By Innocent Nwafor
1. The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light
Light-Darkness conflict! These two significant phenomena are presented to us today to reflect upon. They remind us of the dramatic story of creation where the power of God, in whose light we see light (Ps 36:9), acted upon an empty and chaotic realm of darkness and there was light (Gen 1:1-3). For us Christians, light, apart from its other meanings, has become a very important symbol demonstrating God's involvement in human history. Hence the Scripture tells us that “God is Light” (1Jn 1:5). Little wonder there is hardly any Christian liturgical celebration, especially when it is sacramental, that is not done with lighted candle to demonstrate that triumph of light over darkness.
2. “Sharing the world of the blind.”
As I began to reflect on these two phenomena, my thought went back to an experience I was privileged to have made in the company of some friends some years ago. It was termed “Sharing the world of the blind.” We were invited to participate in a “Benefit Drinking” in a restaurant in support for the blind. Initially, the 20 of us from the Parish Youth Prayer Group who, for that day, volunteered to take part did not know what awaits us. It was a late evening experience. We were instructed that everybody should bring out the money he or she wants to spend and keep it for easy access for payment at the end. Otherwise when the lights are switched off it may become problematic to know what amount one is giving out. When we arrived at the restaurant's inner apartment, some middle-aged men and women with about three young people were introduced as the waiters who will attend to us. They were all blind and had to feel their way through. The exercise lasted for five evenings with different people coming to make the experience. It was a charity spending for the blind. When we were ready for purchases, the light points in our section of the restaurant were put off. A thick cloud of darkness enveloped everybody. In this darkness we were asked to make our requests for what to drink. For the blind waiters, it is their world. They were used to living and operating in conditions of blindness. Without touch they were able to attend to each of us bringing to each what one requested. We who were practising how to operate in a state of blindness didn't find it easy. There were mumbles here and there. Some used their mobile phone to “steal” light in order to cross-check what amount they were giving out and the change they got in return. The blind were comfortably serving us with no difficulties. It was their world.
They were used to it. For us strangers in that total dark environment, it was as boredom as it was bizarre, yet full of lessons. After that experimental one hour, the lights were switched on again. A great heave of relief was heard. Smiles were seen again in the faces of people. Joy and livelihood returned. Then I understood what it means that “the People that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. It was no longer difficult to feel the restlessness of those who for one reason or the other had to live in situation of blindness for their whole life. With that experience we were better disposed to appreciate more the gift of our sight, the different colours and, indeed, the gift of light which we have been privileged to enjoy all through life. And we could in sincerity say, God thanks for the gift of light.
3. The Crises in today's message
Today, we read from the pronouncement of the prophet Isaiah regarding the people who walk in darkness, who have seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow, upon whom light has dawned (cf Isaiah 9:2).
Granted, the emphasis in this pronouncement is on the love and mercy of God in bringing light on those lands, it is pertinent to find out the nature of darkness the prophet talks about and the circumstances that give rise to it.
a. From historical perspective,
It is most likely that Isaiah was referring to the terrible experience that fell upon the land of Naphtali and Zebulun, the land on the far side of the sea of Jordan at the time when Pekah was the king of Israel reigning from Samaria. That was in the second half of 8th century B.C. during the era of great Assyrian expansion in the Middle East. At that time Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria (732 BCE) invaded and pillaged the territory of Gilead and Galilee as well as the whole territory of Naphtali and Zebulun. He deported their inhabitants to Assyria (cf 2Kgs 15:29) leaving them in a state of gloom and darkness. Devastation and violence became the order of the day. The glorious “way of the Sea that passes through Palestine to Mesopotamia was guided through and through by Assyrian army who engaged in imposition and extortion of heavy, and often, unlawful taxation on the poor of the land. It became a land of untold brutality, poverty and hunger. Everywhere there were deaths and nobody cared. There was total loss of hope. The situation reminds one of the chaos before creation, when darkness covered the abyss (Gen 1:2).
b. Lack of ardent trust in God has consequences
The prophet Isaiah presented the situation as a humiliation permitted by God, because of the sins of Israel, but in which God will show the triumph of light over darkness. Hence the voice of the prophet announces a new dawn: “The People that walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:2).
Unfortunately, instead of placing their trust in the true God of Israel, they resorted to idolatry of all sorts. They gave in to the deceit of false prophets and opinions that tell them: “consult mediums and spiritualists who whisper and mutter; consult the gods and the dead ancestors on behalf of the living (cf Isaiah 8:19). The consequence of their decision was that they brought more darkness to the land. They became more distressed and ended up famished, gossiping, loafing around and roaming the streets doing nothing. Their hope of finding solution through idolatry left them more devastated and driven into gloom and deeper darkness (Isaiah 8:22). In that way they became truly a land “walking in darkness” and in “deep shadow.”
