The Lectionary readings for today’s Mass, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, are particularly rich.
We are in Year A of the Lectionary cycle, and thus we follow Matthew’s Gospel through most of the Sundays in Ordinary Time. (Check this great website to help understand the structure of the liturgy.) This year, Easter falls very late, so we have a lengthy period of Ordinary Time before Lent.
Progressing through Matthew, we find ourselves today at the beginning of Jesus’ preaching ministry in Galilee.
The first reading for today’s mass comes from Isaiah 9:
“The Land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali ...
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light...”
Obviously this reading from Isaiah is paired with today’s Gospel because Matthew quotes some of this passage and sees it’s fulfillment in our Lord’s revelation of himself in the region of Galilee.
Nonetheless, commentators and homilists often miss the relationship between the two passages.
In his own day, Isaiah was preaching to the northern tribes of Israel (Zebulun and Naphtali), whose territory had been decimated by the Assyrians, with large portions of the population deported around 722 BC. The point of Isaiah’s oracle was one of hope: this same portion of ancestral Israel, so devastated and bleak in his own day, would be the first to witness the arrival of the Messianic age. St. Matthew sees the fulfillment of this passage in our Lord’s choice to begin his ministry in these northern territories—a choice that otherwise might seem counter-intuitive, since the region of Galilee was not a particularly historic or significant one in Israel’s sacred history.
The second reading for today’s Mass is 1 Cor 1:10-17, which was not chosen to fit the theme of the Gospel, but rather because we are reading through 1 Corinthians at the beginning of Ordinary Time. (Curiously, Ordinary Time always begins with 1 Corinthians and then breaks off around Week 8. Thus, it takes the full three-year cycle to “read through” the book. See here.) Providentially, however, the reading provides a connection with the theme of the Gospel for today’s Mass. St. Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel ...” And so we are reminded that the preaching ministry of Christ is continued by that of his Apostles, and also their successors, and so on down through history, to our own day. Even for us lay people, who may not preach in the formal sense of those who share in the charisms of Holy Orders, do have a responsiblity to “preach” by our example and also by our explicit testimony (when given the opportunity) that the Kingdom of God is present now, because Jesus Christ has come.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus “began to preach, saying, Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
The concept of the “Kingdom of Heaven” needs to be associated with the Davidic Kingship of Jesus so strongly emphasized by Matthew in the opening chapters of his Gospel (1:20; 2:2; 2:5-6), and present also in Isaiah 9. If we were to read on in Isaiah 9, for example, beyond the portion quoted by Matthew in Matt 3: 15-16, we would find Isaiah predicting the coming of a Davidic King (Isa 9:7) who is also somehow divine (Isa 9:6). The Kingdom of Heaven proclaimed by Jesus is also the Kingdom of David, just as Jesus is fully God and fully Man. And so the Kingdom of Heaven has an earthly manifestation that resembles the Davidic Kingdom it “restores and transforms” (credit to Dr. Scott Hahn for this hendiadys). Thus we see Jesus, in the subsequent verses of Matt 3 (vv. 18-22), beginning to choose his royal officers, ultimately twelve of them, just as there were twelve officers over the Kingdom of David during its golden age (see 1 Kings 4:7-19).
The Kingdom of Heaven remains open to us today, now, if we will repent (turn away from our sins) and receive it. Tomorrow is the March for Life in Washington, DC, which provides us a good opportunity for special acts of repentance (fasting, prayer, acts of self-denial) to express contrition for our own sins and for those of our nation (cf. Dan 9:20), especially those against the sanctity of life.