Third Sunday: Jesus the Light of the Seas

This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the one act of Jesus’s ministry before he begins his preaching, with the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew has given us two chapters on the infancy of Jesus, one chapter about John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus, and half a chapter about the temptation of the wilderness.  Then, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”

Follow me!

Here we have a great play on words.  In English, he tells the “fishermen,” “I will make you fishers of men.”  That’s nice, and I don’t want to take it away from you.

But in the Greek original, the word play is different.  The word for fisherman says nothing about fish or about men.  The word is “salty”: a fisherman is a man of the sea.  He is calling them to go out to the seas of the world. 

(The Hebrew word for fishermen is about fish, not seas.  But it’s a rare word in Hebrew, because Hebrews aren’t fishermen.) 


There’s quite a lot in our readings about seas.  Our prophecy from Isaiah, from which our Gospel will quote, says, “he has glorified the seaward road,” adding another water theme, “the land west of the Jordan.”  Our Gospel begins, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested,” whom he had met in the waters of the Jordan,” he . . . went to live in Capernaum by the sea.”  Then it quotes Isaiah.  Then we find Peter and Andrew, “casting a net into the sea; they were” fishermen?  Men of the sea, salties.  “I will make you salties of men.”  James and John were in a boat.

Strangest, though, is that business about Zebulun and Naphtali.  Why on earth begin Jesus’s public ministry with a double reference to this part of Isaiah?  “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light” is obviously good stuff.  But Matthew starts by quoting Isaiah on “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea.”


It helps to understand a little geography.  Here’s a map.

The Mediterranean Sea is to the left.  Israel is the bottom two thirds of the yellow part, by the sea.  Babylon is the green part to the right.  But when the Old Testament prophets talk about the invaders who would take them away to the Babylonian Exile, they speak not of “the East” but of “the North.”  You can see the reason on the map.  To the east of Israel is an empty desert.  The roads to Babylon are through the rivers and populated lands to the north, in a great “crescent” path.

Jerusalem, and Judea, where Jesus found John baptizing, are in the South, and they were the last to be invaded.  But Galilee—our Gospel calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles”—is in the North of Israel, the first part to be invaded, and the place of contact with the foreigners.  The sea of Galilee pours south through the Jordan—just as the Nations stream through Galilee toward the South.  Zebulun and Naphtali were the two tribes that got this northern land in the original division; they are the older names for the North.  This is where Jesus went to begin his ministry: “in Capernaum by the sea.”

File:A Boat Was Once Again His Pulpit by W. J. Morgan c. 1890.jpg

For the Israelites, the literal sea, the Mediterranean, was a scary place.  They mostly left it to the Phoenecians: physically, boat-going people; culturally, cosmpolitan people, who mixed with the world.  Israelites kept away from boats, and away from the nations.  The salt sea is everything scary to Israel.  The Greek word “sea,” like the word for “fisherman,” also means “salty”; it’s ironic to call the “sea” of Galilee “salty,” because it was known for its sweet fresh waters.  But it is physically a place of boats—and culturally, a place of foreigners.  Galilee of the Gentiles is the place where the cultural “seas” of the world crash onto the beaches of Israel, and threaten to stream down like the Jordan.

Israelites stayed away from the beach.  Jesus went there to begin his ministry.  That’s the real word play in “fishers of men”: not that they would catch men instead of fish (though that’s a nice idea, too), but that they would go forth, not just on the physical seas of Lake Galilee, but onto the cultural seas of the world, beginning from Galilee of the Gentiles: “salties of men,” Phoenicians rather than homebodies.


File:Christ, seated in a boat, pacifies the crowds on the shore. Wellcome V0034551.jpg

Our reading from First Corinthians talks about “divisions among you,” people more focused on who baptized or preached to them than on Baptism and the Gospel preached—people more focused on things that divide than on Christ who unites. 

But Christ is the light of the world, who enlightens even dark places and brings “abundant joy and great rejoicing” to the places once conquered.  That’s the original message of Isaiah to “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali”: you who were once taken away in exile will be set free. 

“Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  It’s that message of repentance, and of the kingdom of Jesus, that is the heart of the Jesus, the “meaning,” as St. Paul say, of “the cross of Christ.”  Let us not empty it of its meaning by falling to lesser things.  Let us see the light of Christ, and set sail on the seas of the world.

