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Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: The Dawn of Light


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)


            “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” The story of the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali can be your story and can be my story. It is a story of hope that no matter the length of the dark hours of the night surely “the dawn of light” will arrive. The first reading in many ways resembles hymns of thanksgiving. The poem consists of two distinct parts. First, the song gives an account of trouble and salvation, and second, it offers praise by enumerating reasons for celebration. There are three reasons for thanksgiving, each introduced by “for”. The mood, tone, and style are hymnic, as in joyous celebration, and the “rejoicing” is cultic. The first two reasons for celebration concern release from military and political danger. The Lord is praised as the one who has broken “the rod of their oppressor” and is destroying all the battle gear of enemy warriors. Likely these lines have in view a particular deliverance, but the poetry is so comprehensive and compelling that it stirs up the vision of an end to all oppression and war. The third reason also is political, beginning with the announcement of a birth and looking to a reign of justice and righteousness.

            One important way to reflect on this poem is to consider the power of its graphic images, each with its accompanying mood and tone. First, there are the contrasting images of darkness and light. Darkness is a metaphor for oppression and death. The darkness symbolizes ‘dwellers in a land as dark as death’ while light symbolizes life and joy, and evokes them as well.

Second, in the language of prayer, the prophet sketches a scene of celebration. One can almost see and hear the festivities. People shout and sing to their God, as if it were the thanksgiving festival at the end of a good harvest or the spontaneous expression of joy when a war has ended and a time of peace begun.

            Third, contrasting images again come to the fore, the harsh pictures of the instruments of war and oppression, on the one hand, and a gathering lighted by a fire in which those instruments are burned, on the other hand. The mood of joy and celebration from the previous images continues. What begins as the deliverance from a particular oppressor – doubtless the heel of Assyria – becomes a vision of perpetual peace: military boots and bloody uniforms are burned.

Do images such as these have any power? We know they can change moods and feelings, and that alone is powerful. Good news is communicated not only by what is said but also by how it is said, by establishing a mood of celebration, and these images do just that. Can they change external realities as well? It would be naïve, of course, to think that images alone, however compelling, could change the world, could lead to peace instead of war, to justice instead of oppression. Deliberation, planning, and hard work are required. But images, like ideas and commitments, fuel the imagination, which stimulates planning and action. Such a day of peace and justice as envisioned in this text may never come, but it certainly will not if there is no image drawing people toward it.

            Nothing is hurried, for the light’s rising is gradual. In the Gospel, after the imprisonment of John the Baptist, in proximity to whom Jesus had been active, Jesus first withdraws to Nazareth and then to Capernaum, since he had encountered resistance in Nazareth. To Judaeans, with their zeal for the law and expectation that God’s salvation would arrive in their land, Galilee was a spiritually dark, half-Gentile region. Yet, accompanied by “abundant joy” the light rose precisely over this “district of Gentiles” (as seen in the first reading) – “can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) – rather than over the holy city. (Similarly, it is often obscure corners of the earth that are the locus of the activity of saints or apparitions of the Mother of God.) That Jesus came from this half-Jewish, half-Gentile region and began his ministry there is like a prophecy. Ultimately, however, both Jews and Gentiles have “dwelt in the land of gloom”, and only One can call himself the “light of the world” and the “light of life” (John 8:12). The phrase “Rise up in splendor” (Isaiah 60:1), directed at Jerusalem, is eschatological and was spoken with the Messiah in mind. Those who returned home from the Exile sobbed, “We look for light, and lo, darkness; for brightness, but we walk in gloom!” (Isaiah 59:9).

            But Jesus, the dawning light, does not want to act alone. Every man, even the God-man, is a fellow man. Thus, he soon has helpers and, at the outset, promises them that he will turn them from mere fishermen to fishers of men. They follow him without delay. For a while we do not see them acting on their own, for they must first watch and learn to understand what he does. Only then can they proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God (of the “Kingdom of heaven”) and through it heal men of their afflictions. They are present in contemplation in order that soon thereafter they might be sent out actively to accomplish Jesus’ purpose (cf. Mk 3:14-15).

            The assignments that they soon receive are both all alike and yet suited to each individual. In the community into which Jesus calls the disciples there is neither collectivism nor individualism. Paul drives home the sense of unity within the Church (in the second reading), even if elsewhere (Rom. 12; 1 Cor 12) he emphasizes the specificity of the task given to each individual. “Quarreling” and “factions” that oppose each other and name themselves after specific leaders are to be completely excluded from the Church. “Has Christ then been divided into parts?” The stories of the calling of the disciples show that, for the sake of a single Christ, all who are called leave everything behind, including their former individual opinions, and, looking toward him, their only leader, are of one spirit. To accompany Christ will in the end necessarily mean the way of the Cross. If quarreling and strife dominate this path, the “Cross of Christ will be emptied of its power” (1 Cor 1:17).


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