“Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God,” states an ancient Christian prayer, “that as we are bathed in the new light of Thine Incarnate Word, that which shines by faith may blaze out likewise in our actions.” Jesus Christ is, as we declare when saying the Creed, “light from light, true God from true God…” It is this light that is identified and proclaimed in today’s readings.
The reality and symbolic meaning of light is referenced hundreds of times in the Bible. Among the numerous pieces of theological and historical background relating to the meaning of “light,” two in particular are worth noting here. The first is from the initial moment of creation: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness” (Gn 1:3-4). This refers, of course, to physical creation, but it also serves as a rich metaphor and description of salvation history itself, which consists of the promise of “a great light.” The realization of that promise is revealed in the Word who became flesh so that a new creation might come into being: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5).
Today’s reading from Matthew describes a key transition in the life and mission of Christ. It follows his temptation in the desert (see Mt 4:1-11), where he underwent the same basic temptations as did the Israelites in the desert. Having rebuffed the devil, he went to Galilee, located in the northernmost part of Palestine, above Judea and Samaria. Jesus then settled in Capernaum, in the “region of Zebulun and Naphtali.”
This brings us to the second piece of historical background. For some 800 years before the time of Christ the region of Galilee had been overrun and conquered by the savage Assyrians (see 2 Kgs 15:29). It was the first time that the Israelites were taken into exile; that horrible event was the darkness referred to by Isaiah in today’s first reading. But, as Matthew writes, the prophet spoke also of a coming light that would illuminate “the people who sat in darkness” and would dawn upon those who lived in “the shadow of death.”
Jesus proclaimed his message within a spiritual desert: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This was the message of another prophet, John the Baptist (see Mt 3:2), but whereas John proclaimed the message, Jesus was the message. And the establishment of the kingdom of heaven was not limited to Galilee, for it would go “beyond the Jordan,” even to the Gentiles; the great light would shine to those in darkness everywhere. The Son, sent by the Father, would give new life and new light through the power of the Holy Spirit. “From the true light, indeed,” stated St. Cyril of Alexandria, “the true light proceeded, and from the invisible the visible.”
This declaration by Jesus marked the beginning of his public career. His next act was to call his disciples, the Twelve (Mt 4:18-22), and then to preach, teach and heal (Mt 4:23-25). This preaching included the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), in which he said to those listening, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt 5:14). The Church, the new Israel, is a visible light in the world because it is the mystical body of Christ and the household of God. Although the Church is filled with sinners, she is holy, her faith blazing out in righteous actions.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.