Can you think of a relationship where the Gospel of Jesus Christ could help you transcend petty differences?

File:James Smetham - Christ preaching to the multitudes.jpg

Baptism of the Lord – Jesus: The Way (and the Truth, and the Life) of Justice and Peace

This Sunday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, began the new Church year by proclaiming the person of Jesus Christ.

The Baptism of the Lord is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, an appropriate place to begin the Church year.  This Year of Matthew, we also get the opening of Isaiah’s proclamation of the Messiah.

File:Babylonians Siege of Jerusalem.jpg

Isaiah is a long, difficult book.  The first 41 chapters proclaim woe to various nations of the earth.  But then in chapter 42, it takes a new direction.  Modern scholars call this Second Isaiah, as if it’s another author; even an old-fashioned reader like Thomas Aquinas recognizes that the book takes a dramatic turn.  It begins to proclaim the Suffering Servant, who will come to save his people from these woes.  What we read this Sunday is the very beginning of that prophecy.


“Thus says the Lord: Here is my servant,” it begins.  But if this is the beginning, we should pay attention to how it describes him.  “Upon whom I have put my spirit,” it says, and then “He shall bring forth justice to the nations. . . .  He establishes justice on the earth . . . . I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice.”  Justice.  The Messiah brings Justice.

Christ Giving His Blessing.jpg

But justice doesn’t mean what we think that it means.  The first indication is that Isaiah immediately adds, “Not crying out, not shouting.”  We think of protest, from Left or Right.  But Jesus’s way is calm.

“A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench”: gentleness.  We think of justice in terms of crushing enemies, whether Left or Right.  But he is meek and gentle. 

He will “bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  In Isaiah, those “dungeons” (an odd translation: anyway, prison buildings) are real: Israel is in captivity in Assyria, on the way to Babylon.  The prisons from which Jesus frees us today are no less real, though metaphorical.

But the way to freedom is through “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind.”  A new kind of justice, real justice, from a new way of seeing.


Holy Silence (Old Believers, Ural or Vyatka, 19 c, priv.coll).jpg

The Psalm adds, “The Lord will bless his people with peace.”  Justice and Peace.

Ironically, where Isaiah said the Messiah will not shout, the Psalm says, “The God of glory thunders,” “The voice of the Lord is over the waters . . . the voice of the Lord is mighty.”  Justice does not mean protest and crushing enemies, but nor does peace mean silence.  The voice of the Lord, which the same Psalm 29 says, “breaks the cedars of Lebanon . . . makes Lebanon to skip like a calf . . . flashes forth flames of fire,” breaks in and transforms us.  The Messiah brings peace and justice by the power of his word, which converts us. 


In our reading from Acts, Peter is discovering that the Gospel welcomes in the Gentiles, and not only those who were of Israel by the flesh: “God shows no partiality.”  That crushing of walls is a huge, and underrated, theme of the New Testament.  He breaks down the walls of division.  He creates peace from those who were at war.

But how?  “You know the word that he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ.”  Through the word of Jesus Christ.  He is our peace.


Saales 007.JPG

And by the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament has a way of speaking that seems odd to us.  “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power,” it says.  It sounds like Jesus was an ordinary man, who then received power from on high. 

That’s not true: Jesus was the Word become flesh, God from God, Light from Light, from the very beginning.  And yet Scripture shows that the same Spirit who comes on us is the Spirit that anointed Jesus.  We receive the anointing of Jesus.  We receive the Holy Spirit and power.  And it is only that power from on high that can make justice and peace in this world.

A parallel thing happens in the Baptism of the Lord.  “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” John asks Jesus.  The Opening Collect of this Mass prays that, “As the Holy Spirit descended upon him, [and You, God] solemnly declared him your beloved Son,” so too “grant that your children by adoption, reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, may always be well and pleasing to you.”

Jesus, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit from eternity, brings that Spirit into the waters of Baptism so that we may receive the same Spirit when we enter into those waters.  And as the Spirit is the Spirit of sonship, we become children of God, “sons in the Son,” sharing in his nature.

File:Hosios Loukas (south west chapel, east wall) - Meeting before the Baptism.jpg

Jesus is our justice and our peace, because only he can give to us that true justice and peace that is the truth and harmony of the Holy Trinity, the eternal right relationship of perfect love and joy. 

