Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, Jan 23rd 2011, Evangelization Sunday, Richard Clifford SJ


Today Cardinal Sean O’Malley is asking all the parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston to observe Evangelization Sunday. What does he mean by Evangelization Sunday? The answer: that we are exercise our vocation as Christians to preach Jesus Christ as Lord, the Lord who invites all people into a personal relationship with God. But we will do so in a way different way from our usual way. Nearly all of us will have to translate the proclamation of Christ as risen Lord to something more simple and domestic. We will have to talk as a sister or a brother with people we know, people whose hunger for God is currently not being satisfied in the Church. Today we begin a process of reflection that will enable us to become active in the near future, especially during Lent, when an advertizing campaign will supplement our individual efforts

When we turn to today’s Scriptural readings, it turns out that they are very appropriate to a day when we think of friends and acquaintances who no longer worship with other Christians and, in many cases, pay homage to lords other than Christ. The readings speak of light shining out of darkness and of preaching the Gospel to those who feel they are outsiders.

Today’s Gospel begins with the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest of John leads Jesus to "withdraw" to Galilee. His withdrawal is not, however, a retreat or a flight from danger. Rather, it fits a pattern that we see frequently in the Gospels. Facing rejection or threats, Jesus customarily does not confront them on their own terms, but moves to where there is greater receptivity to his message. If Judea is hostile, then he will go to Galilee, but not to the obscure village of Nazareth where he had grown up. Instead he goes to Capernaum, which was a sizeable city by the Sea of Galilee, in the territory associated with the northernmost tribes of Israel, Zebulun and Naphtali.

The place brings to mind a famous passage from chap. 8 of the prophet Isaiah.

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,

the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,

Galilee of the Gentiles–

the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,

on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death

light has arisen." (Mat 4:15-16 NAB)

This attractive text is programmatic for Jesus’ ministry that is about to unfold. His appearance in Capernaum constitutes "light" shining on "Galilee of the Gentiles." Though Galilee was mostly Jewish, Galilee had a mixed population. I Macc 5:15: "All Galilee is filled with strangers." Though Jesus’ personal mission was to "the lost sheep of the House of Israel," his light will also fall on "the people who sit in darkness" and "those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death." He is already showing himself the messiah in whose name "the Gentiles will hope." He is fulfilling the work of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah who was "the light of the nations." (Isa 49:6).

What is this "light" that shines in the proclamation of the Gospel, "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"? We need to remind ourselves that "repent" in the Gospels means to have "a change of heart." The new reality that calls for "repentance," "a change of heart" is the onset of the Kingdom of Heaven–the reclamation of the world for God’s rule, dispossessing the rule of Satan. The outward transformation of that world associated with the kingdom–peace, justice, the abolition of sickness, disease, and death–all these remain to be fulfilled (though the miracles of Jesus anticipate them). But the essence of the Kingdom, the new relationship with God, is offered now. "Repentance" is the human disposition through which God freely draws human beings into this relationship. Human transformation follows–it is not a condition for–the new relationship with God. As Cardinal O’Malley says in his homily on the DVD, " I love St. Augustine’s phrase, ‘Without God I can’t, without me God won’t.’"

Today’s Gospel does not end with the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus reaches out to his followers for help. He is not a lone ranger doing it all by himself while we watch as spectators. He pays us the greatest compliment that anyone can pay–to invite others to join in his most precious thing, the project he loves. His mission of proclaiming the Gospel presupposes something. It presupposes the founding of a community as the nucleus of a renewed people. It is not surprising, then, that the very first action recorded of him should be that of calling disciples.

The lakeside scene is loaded with symbolism. The four people who are called are all fishermen. Jesus calls them to a totally new kind of fishing. They are invited to become "fishers of people." Up to now, they have gone out on the uncertain waters of the Sea of Galilee, using their nets and their boats to harvest fish from its depths. Now, with a new kind of "net"–the proclamation of the Gospel–they will go out into a turbulent world and "catch" people, claiming them for the Kingdom of God and bringing them into the boat, that is, the Church.

Symbolically, their new work is continuous with their old work. It is quite discontinuous in terms of attachment. If they are to be successful in this new sense–catching people–they must leave their old attachments and the security of their old livelihoods. The speed and completeness with which they leave their families show how compelling and powerful the call of Jesus is.

Let us embrace our vocation as fishers of people and reach out to others, this time to people we know and whose hunger for God we sense. Let us welcome them home.

[Parts of this sermon are drawn from Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2004) 47-49]

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