Quoting the prophet Isaiah (9.1-2), St. Matthew tells us that Jesus began his ministry in the "land of Zebulon and the land of Napthali, toward the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles" (Mt. 4.12-16).
This was territory claimed by the Israelites from the time of their arrival in Canaan, but it was land too far north for them adequately to rule. When Israelís enemies descended upon them, they logically chose to enter the Promised Land by this unguarded territory. Since this was the first of the Kingdom of Israel to fall to the pagans, Jesus begins his ministry by reclaiming it first for the Kingdom of God. "And the people who sat in darkness [saw] a great light."
At the Baptism of the Lord and the wedding at Cana, the reality of Jesusí identity was perceived by only a limited number of individuals, but with the beginning of Jesusí public ministry, the light that dawned at Christís birth began to shine on the world.
We speak of "the world" as the terrestrial earth, with its assembly of oceans and continents. To the apostles and their followers "the world" was the territory that lay beyond wherever they happened to be living. Two thousand years of Christian missionary activity are a tribute to believersí willingness to suffer danger and hardship to evangelize the littlest-known spots on our globe, and a classic hymn begs, "...where the gospel day / sheds not its glorious ray / let there be light."
But "the world" is also a spiritual reality, the unredeemed part of human life and human society that languishes without the light of Godís kingdom. The same hymn pleads, "Savior, you came to give / those who in darkness live / healing and sight / health to the sick in mind / sight to the inly blind / now to all humankind / let there be light." These words are beautiful, but we must not let their art distract us from their powerful reminder that each of us comes in daily contact with the world, so each of us is in daily need of Christís light and healing.
Galilee was a very fertile area, so it was quite densely populated. The ancient historian, Josephus, said there were two hundred villages in Galilee, none with a population fewer than fifteen thousand. This means that Jesus began his ministry in the area of Israel where the largest number of people could hear him. But more interesting about Galilee is that its intellectual life at the turn of the first Century was influenced by all the ideas with which its traders - and conquerors - had brought it into contact over the years.
This is not to say that Galilee was not Jewish, but truly what Isaiah called "Galilee of the Gentiles." Over the years the residents of Galilee had been forced to deal with all sorts of strangers and their ideas, so Galilee was the one place in Palestine where a new teacher probably stood any real chance of being heard.
Jesusí public ministry began, St. Matthew tells us, with a single word, Repent. "From that moment Jesus began his preaching with the message, ĎRepent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at handí" (4.17). The imminence of the kingdom (with its promise - or threat - of judgement) gives special urgency to Christís call to repentance. This is not a task that can be put off; it must be faced at once.
Jesusí ministry continues with his call of Peter and Andrew. Succeeding with them, he walked further and called another set of brothers, James and John. Then, Matthew tells us, he began to preach the "good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people" (Mt. 4.18-23).
Except for Christís death and resurrection, the subsequent chapters of the gospel will tell us in greater detail what Jesus does, but we will have to look very hard to find him doing anything except calling, preaching, and healing. The Proclamation of Godís Kingdom is a call to health and wholeness; in Galilee of the Gentiles, the people sitting in darkness saw a great light, and on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, a light rose that brings salvation and healing to the world.
There are two ways we can look at Isaiahís words. On the one hand we can glance back and say that the life and ministry of Jesus perfectly fulfills - even down to the zip code - what Isaiah looked forward to. This is certainly consoling, but to stop here is to reduce Isaiahís vision to some sort of "proof text," and that is far from the best use of the prophecy.
Another way to interpret this prophecy is to allow it to bear some light on the present - not just what takes place during Jesusí ministry in Galilee, but what is (or ought to be) taking place in "the world" today. If we allow him to, Isaiah asks us whether we are aware of the time in which weíre living, whether we realize that with the coming of Christ among us the night is gone, the day is at hand, and our slavery to sin is over.
The point of Jesusí ministry in Galilee is to remind us that from the very start Jesus did not just speak to his own people. One of Jesusí contemporaries said, "Judea is on the way to nowhere; Galilee is on the way to everywhere." And from the very first day, Jesus engaged the entire world, so that we, no less than the Galileans who were the first to hear Jesus, might see ourselves as the people on whom the light has arisen. There is nothing tentative or exclusive in the gospel. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus cured "every disease and illness" - and he did it in a pluralist society very much like our own.
Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, and it is to Galilee that he summoned his disciples back after his resurrection. Galilee is a holy place, for it is from Galilee that the gospel gets carried to the world. But we must not hem in the gospel message with national borders: it is to a personal Galilee that Jesus calls us every day - through the Scripture, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through private, personal prayer and public liturgical prayer, and especially in the sacrament of the Eucharist - to encounter him, and to be healed: to be reconciled and to find the strength to be his light shining on those whom we find sitting in darkness. What takes place in Galilee is a sign of what must take place within us, and Our Saviorís preaching of Godís Kingdom prefigures what will take place after Pentecost, when the Church will carry on Christís Luminous ministry.
The Mystery of Christís proclaiming the kingdom reminds us that Galilee is not just a place on a map, but a place in our hearts. And it is not a place where we can stay for long. Once we have been enlightened by the "gospel day," we become the efficient causes or local instruments by which Christís word continues it saving work. St. Luke tells us that Jesus called his disciples together and "gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal" (9.1-2).
If we are surprised that these words describe the very tasks Jesus himself came to perform, we should remember that we are created in Godís likeness; if we look like God, we ought to act like God.
In a famous Christmas sermon he preached in Rome, Pope Leo the Great exhorted his congregation:
It is no wonder the Church celebrates the luminous birth of Christ when the world is at its coldest and darkest. As our days begin to lengthen, we welcome the light of Christís wisdom and the warmth of his love. But the changing of the year is no more than a sign of a deeper, spiritual reality: Jesus took on our flesh when sin had blinded us to the nobility of our created, human nature. One consequence of Jesusí proclaiming Godís kingdom is that we understand anew what the nobility of our life in this kingdom equips us to do.
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