For Catholics throughout the world, liturgically this is the fifth Sunday of the Year. In “Ordinary Time,” we used to say. Except that these times seem anything but ordinary. Perhaps that is why the description has been changed. But the way the Church observes the passage of time still conveys a serenity and matter-of-factness that is hardly reflected even today in affairs of the world, if it ever was. Consider just the last week for a moment.
In short order, thanks to instant coverage and Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we witnessed the late-night travel ban on Muslims that was, we were later assured, neither a ban nor about Muslims. Then, the Iranian missile test, and the flurry of tweets and counter-comments that followed. Protest marches in Washington, New York, San Francisco, London, and Paris… the terrorist attack at the Louvre … more shootings in Chicago… the judicial stay on the travel ban and the furious tweet response from the President… the Super Bowl… the Puppy Bowl.. a couple of assassinations that didn’t make the evening news. And much, more more.
And yet they call it Ordinary time. And perhaps it has become so.
Somehow, it all seems to meld together at times. But I’m told that because of the advent of multitasking cellphones, netbooks, and tablets that the latest generation of electronically connected kids are not only able to compute all this but tweet, snap, text, and play computer games at the same time. Developmental psychologists and physiologists seem to think that their brains are evolving in wholly new ways to accommodate all the information they receive simultaneously. They had better.
So if there is anything to be said about the times we are marking, they don’t seem very ordinary at all. If you stop to think about it, if it weren’t for all the media noise about the only thing that would really have engaged our attention lately would have been the weather. Recently I took some time out to look back into family photo albums for some pictures of my grandparents that my cousin wanted. As I scanned the old photos, I couldn’t help but notice that even in the depths of the depression and World War II, folks seemed much less harried somehow. They had lots more snow, too.
No, if anything, we can be said to live in what appear to be very extraordinary times. And so today’s readings from scripture, the voice of God we are told, come at an opportune moment to remind us of different priorities, other values, strange ideas that might give us pause in the weeks before the beginning of Lent during the remaining weeks of Ordinary time.
Once again, Isaiah and Matthew are paired, beginning with a passage we have not heard since last Lent. “Share your bread with the hungry,” Isaiah commands, “shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” Very much like Jesus’ criterion of discipleship in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, as the Son of Man gazes over the sheep and the goats. “When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” he says. [Matt. 25:40] Isaiah, Matthew’s favorite prophet, goes a bit further – he says that if we heed God’s instruction, our light will shine like the dawn, a presentiment of what Jesus will say a bit later on. In the midst of it, he has a word about how we talk to one another, and in this day of Twitter and Facebook and shouting candidates and commentators on network television, it sounds strangely apt:
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech…
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
And the gloom shall become for you like the midday.
The responsorial psalm emphasizes the point – the just person does not fear an evil report, but shines like a light in the darkness to the upright. Something Jesus will call us back to.
Today’s gospel is taken from the sermon on the mount, which we began attending to last Sunday. It is Matthew’s charter of Christian life based on the fundamental teachings of Jesus, whom he portrays giving us a new kind of Decalogue from the mountainside – like a new Moses. This passage occurs immediately after the Beatitudes – it’s Jesus’ commentary following his benediction on the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, and those who are reviled, persecuted and defamed. Their happiness is not the result of human effort or human wisdom – it is the gift of God.
Jesus then calls his disciples the salt of the earth — the seasoning that sweetens the bitterness of the world, as in the story of Elisha at Jericho, when he sweetened the bitter waters by putting salt into them. But what if salt goes flat? The flavorful sea salt of the Middle East could do that, in case you were wondering. And if his followers did lose their faith, their reliance on the simple truth of the gospel, what would happen to the world then?
Jesus next turns to the imagery found in Isaiah and that beautiful psalm – their light must not go out, it is there to illuminate the darkness of the world. Candles hadn’t been invented yet, so Jesus says our lives must be like an oil lamp set in a dark and windless place, enabling others to see clearly. It is not arrogance to believe that we can be models for others – every parent is that, every teacher, every leader whether in church or in civil society. And if the light dims, if we lose heart, the world grows a little darker, a little colder. We don’t have to become lighthouses – it’s enough to be a votive light. You may remember the motto of the Christophers in that regard – “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” And there’s entirely too much cursing going on, in case you hadn’t noticed.
So shine. Let your light scatter the darkness, Jesus says…. the darkness of greed and indifference, of weakness and fear, and the so-called human wisdom that exalts self-interest over the welfare of the poor and needy. Then God’s own love and truth will shine through the darkness. And, as Isaiah has it, “your own hurts will be quickly healed. Your vindication shall go before you,… you shall call and the Lord will answer,… and the gloom shall become for you like midday.”