“The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light; on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen.” St. Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah as he recounts the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is the light that shines in darkness. He dispels the darkness with the light of his very self. As he begins the public ministry, he proclaims: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Darkness is the absence of light. The degree to which something is described as “dark” is the amount of light that is missing. If you have ever been in a cave without lighting, you know it is very dark. The further one goes into the cave and away from the source of light, the darker it gets.
When one finds him or herself in darkness it can be overpowering. When one prepares to take another step, he or she first feels around with a foot to make sure there is something solid ahead for support. They make sure there are no obstacles on which they would trip. Their hands wave carefully in front of them to make sure nothing is protruding from the walls, also checking to see that the ceiling is high enough to make safe passage.
Many times we use the term “darkness” as an allegorical expression to describe a situation in life where there is confusion, sadness, uncertainty, isolation, suffering or anxiety. The causes vary from person to person and from time to time. It may result from a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one, trying to come to a decision on how to proceed, the inability to find work, the pain of illness, grappling with a problem for which an answer seems elusive or any other situation where hope seems to have faded.
Jesus is the light that dispels the darkness for he is the source of our hope. After the initial proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, Jesus proceeds to call his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John. The four were fishermen.
All four were at work when Jesus passed by and encountered them. Peter and Andrew were casting the net. James and John were in their boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets. The encounter with Jesus was so powerful that they left everything to follow him. They left their work, their families, their security, their routines, their surroundings and their livelihood.
Many times, if someone where removed or removed themselves from these things we would say that they are “now in darkness” or that they were “going out into the dark/deep.” For the four disciples, who would later be named apostles, the opposite is true for they were not going into the darkness but into the light. The encounter with Jesus, brief as it may seem, is enough for them to abandon their former way of life for something new, something that only Jesus could provide.
The encounter with Jesus begins a transformation. The first reading for today’s liturgy describes the effects of such an encounter. Anguish takes wing. Distress and gloom flee, replaced by “abundant joy and great rejoicing.” Burdens are lifted. The rod of the taskmaster is smashed. Encountering Jesus dispels the darkness and fills our lives with life.
The life that Jesus offers is not only a joy-filled life in this world but the promise of life eternal where death is robbed of its power. Hence when Matthew writes, “in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen,” he is referring to the dawn of eternal life which will be accomplished through Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead.
St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London has a painting called “The Light of the World.” The painting depicts Jesus wearing a crown of thorns standing before a door. With one hand he holds a lantern that illuminates his figure standing by the door in the darkness of night. With the other hand, he knocks on the door ready to enter as soon as the door is opened.
Interestingly, there is no doorknob or handle on the door. There is a story told that someone said to the artist, Holman Hunt, “how is Jesus supposed to get in?” The artist replied, “The handle is on the inside, the only way for the Light to get in is to open the door from within.”
Peter, Andrew, James and John opened the door to Christ when they encountered him and, as we soon learn, their lives were transformed through this encounter. Our lives, too, are transformed when we open the door to the Light. When we allow Jesus into our lives and into our hearts his light pours in and dispels the darkness. The situations that cause the darkness might not go away but they are robbed of power; just as death is robbed of its victory through his resurrection.
Allowing our lives to be penetrated by the Light we can confidently join the psalmist in proclaiming: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid?”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.