Homily for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 20, 2002

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 49:3,5-6; Ps 40:2,4,7-8,8-9,10; 1 Cor 1:1-3; John 1:29-34)

"It is too little for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel . . . I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation nay reach the ends of the earth."

Isaiah writes these words at the darkest hour of the people of Israel. They are in exile, aliens, captives in Babylon; they have lost their homes, they have been taken away from Jerusalem. They cannot worship at the Temple, the heart of all that is sacred to them. In short, they are like the millions of refugees who people our earth today.

And into this darkness Isaiah makes an incredible promise from God. They are praying for release from captivity for themselves and their people -- and God makes a promise that goes beyond their wildest hopes. Not only will they be released and gathered back to their homeland, the light of God's revelation and liberation will shine on all the nations. It will reach to the ends of the earth.

When we hear such a grandiose phrase as 'a light to the nations', we can easily be tempted to imagine a great blinding, instantaneous flash illuminating the whole earth. Like the sudden throwing of a switch at a huge stadium, with the crowd being agog at the sudden spectacle. But the lighting of the nations does not happen like that. It's not like a light switch that you throw and on come the lights.

Perhaps the best way to communicate how it works is to take you back to the beginning of our current millennium (which already seems so long ago in light of all that has happened since). Do you remember 'Y2K' and all the nervousness about it?

Remember how the media tried to get us to realize this momentous event, by taking us to various places where the sun was about to rise. They took us first to a small island in the South Pacific, which is the very first spot beyond the International date-line where the sun comes up and the new day dawns. They had camera with the natives on the shore as the first faint glimmer showed on the horizon. The rest of the world was still to remain in darkness for some hours. Then they took us to the shore of Australia; then the sun reached East Africa, and Europe, and finally to the East coast of the U.S. It was a gradual dawning, over time, with places still in darkness while others enjoyed the light. The light appears to 'spread' around the globe. "To the ends of the earth."

The spiritual light of the nations is about justice, it's about peace, it's about integrity. And we humans don't learn those things instantaneously, or over night. Or over centuries. The nations still fight one another, they still go to war and kill one another over power or wealth or cultural dominance. The strong still oppress the weak. And governments still lie and use propaganda to get their people to accept the necessity of war. Their governments, and ours.

Yet in spite of that long sad story the light does inch its way around our globe, step by painful step. People toil endlessly at the UN even though many joke that it's a futile debating society. After long years of delicate dialogue the world succeeds in outlawing chemical and biological weapons; we finally craft a consensus outlawing land mines (even though our own government chooses the darkness by refusing to stand in solidarity with the rest of the civilized world. Gradually the light dawns that capital punishment is inhuman, is murder. The light slowly spreads.

But the same light which slowly pervades the nations is at work spreading inwardly, across the 'nations' that make up our souls, the compartments of ourselves that are still in darkness and warring against our better selves. Some years ago a woman wrote a fine spiritual book whose title captures it nicely: Journey Outward, Journey Inward. There is a journey of light whereby we participate in the public dialogue of societies, and there is a journey in which the Spirit of Jesus is leading us into the nooks and crannies of our selves where the light has not yet penetrated.

We do not see the light in a flash. It spreads slowly, act by act, deed by deed.

John testifies to the growth in insight that took place even in him. He says, "I did not know him", -- when Jesus was standing before him --- but the one who sent me to baptize told me."

The light spreads each time someone dares to speak a word of truth, especially when it is a word that those in power do not want to hear. The light spreads each time someone refuses to project blame on others but accepts personal responsibility and becomes accountable for their choices. The light spreads when we see a grandmother or a grandfather or aunt or uncle or sibling -- or even a neighbor -- take in and accept the job of raising someone else's kids when their marriage has fallen in shambles or the teen-age parent discovers he or she just can't bear the responsibility of parenting.

The light spread a little bit further this past week when Sherron Watkins, the vice-president of Enron, came to the insight that she could not longer be a party to the financial misrepresentation going on, that she had to speak up and hold the mirror up to her greedy superiors, even at risk to herself and her career. She didn't present herself as a great heroine; she simply told a truth that had to be named. Her memo was meant for a few eyes, and it has become a revelation to the whole world, creating the possibility for redressing injustice.

Think back to how you learned the ways of the Lord, how the light gradually seeped into your consciousness. Think of the models who made you think and ask questions, who inspired you by their own lives. It might have been a parent, or a teacher, or a coach; or a fellow worker in your office or plant.

Or just somebody you observed who played no other role in your life. I think of the woman I used to watch as she wheeled her spastic child out in his wheel-chair each day to be picked up by the special ed access van. She always had a cigarette hanging form her lip, and you could tell her life wasn't easy, but she was there. Or the old black gentleman I see occasionally shambling to the bus. He can barely put one foot in front of the other; he can barely make himself understood as he mumbles. He's going to the nursing home to visit his wife. Woody Allen says that 90% of life is just showing up. The light spreads to others by these people just showing up, by their fidelity day in and day out.

The small deeds of heroism shine a light on the dark recesses of our hearts and unmask our insincerity and laziness and lack of commitment. They compel us to say "I can do better", and we start over again.

"I did not know him". But gradually we're learning, as a people and as individuals.

Today we celebrate the life of one who has been a great light in our lives and the lives of many around our world, Martin Luther King. But if we are to take in the full reality, beyond all the great deeds we mustn't forget that he didn't have all the light at the outset. He learned gradually, as he took each step. When he initiated the bus boycott in Birmingham he couldn't know that it would lead him to march to Selma; and he couldn't know then that it would take him to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; and he couldn't know then that it would lead him to protest the war in Vietnam; and he couldn't know then that it would take him to his assassination.

I can remember well how I and many other supporters began to question where he was going when he began to protest the war. We thought he was losing his focus and his mission. His mission was the evil of racism, wasn't it? What happened was that the light grew within him and he began to see the connection, the link between racism and war. The light was spreading.

And we must not forget that there was still darkness in him. All was not light. We don't tell the full story if we leave out the fact that he was a womanizer and unfaithful to his wife and family. All was not light. But that darkness takes nothing away from the deeds of light he put before us for all to see, at the cost of his life.

John the Baptist did not know the man, but he was open to the light when it came. The reason he was able to embrace the light was because he was on the lookout. When it came he was prepared, he was ready.

The light of the Lord will spread; it will come, and it will confer power. As Isaiah says in another place:

"Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, so the word that goes forth from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do."

The light will reach the all the nations, it will tough the ends of the earth -- both without and within our spirits. We must pray to be ready when it shines in our lives.