4. God's Intervention: They have seen great light
The prophet Isaiah foresaw the mercy of God to this land and prophesied it: “In the past, he afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land Naphtali; but, in the future he will confer glory on the Way of the Sea, on the land beyond the Jordan, the Galilee of the Nations” (Isaiah 9:1). 750 years later when what remained of the kingdom of Assyria was mere ruin, the prophecy became fulfilled. Jesus Christ, “the Light of the World” (Jn 8:12) chose to begin his ministry in Nazareth and in Capernaum, two small hill towns in the north. Nazareth was located in the land of Zebulun while Capernaum is within the territory of Naphtali. These form major cross roads where trading activities are well established. As a result inter-marriages with pagan neighbours were understandable. Morals and strict observance of the Jewish Torah were relaxed. One could then understand the circumstances that made Nathaniel express doubt when Philip told him that they have found the one Moses and the prophets spoke about: Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth”? Nathaniel wondered (cf Jn 1:46).
Jesus did not only choose to begin his ministry in the northern region, he calls people who show trust and who were open to new ideas to follow him. They left their fathers to follow Jesus. They were prompt in deciding to follow him. By their readiness to follow Jesus, the first apostles have responded positively as against the idolatrous inclination of the citizens at the time of Isaiah.
5. Lessons from today's readings
The first lesson is to hold firmly strong in God in the face of all vicissitudes. Make the Lord truly your Light and your help (Psalm 27:1). This is the response to today's responsorial psalm. If we hold fast to this and trust in God, we shall certainly see the Lord's goodness in the land of the living. If we trust him with undivided heart and soul, then we will better appreciate the testimony of King David, namely that “God is our strength and protection, an ever present help in affliction. We will not fear, therefore, though the earth be shaken and the mountains plunge into the deepest ocean” (Psalm 46:1-2).
We are challenged to pay attention to the “light - darkness” conflict playing in our life. May be you are “Naphtali” and “Zebulun” today, people are thinking that all that fills you is darkness and that nothing good can come from you. Refuse to accept this suggestion. It is devilish. It is coming from a bad spirit. You could still be Nazareth, where Christ is born, the light of the nations. You can still shine with the light of Christ. Be patient, believe in God and believe in yourself. The Lord has not finished with you. God can still lift you up from your worst situation and make you a worthy instrument for his evangelization mission. Think of Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus cast out seven demons (cf Lk 8:2-3). Make these words your own: “Why are you so downcast, my soul, why so troubled within me? Hope in God, for I will praise him still, my Saviour and my God” (Psalm 42:11).
Armies of “Assyria” may fill the roads and extort from you the little you have, trust in the Lord and do good. Soon the kingdom of Assyria will be over and the land that lives in darkness will see light.
Turning to idolatory, seeking magical ways of getting rich quick, or turning to mediums or miracle-working centres will at the end leave you in utter despair and devastated. To drink at the table of the Lord and at the table of demon is very dangerous. We can attract the wrath of God by by provoking his jealousy (1Cor. 10:20-22).
Watch out what your unhealthy ego is doing to you. What is the cause of the rivalry among you in your family, in your meetings, among your associates? Where are they coming from? Is your desire to dominate others not playing out? Among your faith community what is really the reason for the disagreements among you? In this slogan, “I am for Paul”, “I am for Apollos”, “I am for Cephas”, have you truly asked, what is the mind of Christ and the mind of the Church, who is the body of Christ. Learn to walk gently with God.
To my friend who says, “Nigeria consciously continues to make great efforts to make her citizens not to feel at home within her walls…. No wonder even getting Equatorial Guinea Visa would be like winning a lottery for most Nigerians and a sure leeway to finding a place that they could call 'home' because home is a feeling, a state of feeling good…” I say to you: “Only do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Be patient, God has not finished with us. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Just do your bit. Sweep your compound well daily and make it welcoming to visitors. Clear the gutters in front of your house. Take good care of your household. Make your place and, indeed, wherever you are homely. Reach out to your neighbours and share your joy with them. Then you would have enkindled one small light.
“Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone's life. Be the light that helps others see; it is what gives life its deepest significance.” (Roy T. Bennett).
“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).
May the light of Christ in all its radiance fill your heart so that there will be no more night. You will not need the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun for the Lord God will give you light. And he will reign for ever in your life. Amen.
I wish you the blessings of the third Sunday in ordinary time of the year.