‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali! Way of the sea on the far side of Jordan, Galilee of the nations! The people that lived in darkness has seen a great light; on those who dwell in the land and shadow of death a light has dawned.’
Those are words of Isaiah, OT words, but being quoted by St Matthew and made part of the NT. And surely they ring a bell. We hear the second half of them at the Mass of Christmas night. It’s the beginning of the beautiful passage on a child being born to us, a son given us.
But they fit tonight and what we’re doing. Today’s the shortest day and tonight the Antiphon at Evening Prayer is, ‘O Rising Sun, splendor of light eternal and Sun of justice, O come and enlighten those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’
It’s the dark time of the year, when our spirits are often low and our brains and bodies feel the lack of natural light. This is when we celebrate the Advent of the true and lasting light, the light that never sets and is always there to show us the next step. On the first page of Genesis, before the sun or moon or stars are created, God already says, ‘Let there be light.’ And the sun, the moon and the stars can all be darkened, but that other light never, that light which springs from the word of God.
And I think the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Penance, Confession is part of all this. It is a sacrament of light.
A few years ago there was published a humorous little book about Scottishness. It had a section on how you can tell if you’re a crypto-Calvinist, that is, the caricature of a dour Presbyterian. And one of the symptoms was that you preferred driving north to driving south. Well, in the Gospel we’ve just had, Jesus is going north. Jesus is a good Calvinist. John has been arrested by Herod, whose powerbase was in the south. And so Jesus, who still has his mission to fulfil, goes north. He goes back to where he came from, Galilee. He leaves his home town there, Nazareth, goes further north and makes his home in Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Lake of Galilee, ‘on the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali.’ And so St Matthew can quote Isaiah, ‘Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali! Way of the sea on the far side of the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.’ Most of us don’t have a clue where the land of Zebulun and Naphtali are. That doesn’t matter. The point is they were ancient tribal areas in the north, and in Isaiah’s time under the heel of the Gentiles, occupied territories. And this is where Jesus goes. This is where he sheds his light. Herod has imprisoned the lamp who was John and will soon take off his head, remove the bulb as it were, to quench the light. So Jesus goes north, to shine there.
Surely this fits us very well. Through the ministry of priests, he’s literally here in our beloved north-east, here to forgive our sins. And when we sin, symbolically speaking we go north. We go to the edge, we turn our landscape into tundra and taiga, we go to a far country like the prodigal son, we get lost in the ravines like the lost sheep, we separate ourselves, we’re oppressed like a colonised land, we’re angry and resentful, we go empty and cold, the temperature of our love drops. ‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark’ – a famous line of T. S. Eliot. We each have our north, our darkness. But here’s the beautiful thing. Jesus goes north. Jesus follows us. He goes into the dark, into our cold and desolate places, and there he sheds his gentle, searching, healing light. He shines the great absolution of his Cross and the torch of his Resurrection.
So, the ancient prophecy is fulfilled again not just in northern Galilee at the time of Jesus’ earthly life, but here and now thanks to his Risen Life in the north of Scotland, in the north of our hearts. His light can shine even there. Yesterday’s Collect spoke of Mary being ‘filled with light’ at the Annunciation. And I think we, poor sinners, are filled with divine light through this Sacrament. We are gently lit up. We’re lightened in the other sense as well. Beyond the incidental difficulties, it’s a beautiful thing. Our lamps are kindled. ‘Do not be afraid,’ the angel said to Mary, and the Church says to us when we go to confession. No, no need to be afraid. Jesus can cope even with us, even with me.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 21 December 2016)