[Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27; 1Corinthians 1:10-13, 17-18; Matthew 4: 12-23]
Anyone who has taken a flight on any airline knows that, just prior to takeoff, the onboard personnel give a safety demonstration. They give us information we need and tell us what we must do “in the unlikely event of an emergency situation”. That is a gentle way to refer to what we know would possibly be a life-or-death situation. Naturally, then, given the seriousness of this, they ask for our complete attention. Yet, have you noticed that they seldom get it? As emergency procedures are outlined for the sake of our life and safety, most passengers – yours truly included – are either catching up on sleep, gazing out the window, or reading a book. By our not paying attention we fail, in effect, to take seriously what is very serious indeed.
An announcement of even greater seriousness, one which is, in fact, a matter of eternal life or death, is made in the scriptural passages for this mass. Here, too, we can ask: “Are we paying attention?” This, in fact, is the very question Pope Francis is posing to the whole Church. He has established this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time as Word of God Sunday, an annual reminder to pay attention to the words of Sacred Scripture, since only they can provide the sure foundation and guiding principles of our lives. If we fail to pay attention to the announcement on an airplane, it is likely because we have heard it all before, many times, and feel we do not need to listen again. What we hear in the sacred texts today is likewise a message we have received again and again – it has become very familiar to us. For this reason, we may be tempted not to give it the careful attention it deserves. Taken together, the readings not only give us the essential message but also demonstrate what happens when we do pay attention and the serious impact on our lives when we do not.
As the passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel begins, we are given right away an important signal that we need to sit up and pay attention. We are told that Jesus “made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.” What is evoked here is the memory of a time when the people of this area were living in deep gloom, having been overrun and terrorized by a foreign power. To these people Isaiah had prophesied that God would send a light to dispel their darkness, and Matthew is teaching that Jesus is the fulfilment of that prophecy, that he is the long-awaited light that will dispel the darkness and lift the gloom. Well, in our own day we are no strangers to gloom. For a host of reasons, many people today also need a light that will lift from their hearts the dark worry, fear, and anxiety that are causing a widely felt dreariness and melancholy. Saint Matthew is saying to us, as he did to his original readers: “Pay very close attention to what Jesus tells you, because the light you so earnestly desire is found only in him.”
What is Jesus saying? The heart of all that Jesus taught is given in the very first words he speaks: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repentance is a complete reversal of one’s life, motivated by a decision to surrender no longer to one’s own self-centered desires and plans but henceforth to the sovereign will of God and the divine commands. This decision springs from an encounter with the person of Jesus, in whom the reign of God’s love has broken forth into the world. Repentance opens us to the light that Jesus alone can give.
We see this play out in the call of the first disciples. They pay attention to the message of Jesus, they take very seriously his call to follow him, and look what happens: their lives change completely and are given true direction. As we, too, pay close attention to the words of the Lord, light dawns upon our own lives. We come to the realization that we are known and loved by the Lord Jesus, that he has a specific plan for each of us; we see clearly what needs to change in our lives and are given the strength to do it; and we are convinced that by following him we are placed on the path of life. In the encounter with Jesus Christ and the determination to pay close attention to what he says and follow it, the gloom lifts and hope is restored.
What happens when we do not pay attention to the life-saving message of Jesus Christ? What occurs when we are diverted by concerns we judge to be of more interest or greater importance? As Saint Paul makes clear, the result is division and polarization among people, even within the Church. Note carefully how the Apostle locates the division in a paying attention to voices other than those of Christ: “Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’” For some time now our society has been plagued by deep polarization, resulting from the distractions of a variety of voices that compete with and contradict one another. With great sadness we must acknowledge that this polarization has crept even into the Church. It is clear that we have not been paying attention to the one voice that unites us, to the one person who came as light and who gave his life so that all of God’s people might be one.
So, let’s begin again to pay attention to the Lord. It is not too much to borrow from the airline announcement and say that we are in an emergency situation. The safety procedure Jesus calls us to enact is repentance, a turning away from everything that distracts us from his message and a turning back to him who uniquely is our light. By the grace of this Eucharist, may we stay closely attentive to all that Jesus tells us to do as he leads us out of our darkness and into his light, as he summons us away from polarization and toward the unity he wills for his Church and for all people.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph’s Basilica
January 22nd, 2022