Jesus shines the light on himself as the giver of freedom
Advent is over; Christmas has come; and, significantly, the Light that was promised is already shining upon us. The fact that the first day of the year is always the Octave Day of Christmas is not by accident. We begin our new year on the day we redouble our Christmas joy for a purpose. It is a message to everyone that the Light who was born into our world on Christmas lights up our existence for the entire new year.
Looking at the Sunday liturgies for January from this point of view we can discern a different aspect of shining light in the Scripture readings of each Sunday. Originating from pure light we can see diffused blessing, radiance, vision, joy, and freedom. Each of these five attributes is a direct result of Christmas light. Each gives us a reason for celebrating the afterglow of Christ’s birth well into the New Year until we start preparing for the Lord’s Passion, death and resurrection when Lent comes in February.
The first day of January is always the Octave (eighth day) of Christmas. Yes, Christmas is not a 24-hour feast. It continues through New Year’s Day, when the joy grows into a spirit that could last until next Christmas. That is our desire as we begin the Liturgy of the Word with the Blessing of Aaron, “May the Lord bless you and keep you! May his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!”
Notice this blessing presumes that a very special light is shining allowing us to see God’s gracious face and to be seen by God. That special light is named in the second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It comes from the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and makes us adopted children of God and, therefore, heirs of the Kingdom. That light is the glow of heaven. We are to live, beginning with our baptism, knowing God is our Father and heaven is our home.
We now come to realize the attitude we should adopt for this day and the entire year. It is nothing less than the attitude Luke tells us the shepherds carried with them as they were returning to their flocks after being with Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the angels at the manger in Bethlehem. “They returned, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.”
Let’s analyze that last quote from the Gospel. It is, actually, the essence of how to live the Christian life. First, we are to return. That is, we are to live in the real world and be relevant to it. Next, we are to live in that real world with glory in our hearts. We are to be the light of the world. We become witnesses of what we have seen and heard from God. The way we live and speak should indicate that the Scriptures are true and what they promise has already come true for us. That’s all we need to do, namely become a blessing of the Lord lighting up the world for all who get to know us.
The first Sunday of the New Year is Epiphany, the feast of radiance. God is light and shines on everyone who dwells on the face of the earth. Our function on earth is to radiate the light of Christ to the whole world. With the world getting smaller, that task is getting easier. The light we have is a Christmas present from God. What we do with it is our gift to God. What he wants of us is to have “nations walk by our light and kings by our shining radiance.” What Isaiah is prophesying is that grace is magnetic. It draws others to us. When they come we need to be able to put words to our experience. Just as the magi came to Christ, we can expect people to ask us about our upbeat attitude in a dark world. We should be ready for them.
In case we need a little primer on what to say, we could look at today’s second reading. There, Paul announced to the Ephesians what has made him so happy. It is, first, that he has been given the grace of God; second, he received it for the benefit of others; and, third, that “others” include the entire world with no exceptions. That makes life a true joy both to receive and to give. All of us are members of the same body.
The following Sunday also has a name. It is the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Actually, it’s the Sunday of the first week of the year. But, traditionally there is no First Sunday of Ordinary Time. That might be considered a contradiction in terms. Anyway, the feast is about vision. Where there is light, one can see objects that otherwise may be invisible. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, people might not have realized that Jesus was the Son of God had not the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. Then a voice from heaven made clear that Jesus was “the beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” There was a vision with words and a resulting recognition by many there that our Lord was someone very special. Certainly, this was true of those men who became Jesus’ 12 apostles. Remember that when they were preparing to fill Judas’ vacant place among the 12, one of the requirements was that he must have been a follower of Jesus from his baptism at the Jordan and a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.
Such visions put a spotlight on situations that might go unseen. Hearkening back to Isaiah, he predicted that when the Light to the Nations comes he would shed light on justice. What people took for granted would be seen as a justice issue. Many people in recent times are receiving justice that only comes from the Gospel shining the light of Christ on the issue. Even in the early days after Jesus’ resurrection, the light of Christ opened the eyes of Peter to the vision that non-Jews were able to become Christians without first becoming Jewish. Christ is a light both inside and outside the house of the Church and always will be. Accordingly, we should constantly make use of that revealing light.
