22 January, 2017. 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Saint Vincent, deacon and martyr

1st Reading: Isaiah 9:1-3

Isaiah foretells a Saviour for the people who walked in darkness

In the former time God brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17

Even in the early Church there was disunity, rivalry and schism

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23

Jesus calls his the fishermen to leave everything to follow him

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles- the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John , in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.


Listen to him

(Joe O’Leary)

Seeking some background for Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah, I looked up what Joseph Blenkinsopp has to say about today’s first reading in his Anchor Bible commentary on that prophetic text. What I found is a tangled historical scene from the 8th century BCE, when the Assyrians were a great threat to people’s security. History always presents a distressing and depressing scroll, sometimes making us wish we could just do away with it, or tempting us to estimate its value, with Henry Ford, at ten cents.

Many of Matthew’s prophecy-fulfilment quotations seem to be plucked arbitrarily out of the Old Testament and used for ornamental or poetic effect. And yet how beautifully they resonate in his text—“Out of Egypt I have called my son” (2:13), “He shall be called a Nazarene” (2:23)—surrounding the figure of Jesus with a majestic glow. Matthew is preparing to present Jesus as the new Moses. Where Moses proclaims the Law, with its Ten Commandments, from Mount Sinai, Jesus proclaims the Gospel, with its Eight Beatitudes, from a hill in Galilee. “Galilee” is a sweet and homely name, shaping the image of Jesus as an independent, merciful prophetic teacher, long before in the later pages of the Gospel he finds his way to the grimmer environment of Jerusalem.

But more than the play on the name of Galilee, what is striking and moving in today’s readings is the line: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” That line must have boosted the troubled Israelites in the 8th century BCE with the spirit of hope, and as recycled by Matthew it underlines the huge leap of hope that the appearance of Jesus brought. History is numbing, meaningless, depressive, ghastly, yet “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Many dismiss it as childish wishfulness, but others celebrate the incredible power of hope — “A beat of wings! and aeons lie behind us” (Goethe) — and hope is along with faith and love one of the three powers that are fundamental to the New Testament and its message of the Kingdom of God.

This last year has been for many people a revelation of how fragile and problematic the human situation in history is. Things we took for granted as stable structures — the United Kingdom, the European Union, American democracy — have been shown up as flimsy conventions. Continuing problems of poverty and inequality, conflict and war, fester worldwide, while the ecological crisis presents new and terrifying dangers that should concentrate our minds, but seem to find us distracted and disunited. In the era of “post-truth” we walk in a new kind of darkness, the darkness of a culture where values have little hold on people’s hearts, where convictions are in short supply and feebly expressed, a strange condition that has also proved inimical to Christian faith and commitment.

Can we apply the Gospel’s promise of hope to this condition? What kind of light can penetrate this peculiar kind of darkness? Can anything bring new enlightenment into minds and hearts trapped in the consumerist bubble and saturated with its distractions and appetites? Saints of old saw life as a daily struggle against temptation, but we indulge every whim, succumb to every addiction, and worship every fetish; and the net result is not brilliant. Or putting it more positively, we miss golden opportunities to do “something beautiful for God,” we miss the joyful militancy of the Gospel as it sets out every day to build up God’s Kingdom and renew the face of the earth.

Perhaps the first step out of this malaise is to learn to listen again — to one another, including to our tales of woe, and also to the penetrating and encouraging words of the Messiah, the New Moses, that Matthew will set majestically before us in the course of this year. Across the centuries those words have generated hope and conviction in difficult and barren times. Again and again they have shaped a powerful church community that the gates of hell could not resist. Their power has not been lost. “This is my beloved son,” a voice from heaven declared, “Listen to him” (Mt 17:5).

Something new and good

(José Antonio Pagola)

The first writer who gathered up Jesus’ actions and message summed it all up by saying that Jesus proclaimed the «Good New of God». Later on, all the Gospel writers use the same Greek term (euaggelion) and express the same conviction: in the God announced by Jesus, all peoples encounter something «new» and «good». Is there still in that Gospel something that can be read, in our mainly indifferent and unbelieving society, as new and good for the people of today? Something we can meet in the God announced by Jesus and which isn’t offered easily by science, technology or progress? How is it possible to live a faith in God in our time?

In Jesus’ Gospel we who believe meet up with a God with whom we can feel and live a life that is gift, that has its origin in the ultimate mystery of the reality that is Love. For me it’s good to not feel alone and lost in existence, nor find myself in the hands of destiny or chance. I have Someone to whom I can be thankful for my life. In Jesus we meet a God who, in spite of our stupidity, gives us energy to defend our liberty without ending up slaves of some idol: to not live always half-way or just hanging on; to go about learning new and more humane ways of working and of enjoyment, of suffering and of loving. For me it’s good to be able to count on the energy of my mustard seed faith in that God.

In Jesus’ message we meet up with a God who awakens our responsibility to not ignore everyone else. We won’t be able to do great things, but we know that we need to be a part of a life that has more dignity and more happiness for all, thinking above all in the most needy and defenseless. For me it’s good to believe in a God who frequently asks me what I am doing for my brothers and sisters. This God makes me live with more clarity and dignity. This is a God who helps us to suspect that evil, injustice and death don’t have the last word. One day everything that hasn’t happened here, that has been left half-done, our biggest dreams and our most intimate desires – all this will reach their fullness in God. For me that helps to live my life and to await my death with much confidence.

