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February 5 2017 (A) Fifth Sunday of the Year

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Christians the light of the world; the Centrality of the Cross.

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Isaiah 58:7-10). Then will your light shine like the dawn. This passage was chosen to go with the Gospel reading, the central theme of which is Christians as the light of the world. There are two references to the theme in this reading: “Then will your light shine like the dawn”, and “Your light shall rise in the darkness”, In the original setting of this passage in the book of Isaiah these words are addressed by God through his prophet to Israel some time after the exile, making it clear the fasting they are practising is not acceptable to him. There was only one official fast day in Israel’s liturgy, that of the Day of Expiation, but after the Exile other fast days were introduced and some groups believed that their fast could have God answer their prayers and bring happiness. That is the background to this reading. They are represented as saying to God: “Why do we fast and you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” God’s reply is: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight, and to strike with a wicked fist”. God answers that this is not the fast he chooses, but rather to loose the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke, and the practice of the other good works listed in this liturgical reading. This is in keeping with the best traditional prophetic teaching. It is in this way that the light of believers’ behaviour will shine: external actions in keeping with internal life and with the demands of the covenant.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 112[113]). The good man is a light in the darkness for the upright.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 2:1- 5). During my stay with you, the only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus as the crucified Christ. It may repay the trouble for an understanding of this reading to revisit what has been said on the second reading (from the same letter) for the Third Sunday of the Year. There Paul was speaking on the mystery of the Cross, a topic he continues to discuss in this present reading. As background to what Paul has to say in this reading it is good to recall what the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 17) have to say of Paul’s missionary experience at Athens. Athens was the very centre of Greek learning and wisdom. Paul visited the city after coming from Thessalonica and preached the Gospel message there. Some Epicurian and Stoic philosophers came to discuss matters with him. When he spoke of the Gospel and of the resurrection (in Greek anastasis) they thought he was preaching some foreign deities. He was taken to the Areopagus (probably the city council), where he delivered a very learned discourse, ending with reference to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. On hearing of the resurrection from the dead, some scoffed. For Paul this missionary attempt at Athens was a complete failure. He went on to Corinth. As he says in today’s reading, he came among them in great fear and trembling. We know from the account in the Acts of the Apostles that the Lord had told Paul in a vision in Corinth to continue preaching as there were many in that city who were his (God’s) people. But to return to our reading itself: Paul reminds his readers that he came among them “proclaiming the mystery of God” (a variant reading has, with the same meaning, “testimony of God”; Jerusalem Bible, 1966 edition; “what God has guaranteed”). The mystery in the biblical tradition is a truth or a reality hidden in known and made known only when revealed by God. The mystery was God’s plan of salvation, a plan fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and in the preaching of the Church, and Paul made it quite clear that Christ and Christ crucified, would be at the very centre of his preaching at Corinth. At Athens the result of Paul’s preaching and learned discourse, ending with reference to the resurrection, ended with mockery on the part of the audience. His preaching at Corinth was a demonstration of the power of the Spirit, a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (NRSV) resulting in faith. The Holy Spirit enlightened the hearts of his listeners to see and accept the truth of Paul’s message. This belief came from the power of the Spirit, not from any human wisdom or philosophical arguments. Thus, belief in the mystery of God is based on the power of God, not on human wisdom.

The Gospel (Matthew 5:13-16). This brief reading gives ample material for reflection. It comes immediately after the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are general statements on the values of the kingdom, with a strong reminder that persecution for allegiance to them, and to Jesus, may result. In this present text Jesus addresses his disciples, his followers then and for all times, directly, with simple but astounding statements: they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He is addressing Jewish followers but his words presuppose a vision of the pagan and world mission of the Church. They are not just salt and light for their own households, villages, towns or for their people Israel, but for the whole earth, the whole world. The images used express the purpose of their mission. Salt is a condiment for food, it makes food savoury and preserves from corruption. Light enables to have a sense of direction. The images indicate the role or mission of believers in Christ in the world. As an early Christian writer (second or third century, in a still pagan society) puts it: “What the soul is to the body, this Christians are in the world”. In a Palestinian house the lamp used to give light was small. It was put on top of a bushel measure (“tub”). Jesus makes it clear that his followers should be conscious of their mission in and to the world. The letters of Saints Paul and Peter make clear how seriously the early Church too this call. Believers through their lives were to as a bright light in the world. It is a very noble calling, but fraught with pitfalls from the points of view both of the individual and the believing community. Making one’s light shine through good works can easily be motivated by self-glorification, rather than the glory of the heavenly Father. Jesus himself roundly condemned this, as hypocrisy. Misdeeds are a reality of fallen nature, and to have it appear as light, and avoid the shame of failure, family or Church authority may seek to hide evildoing, to the hurt of victims. To maintain appearances family, church authorities or others may exert undue pressure on the weak or recalcitrant to have them conform.

            Yet given all these dangers, Jesus' words on salt and light and the mission of believers in any world, even one hostile to the Gospel message, remain. His message should be accepted with joy, including the Gospel joy that can be present when the Gospel message is responded to by abuse, persecution or false accusations. The Beatitudes call for this.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day. Reflection and Dialogue: Christians the light of the world; the Centrality of the Cross.

Reflection. The reflection given above on the Gospel reading, on Christians as the light of the world, gives ample food for thought.

Dialogue with contemporary society: Human wisdom and Divine Wisdom. Ever since the eighteenth-century philosophical Movement of the Enlightenment there has been an understanding of the “light” proper to humanity quite different from that of the Gospel and Jesus’ words read today. Although there has been, and is, quite a difference of opinions among members of the Movement, a commonly accepted principle among them is that the human mind, and the senses are sufficient guide in human affairs, without any interference from heaven or any otherworldly voice. No such outside interference would be acceptable to them. This situation is very much part of the world in which we live. On the other hand, we have the Christian position as formulated by Paul that human wisdom is deficient in matters relating to knowledge of God. Paul’s words on knowledge of the mystery of God and the centrality of divine wisdom as revealed in the Cross are still valid and fundamental principles of our faith. While it is true that the modern view of human life has accepted quite an amount from the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, there are a number of elements of the Enlightenment and what it stands for which cannot be accepted by Christians. And Christians will continue to believe that the “power” which in the first instance gave faith in Christ and the Cross is still at work. Faith comes from this power, and is kept alive and active in our own day by prayer and devotion.

(For reflections on the Sunday and Feast Day readings see Martin McNamara, Sunday Readings with Matthew: Interpretations and Reflections, Dublin, Veritas, 2016)