"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand".
(Readings: Isaiah 8:23 – 9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-23.)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday revolve around the start of Christ's public ministry and his appeal to his listeners to repent because God's Kingdom is close at hand. The Kingdom was the symbol that Jesus used to talk about the rule of God over our lives, his metaphor for the power of God to transform not only individuals but also our social relationships and the whole character of our community life.
We begin Mass by recalling the times when we have closed ourselves to God's rule and when we've resisted the call to repent. We ask God to forgive us and to give us the grace to change.
A great beginning
At the start of the Ordinary Season of the Church's Year the gospel readings for Sunday Mass always go back to the beginning, to the opening stages of Jesus' public ministry.
For St. Matthew the start of Jesus' ministry was a moment of enormous significance. Like all the first witnesses of Jesus Matthew had an overwhelming conviction that when Jesus stepped out of the obscurity of his early life and started to announce the arrival of God's Kingdom, a new stage in salvation history had begun.
To emphasise this St. Matthew uses those lines from the prophet Isaiah which we heard in the first reading. We usually associate these verses with Christ's Incarnation – the light shining in the darkness refers to the coming of God into human history in the person of Jesus, which we celebrate at Christmas.
But here Matthew applies the same imagery to the opening of Christ's ministry. He conjures up a picture of people living "under the shadow of death", which to me suggests a bleak, hopeless, joyless existence without prospect of relief or future happiness. This gloom was lifted by John the Baptist, who offered a new beginning, and the people flocked to the Jordan to be baptised by him. But then the forces of darkness re-asserted themselves: John was arrested and silenced, and the "shadow of death" cast itself over the people's lives again.
This was the moment that Jesus judged to be the right time to appear on the public scene and begin his own ministry, which at first he did in very similar terms to his cousin John: "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close at hand". Which is to say: "God is coming - and soon! Get ready! Transform your lives!"
The early chapters of the gospels describe Jesus' ministry as opening with a blaze of new hope and great energy. In Jesus the power of God swept through the towns and villages of Galilee, lifting the burden of unhappiness from people's shoulders, and giving them a new sense of meaning, curing their sicknesses, liberating them from the power of the devil.
This was the springtime of Christ's ministry, a time of blossoming and growing and spreading before he roused the opposition of those who refused to acknowledge that God was being revealed in his person and his work.
The Kingdom: a vision of personal and political transformation
From the outset of his ministry the style and the content of Christ's preaching echoed the preaching of the Old Testament prophets. Out of his own communion with God and his own zeal for the Kingdom, Jesus rejected any idea of half-hearted devotion to God or lukewarm commitment to the demands of God's Reign.
Of course Jesus knew how to offer God's salvation in a gentle manner to those who were afflicted or broken in some way. But we can't deny that he appealed to people to aim high in their spiritual life – to place their lives wholeheartedly under the Reign of God, with all the renunciation of selfish, worldly goals which that involves.
There were – and there are – two aspects to God's Kingdom, which I would like to try to highlight today.
For the people of Jesus' time the symbol of God's Kingdom, or God's Reign, conjured up the vision of a just society, free from all the exploitation and violence and division that arise from human sinfulness. It was a vision of human society, which the people of Jesus’ time expected God to establish at some point in the future, where his perfect holiness and justice would set the standard.
In Old Testament times it fell to the prophets to attack the idolatry and hypocrisy of the Chosen People, or their tendency to sacrifice the weak and vulnerable in pursuit of material wealth. The prophets voiced God's anger at the fact that his vision of society was being abandoned and his standards of love and justice and mutual care were being violated.
When that happened the prophets summoned the community urgently to repent: turn back to God; turn back to a faith that expresses itself in right conduct towards your neighbour, and not in grand but empty praise of God.
And today, when Christians contribute to the efforts aimed at countering injustice and ending poverty and exploitation - of any kind - they're right to appeal to the vision of God's Kingdom which is held out to us by the authors of Old and New Testaments. As Christ said himself, we should pray to God: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven".
When people are genuinely open to God's influence then relationships which are free from exploitation or domination start to take shape here and now, and not only in the future, at the end of time. As followers of Christ we should never overlook the fact that God wants to see this happening here and now, and not only in the future!
But having said that, Jesus of course also directed his appeal for repentance to men and women at the personal and individual level. Jesus never lost sight of the two dimensions of the Kingdom: as the standards of God's love and holiness and justice embodied in the structures of social life; and as the qualities of God’s love and holiness and justice taking root in the hearts of the individual persons who make up society.
The Kingdom isn't a political programme which alters the rules of society while leaving individual hearts untouched and unchanged. When it comes to Christ's appeal to enter God's Kingdom we each have to hear that appeal as a call to me, personally, to open myself to God, and to the power of God, which draws me into his life and transforms me into his image.
When that happens I become a cell or a focus of God's Kingdom, first receiving the gifts which come from contact with God, and then spreading his Kingdom more widely, among the people I engage with from day to day.
And when we learn to receive God's Kingdom together, as his Church, then we become agents of God's salvation on a far larger scale, introducing the perspectives of the Kingdom into society at large and bringing the whole world closer to God. The deep unity which St. Paul talks about in today's second reading is a description of the way God’s Kingdom takes effect in our relationships when the community as a whole becomes imbued with God's spirit of love and self-giving, as revealed by Christ.
So those would be my reflections on this passage from Matthew's gospel about the “springtime” of Jesus’ ministry, and about the symbol of the Kingdom of God, which was the centre of Christ's preaching during his earthly ministry, and which is also meant to be the centre of our lives now, as his followers.