In a couple of weeks, I will be traveling on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with friends from my previous parish in Waynesboro. It is a destination off my bucket list. And it gives me pause to think I will be walking the dusty roads that Jesus walked and visiting the places where he proclaimed God’s tremendous love for all people and where he offered the ultimate sacrifice of his very life for the salvation of the human family. The great mystery of “God made flesh” we just celebrated this past Christmas season unfolded right in this remote and obscure corner of the world far from the big centers of worldly power and commerce. I am so looking forward to this trip more than any other. I’ve been reading up on the places we will be visiting, been looking at maps to measure distances and situate important events. I hope to be more attentive now each time I read and reflect on the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry in sacred scripture.
Our first major destination in Israel is the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum where Jesus made his home as an adult at the start of his public ministry. Then we will take day trips to Nazareth and Cana, to Magdala and what was once Caesarea Philippi, to the Jordan where John baptized him and the shores of the Sea of Galilee where he called his first disciples to follow him and become fishers of people, and where he taught the crowds sitting in a boat so he wouldn’t get trampled, to hillsides where he proclaimed the Beatitudes and fed the multitude from a few fish and loaves of bread.
We read today about Capernaum, a sleepy fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, hometown of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Capernaum was once a bustling little village on the seaward road that stretched from Damascus and Syria in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west and to Phoenicia and Egypt in the south. This is also Galilee of the Gentiles once the northern kingdom of Israel that fell to the Assyrians 7 centuries before, and to whom Isaiah announced deliverance and abundant joy and rejoicing when a great light would shine across the land dispelling the darkness and gloom. Matthew saw in Jesus the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, himself the light come upon a land overshadowed by death and a people who sit in darkness. Jesus called this place home after John was arrested, and not Nazareth where he grew up. This was where he first proclaimed a message of repentance and the mercy of God. This was where it all began.
Like some of you I have caught the travel bug and have made many a trip across this country and overseas to marvel at amazing landscapes and natural wonders, to behold lush rainforests, mighty snow-capped mountains, scenic lakes and rivers, and vast expanses of ocean blue, to admire advanced technology and ancient architecture, to mix and mingle with people who do not look like me, dress like me, speak like me, or profess the same faith as me. It is truly an eye-opening experience. It helps to see the world from someone else’s perspective and background if even only momentarily and discover that despite our many differences and divergences, we have a whole lot more in common, among them an ingrained sense of identity and pride in our own culture and history, a basic yearning for freedom and autonomy, a genuine love for family and community, a deep and abiding conviction in God most merciful in some form or other, and a fundamental willingness to believe in the goodness of our neighbor. There are differences no doubt. But what we share in common goes so much deeper.
St. Paul challenges Christians to dig deeper and discover within ourselves a unity in Jesus Christ that is only possible when we have encountered him truly and deeply and trust in the meaning and power of his cross. Encountering Jesus Christ truly involves leaving all other priorities behind, like the nets that Jesus’ fishermen disciples set aside to follow him, to make his priorities ours, his mission of mercy and healing, his willingness to lay down his life for his friends. And to trust in the meaning and power of his cross involves embracing our own cross for the salvation of our neighbor, not just the neighbor we know and like, but above all the neighbor who does not know us or does not like us. Recently the divisions within our church starts to sound like what St. Paul had to contend with. “I’m with Francis.” “I’m with Benedict.” “I’m with John Paul.” “I’m with Jesus.” Christ is not divided. Our loyalty belongs to him alone. Our divisions must cease. And while we are called to unity, we do not embrace absolute uniformity. Our diversity is a source of strength and blessing if only we recognize who it is that has called us together, to leave behind our selfishness and petty rivalries, to be for one another what Christ is for us, light, welcome, comfort, and peace.
Jesus’ body, the Church, continues his work of compassion in our day. We have been baptized into his death and resurrection. We have been sent to our sisters and brothers to be to them light, welcome, comfort, and peace. It is a daunting task, but working together, the mission Jesus left us is not impossible, if only we are mindful of God who sends us. It is not our work. It is God’s. We are instruments in God’s hands. And sometimes we are not very good instruments at that. We sometimes give in to discouragement, to cutting one another down, to arguing who among us is the greatest.
The annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity concludes on Wednesday with the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. It is a sad reality that a deep divisiveness and disturbing lack of charity and kindness still festers within Christianity at large, between churches that claim faith in Jesus Christ, among leaders and members of our worldwide Catholic communion, even in our country, local communities, and our own families. We desperately need to acknowledge our common origins and our common mission despite our differences and diversity. If we are receptive to Christ’s message of compassion, healing, justice, and peace, we can more faithfully be to one another and for one another exactly who Jesus Christ is to us and for us.
So when we lose perspective, it helps to return to our roots, even to where it all began. But we cannot stay there. Instead we take strength and inspiration for our challenges right here right now. It makes little sense to ask what Jesus would do. It makes more sense to ask that because I have encountered Jesus and I desire so much to be like Jesus what should I do? And you don’t need to go to the Holy Land for that. Just go back to Jesus.
Rolo B Castillo © 2023