Now, on the Second Sunday of Ordinary (that is, numbered) Time we find yet another result of light. It gives joy. The joy that is accentuated today is that of a wedding. Think of singing and dancing for days on end. Considering the wedding feast at Cana, add drinking to the list. Mary did not miss that fact. When the supply of wine was about depleted, Mary noticed it and told Jesus. He did something about it as we all know. In John’s counting, this was the first of Jesus’ “signs” in Galilee. Basically, joy is a primary sign of the Kingdom of God. If wine is needed for the immediate joy of the wedding guests at Cana, then Jesus was the right person to invite. That’s still true today. In fact, we can be “Christ” in every situation we enter, bringing joy to those who need it. In addition, if we have a good relationship with Our Lady, she can tell us what others need for us to make them joyous.
In chapter 62 of Isaiah, the prophet puts a spotlight on Jerusalem for the Jewish exiles in Babylon who were losing hope. Jerusalem is God’s bride and, therefore a place of perpetual wedding joy. Israel had lost Jerusalem as a punishment for infidelity to God. Now, the good news is that the people have paid the price and are once again God’s delight. Isaiah sheds the light of prophecy and uncovers the nearness of joy.
Another light is held by St. Paul. This time he shows the Corinthians aspects of the Holy Spirit’s gifts. Without the light of faith, there is only one Spirit. But, with faith, Paul demonstrates many gifts. Some of these are wisdom, knowledge, mighty deeds, healing, even faith itself among others. All of these are distributed to us. With a little light we can discern some of these gifts in us. If not, you need a better light (perhaps a spiritual director) that can help you realize the power of God within you. It is there.
The last Sunday in January is the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time. Its theme is the freedom that living in the light can give us. First, let’s start with St. Paul’s 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians. It connects with the previous Sunday’s passage from the same chapter. Last week, Paul wrote that from one Spirit come many gifts. Perhaps he was trying to free the people from the pagan Roman notion that if you desired a new gift you had to redirect your devotion to a different god. In today’s pericope, Paul writes that although there may be one body it has many parts. Yet, for the body to function smoothly all these parts must work together in harmony. If one part thinks it is better than the others, the body loses harmony and therefore can no longer function freely. Freedom, even for the Body of Christ, comes when everyone works together.
This fact of life is demonstrated in the Old Testament reading from Nehemiah. The Jews had finally made it back to the Holy Land. They certainly relished this opportunity to be a free and independent people again. What did they need to accomplish that goal? The answer is a law. Nehemiah, the political leader, chose the Law of Moses. He read it to the assembled crowd that they might hear it and ratify it as their law. Then they rejoiced. If you’ve ever been in a country where you have no rights, it is a truly joyous occasion to come to the place where you belong and literally enjoy your rights and even your duties. That’s why the returning exiles celebrated heartily and remember that moment even to this day.
Jesus, in today’s Gospel, shines the light on himself as the giver of freedom. He is to bring glad tidings to those who lost freedom through poverty. He proclaims liberty to captives, to the oppressed, to those debilitated by blindness, and to all who have lost freedom in any way. He proclaimed a Jubilee Year. This year of favor was supposed to come, according to Mosaic Law, every 50 years. At the first day of the year every debt was forgiven, every sentence for crime was dismissed; every family that had lost property got it back. Everyone started over. That was Jesus’ program. It was biblical, radical and controversial. But, it gave people freedom from any injustice that may have occurred over the last half century. And, it gave a new chance to those who committed injustice. This freedom, which has yet to arrive, comes from Jesus Christ, the Light of the World.
Freedom, joy, vision, radiance, and blessing are five gifts that come to us to meditate on. They come to us in January; but need to be developed and grown large before Christ comes again.
Father Brando is the pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg.