so early but religious life’s embrace of the rhythm of day and night is also a faithful embrace of a promise that after this life, there is more life.

One of the prayers puts into perspective what I have tried to say and it goes like this: Father, let the light of Christ guide us to your Kingdom through a world filled with lights contrary to your own. The liturgy continually refers to Christ as the Light and this is where darkness is important because it is a symbol both of sin and death. How can we recognise Christ to be THE Light if we are “living” in perpetual light? And on the contrary, how can we speak of sin if we do not know darkness? In a way, we might be fooling ourselves that we are morally right all the time because of perpetual light. Is it any wonder why people do not sin anymore?

In conclusion, darkness, the absence of light or its pervasive presence is not just an environmental concern. It is not simply a matter of light pollution but instead, it is also a matter of spiritual significance. Before we can really appreciate Christ as the Light of the world, we need to appreciate the physical absence of light, that is, darkness. Under the glare of abiding artificial light, we might just confuse a contrary light to be that of Christ. [1] We live in a noisy world. To hear God’s Word, we need silence. [2] Likewise, we live in a world too bright. To appreciate how Christ is truly the Light of the world, we need darkness.

[1] Perhaps the second reading is helpful. At first glance, it was simply Paul writing to the Corinthians to address the issues of “disunity”. But, a closer scrutiny might lend us another interpretation. The question about siding Apollos, Paul or Cephas could be read as mistaking all these personalities or “lights” to be The Light. Paul, Apollos or Cephas may have been great stalwarts and leaders of the Church but they were not to be mistaken for the Christ—personalities to be attached to, to an idolatrous extent.
[2] Just like light and darkness, noise and silence are correlational. Our insistent need to be immersed in noise could also mask a running away from hearing God’s word.