Through the sacraments we enter into Jesus, and begin—slowly—to be transformed into the love and truth of the Trinity.  On the one hand, the only true justice and peace is in Jesus, who heals our sinful hearts, so full of selfish division, and lifts us up into divine harmony.  On the other hand, anything that does not result in peace and justice is not true union with Jesus.

Where do you see the tragedy of false efforts for peace and justice—on the Left and the Right?

Holy and Not So Holy Families

At last the holidays are over.  I can step away from entertaining and get back to reading, writing, and prayer.

But Christmas is a family holiday, which the Feast of the Holy Family naturally follows—in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Christmas is about Jesus being born into a holy family.  On the other hand, we celebrate that feast in our own, less than holy families. 

I count myself blessed that, for all my family’s challenges, I look forward to being with my family at Christmas.  But I notice, every year more, how family struggles bring misery to many people’s Christmases.


We idealize Christmas as a magical time, families gathered around the tree and around the table, giving wonderful gifts and basking in the light of tree and candles.  And that’s partly true.  But, just because it should be a magical time, it’s also a time where we notice all the ways our imperfect families spoil the magic: forgetting what others really want, from gifts or from time together; sinking into selfishness where we should be basking in love.

As my children get older, I appreciate the failures of parents.  The future Pope John Paul II, as a young priest, wrote a play called “The Radiation of Fatherhood.”  I don’t know anything about it beyond the name, but that name is a wonderful idea.  I am called to share in God’s Fatherhood, to teach my children what it means to be loved, what it means to be receptive before a benevolent and powerful parent, what it means to receive gifts in the deepest sense.  How wonderful to radiate fatherhood!

But, just because it is wonderful, how awful that we fail at it.  How awful that at Christmas I, and every other parent, am too often tired, or impatient with my children’s glee or weakness, or just want to be left alone. 

At Christmas we realize the scars that we all bear, of parents who have not always radiated the glory of God’s fatherhood. 


Call this the second wound. 

Our first and deepest wound is Original Sin.  Original Sin isn’t something attached to our souls—it is a lack.  Our first parents received from God a fabulous grace, that both united them to God (grace elevates) and held them in unity within themselves (grace heals), so that, among other things, their appetites and desires helped them live a happy life, instead of leading them to misery. 

Our first parents also received the ability to hand this gift on to their children, so that we too would live that unity.  Instead, they squandered it.  Their selfishness broke their union with God, broke their unity within themselves—and withheld that gift of unity from us, so that we are born to struggle instead of to peace.  Original sin is a wound deep within ourselves, a lack of grace that can only be healed by God’s grace.  That is the first wound.

But the second wound follows closely.  Just as Original Sin wounds us from within, so our parents wound us from without—and what a horror, as a parent, to realize that we pass these wounds on to our children.  I’d like to think that my children are receiving from me all the gifts that will make their lives perfect and happy—and, to be fair, our parents gave us, and we give to our children, many gifts.  But wounds, too.  We are all screwed up by our screwed-up parents, and we’re all screwing up our children.

A favorite Christian poet names both sides: “I’ll carry the songs we learned when we were kids.  I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by.”  Our personalities begin as that mash of beauty and scars, both handed down by our parents.  That is the family celebration of Christmas.


But at Christmas, Jesus enters into the family.  The real magic is not our perfect Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or Christmas dinner.  The real magic is that God has not abandoned us to ourselves. 

We come to the creche not as the bearers of gifts, but as the bearers of wounds.  We come to Christmas not as those who make things magical, but as those who know we need a Savior.  The only gifts we can pass on are those we receive from him.  (How magical that the Magi came to the Savior King only because he was already at work in their hearts.  Our desire to serve him is itself his gift.)  The only songs worth singing are the ones that come from him and point us back to him.  The only songs worth singing are the ones that acknowledge our scars, and bare them to his healing balm.

The Holy Family is holy because Jesus is there.  He radiates his love into the heart of Mary; she loves him because he loved her first.  The lesson of the Holy Family is not that our families should be perfect, nor less that they automatically are.  The lesson is that grace heals and elevates, and that the only way to make our families holy is to draw near to the Savior. 

Somewhere in there is his poverty, with nothing but dirty hay for his bed, and letting himself be treated like food for beasts.  May you take with you from this Christmas that poverty, with Jesus at the center.

What wounds did you discover this Christmas?