This Sunday’s readings simply direct our eyes to Jesus: a fitting beginning of Ordinary Time (so called because we read through the Gospel in order).
The Gospel reading has the calling of the Four: Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. “He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.” The message is very simply: they followed him.
But first, the Gospel cites a prophecy from Isaiah. “Land of Zebulun and Naphtali!” The prophecy looks to Galilee, the homeland of Jesus. The setting is dramatic: it is called “Galilee of the Gentiles” because even in the beginning, the armies of Joshua were not able to drive the pagans from the land; later, the land was conquered by foreigners. Galilee is a place of perpetual struggle for the people of Israel.
But “the yoke that oppressed them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian” – one of the great victories of Moses in the desert. The people of Galilee have been liberated.
The prophecy nicely names various forms of liberation: the oppression of the yoke, the rod of the taskmaster; also anguish, darkness, gloom, distress. “The people who dwelled in darkness have seen a great light.” Now we see that every former liberation of Galilee was just a foretaste of the great liberation: Jesus walks the land. Jesus is the light. He is the bringer of joy and the dispeller of distress, the liberator from yoke and taskmaster, the one who brings light to darkness.
It is he, the Psalm says, who lets us “gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple.” (We might say that the humanity of Christ is the temple, in which we see the loveliness of his divinity.) We must “wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord,” because it is only the presence of Jesus that sets us free.
Light, joy, freedom: different ways of describing the contemplation that Jesus gives us access to. And, in fact, we need multiple ways of saying it. No one word sums up the goodness that Jesus offers us. The Bible is long because there is so very much to say!
The reading from First Corinthians is at first hard to connect with this theme of liberation. Paul is scolding the Corinthians for schism. I think the simple message here is the same as the simple calling of the Apostles: follow Jesus! There are so many other things that can get in the way, so many spirits of partisanship. But what draws Peter, Andrew, James, and John together into the one Church is that they are all following Jesus. Cling to the light, and there is peace, and union.
In the Gospel, “They followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” The Apostles are united in seeing Jesus as the Savior. It is he who is the good news, he who is the kingdom, he who is true teaching, and healing.
In his call, Jesus tells Andrew and Peter, “I will make you fishers of men.” But what is so important, what the reading from First Corinthians underlines, is that to be true apostles, they must have their eyes fixed on Jesus, they must find their salvation in him.
John’s Gospel can be read as a kind of commentary on the other ones. He puts right at the beginning, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” (We don’t know if this means John the Baptist or John the Apostle; it doesn’t matter.) “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” Always we must let him be the light.
A little coda: we have seen here both the simplicity and the complexity of the Gospel. On the one hand, there is only Jesus. On the other hand, (a) the richness of the Gospel needs the whole Bible to describe it, (b) the Gospel densely quotes, using brief references to call to mind whole histories and rich, complicated prophecies, and (c) we, like the Corinthians, often need Paul to scold us back to the truth.
In short, maintaining the simplicity of the Gospel, keeping our eyes focused on Jesus, takes work. It means study, and a real effort to overcome our tendency to substitute ourselves and our favorite factions for the salvation offered in Christ. To “gaze on the loveliness of the Lord” means daily dropping our nets, picking up our cross, and following him.
Do you find yourself substituting other loves for Jesus? What are the ways that you are tempted to forget that he is the Savior?