Brief synopsis of the readings: Still in the Book of Isaiah, God speaks of how the “people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The yoke that weighed on them will be broken. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus learned that John the Baptist had been arrested and left Nazareth for Capernaum. There he began preaching that all should repent “for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” He then called his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They then traveled “round the whole of Galilee teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom and curing all kind of diseases and sickness among the people.”
As a general rule we don’t know much about the feelings of the people we read about in Scripture. This isn’t absolute: we see anger in God (Noah’s Ark), Jeremiah (when he accuses God of duping him), and Jesus (when he overturned tables outside of the Temple). The prophet Hosea expressed his hurt at the infidelity of his wife Gomer.
That said, we can read long stretches of Scripture with little understanding of how people felt. That was my first reaction when I read this Gospel. There is much we don’t know about the relationship between Jesus and his cousin John, but when Jesus learned that John was arrested he left his home in Nazareth and went to Capernaum. That’s not a small distance if you’re on foot: the two towns are 45 kilometers, or about 27 miles apart.
While we don’t know how Jesus felt we do know that John was arrested for his support for Jesus. Was Jesus horrified about the arrest? Did he feel guilty that John was paying the price for supporting him? Did he fear that John was paying for his loyalty to Jesus? We don’t know
But here’s what we do know: Once in Capernahum he picked up his John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And then he began to collect followers. He spoke to fishermen and told them that if they followed him they would no longer fish for fish, but now fish for men (and women and children).
I’ve often wondered when Jesus knew he was the Messiah. For generations I think we believed he had always known who he was and was perfect in every way. If you took a piano on a time machine to Jesus he could play a Bach concerto better than Bach. I don’t know if I ever believed that but I certainly don’t know now. If he was like us in all things but sin that doesn’t mean he didn’t need to learn. The gift of learning isn’t the result of sin, but is in some ways one of the greatest experience we have (perhaps only second to the gift of loving). And that raises the question of when Jesus understood his role.
Jesus’ decision to pick up John’s message tells me that he recognized his life had changed. It tells me that the message of repentance was larger and more urgent than either of them. Regardless of whether he fully understood that he was the Messiah, he recognized that his life was going in a direction he didn’t expect.
As I read this Gospel I couldn’t help but think of a priest in Hartford, Connecticut. His name is Fr. Anthony Federico and he is now in a place he never expected. He went to a Catholic high school and college, and after graduation he got a job with ESPN. He did well there, but made a horrible mistake one night and was fired from his job.
He knew his future wasn’t going to be as planned but he didn’t know where it would go. He took to walking at noontime and saw that a local church had a daily mass everyday at 12:10; this came as news because even though he went to Catholic high school and college he didn’t know that churches have daily mass. He started attending daily mass and found something else he didn’t know about: confessions before mass. He learned that the priest who celebrated mass came early to hear confessions, but sometimes had to cut off the confessions lest he be late celebrating mass.
Puzzled by this Anthony thought that there should be more priests to hear confessions. And then…he recognized that perhaps he could be one of those priests. You can probably figure out the rest of the story, but this led him to apply and be accepted to the seminary and last year he was ordained a priest for the diocese of Hartford.
This was not a path he would have chosen, and when the door of ESPN closed nobody would have guessed the door to priesthood would have opened to him. And I’m guessing that no one is more surprised than Fr. Federico at the direction of his path.
I have some understanding of this. When I was in high school I had my future all planned out: University of Virginia, majoring in political science. Then UVa law school. Then wealth and adulation.
At the time I never expected my path would lead through priesthood, nor did I dream of living in California. I had never even heard of hospice and had no idea they employed chaplains.
I think we can all look back on our lives and see twists and turns that we never would have expected: how we met our spouse, how we found our career path, etc.
But I think today’s Gospel reminds us that the twists and turns in our path aren’t over. We like to think that we are masters of our future but we’re not. I don’t think Jesus grew up thinking of himself as the Messiah and the arrest of John the Baptist probably led him on a path that he didn’t expect. But I’m glad he followed that path.
Let us continue to journey on our path recognizing that our next twist may well bring us to a place we never would have dreamed of.