Certainly, each one of us needs to decide how she or he wants to live and how we want to die. Each one needs to listen to his/her own truth. For me it isn’t the same to believe in God as to not believe. For me it seems good to be able to go about in this world feeling myself welcomed, strengthened, forgiven and saved by the God revealed in Jesus.

What his mission was about

Today’s gospel is about Jesus beginning his mission, calling his first disciples, and beginning to travel from place to place, to proclaim that the kingdom of God was close at hand. It marks the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. John had been arrested, so that was the end of the ministry of John. The gospel tells us that instead of going to Nazareth (in other words, instead of going home), Jesus went to Capernaum. The show was on the road, as it were. As it happened, the prophet had foretold that this would happen. I don’t think that the sayings of the prophets are what influenced Jesus. He was led by the Spirit, and that led him into the fulfilling of all the prophecies. Aren’t they powerful words used by the prophet to describe what happens when Jesus appears among them? “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who lived in the land where death cast its shadow, a light has shone.” Jesus would later refer to himself as the light of the world; and, in commissioning his apostles, he would tell them that they, now, were to be a light to the world.

The message of Jesus is a simple one. “Turn from your sins, and turn to God, because the kingdom of heaven is near.” I said earlier that the clearer my goal or vision, the higher will be the level of my energy in bringing that about. Sin is a false goal, an untrue vision, and an empty promise. It is immediate, selfish, and is self-will run riot. It is the result of behaviour that is out of control, through a compulsion, addiction, or selfish whim. It can never satisfy because, outside the kingdom of Cod I am an exile, pining for home. Even in the depth of my sin the kingdom of God is near. I just have to reach out, and Jesus is there.

Give up your old sins!

Today’s gospel reports the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John had been arrested, so that was the end of his active input to the religious revival of his people. The gospel tells us that instead of going to Nazareth (in other words, instead of going home), Jesus went to Capernaum. The show was on the road, as it were. Aren’t the words used by the prophet powerful to describe what happens when Jesus began his ministry,”The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who lived in the land where death cast its shadow, a light has shone.” Jesus would later refer to himself as the light of the world; and, in commissioning his apostles, he would tell them that they, too, were to be light to the world.

The message of Jesus is a simple one. “Turn from your sins, and turn to God, because the kingdom of heaven is near.” When I was growing up the word “vocation” was highjacked by priests and religious. It has been given back to the laity, and more and more baptised people are actually experiencing themselves as being called. There is nothing dramatic about this. It just means that I don’t just stumble into the Christian way by default, but that God has chosen me: “I have called you by name; you are mine.” “You didn’t choose me; no, I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that would remain.” If the gospel is now, and I am every person in the gospel, then, through the gospel of today, I am being called again.

“Turn from your sins, and turn to God, because the kingdom of God is near.” There is a story told about Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. Leonardo searched far and wide for what he considered to be an ideal model for each person in the scene. He began with a fine-looking young man, full of vitality, and chose him as a perfect model for Jesus. He followed with other models for each of the apostles, and the work took quite a while. He left Judas till last, not knowing who could represent him. Finally, he came across a tramp sleeping rough, whom he thought that would probably sell his soul for money. Leonardo persuaded him to come to his studio. While the work was in progress, both of them came to the same realisation. This man had been in the same studio before, representing Jesus; but he had gone astray, lost his way, and was now on Skid Row. It was a shock to de Vinci, and a sharp prod to conversion for the man.

Saint Vincent, deacon and martyr

Vincent born in Huesca, Spain, about 270, was the Protomartyr of the Church in Spain. He served as a deacon of the church in Saragossa and was martyred under the Emperor Diocletian around the year 304. He is the patron saint of Lisbon and of Valencia.


  1. Seán Ó Longaigh says:

    Just a thought: I wonder if we, Christians/Catholics, could retain B.C. and A.D. These centre time on the person of Jesus Christ.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Alas, we forgot that today is Christian Unity week, particularly important in this commemorative year (1517-2017), so the sermons are tangential.

    I was a bit hard on history. Encouragement is found in an anecdote about Braudel, author of a famous history of the Mediterranean. He began writing it in a POW camp in Germany, where he lectured his fellow-prisoners on the topic. It defends the idea of “long duration” (longue durée), the focus on structures that persist across centuries and are not easily dislodged by catastrophes.

  3. Ciaran McGettrick says:

    Excellent reflection. Listening to others and doing something beautiful for God
    is a positive way to refocus away from our own self absorption

  4. Joe, I assumed 1 Corinthians was chosen with Church Unity Week in mind. The theme of all the worship material this Unity Week– chosen by the German Church this year as it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation–focuses on reconciliation — “And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” 2 Corinthians 5: 14-20 NIV.

  5. Fr. Bertin Miller says:

    This message speaks eloquently to the challenges we face in our hearts, our communities and nation and even in our Faith communities. The CALL in the Scriptures today is the source of our Hope to be the witnesses of Love and Tolerance in the face of differences.

    Fr. Bert

  6. Let’s hope the Pope reads this as he will be heartened that a real discussion is taking place. The Irish Bishops at the ad limina no doubt raised the position of Fr. Tony Flannery and how he is being uncharitably treated.

  7. Joe O'Leary says:

    I’m involved with a review called The Japan Mission Journal, now in its 71st year. We have a powerful set of articles on the Reformation in this year’s first issue in March, by Benjamin Dahlke, Ingolf Dalferth, Michaël Desprez, Stephen Morgan, Thomas O’Loughlin, and Marcel Hénaff. I hope to see the review commercially upgraded and made accessible online.

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