Luke 5:1-11, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
In the chapel of the Jesuit community where I reside, in the Lady Chapel of Campion Hall, there is a mural of the nativity, painted by the botanist Charles Mahoney, which depicts the birth of Jesus set in deep winter in rural England. At first glance we see the faces of Joseph and Mary and others gathered in the scene illuminated in a gentle, warm light, but then we would quickly notice that there is no external light source in the scene. There is no fire, no lamp to be found. Looking at the painting a little more closely, we realise that each face, painted with immense care, is illuminated solely by the light that shines from the face of the newborn Jesus.
There is something remarkable about this mural, which these words of mine fail to convey, and I wish I could better express the sense of wonder and gratitude it inspires in me. You see, I think that this mural conveys a tremendously important (theological) insight in visual form: that all we can hope to see of our own selves and of each other, perhaps more keenly in the darkest of times, is that which is illuminated by the gentle light that shines from the newborn God-made-human.
That insight might help us enter more reflectively into our readings today. In some way, our readings invite us to understand our lives in the light of God. This seems to be the experience of all the figures in our readings today. Isaiah, Paul and Peter all encounter a holy presence, and because they encounter goodness and love in God, they are struck by what they see in themselves, their own unholiness, sinfulness. Then God does something for each of them: purifying Isaiah’s speech, appearing to Paul in the midst of a journey and surprising Peter with an abundance after a night of toiling in vain.
What strikes me most about these accounts we read today is that it is not God who points out their sinfulness, but their own selves. In encountering God’s almighty power, it is as if they were rendered helpless because of their own powerlessness. God doesn’t allow them to wallow in this negative self-perception of their own selves. God speaks to each of them tenderly as Jesus does in the Gospel: do not be afraid. Then the revelation of God’s power is transposed into tenderness and intimacy; touching Isaiah on his mouth, appearing to Paul when he least expected it, and turning Peter from his own rejection into companionship. In some manner, each of them say: Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man. To each God replies: I see you. I love you. Come follow me.
Perhaps, this morning, we are invited to see our own selves not in the harsh light of our own scrutiny, but to see our own selves — our minds and hearts, our uniqueness and peculiarities, our lights and our shadows — always in the light in which God sees us. In order to do this, like Peter, we are invited to leave the security of our own shores and to venture out into the deep. This is no ordinary journey. It is not a pilgrimage for the faint-hearted. If we dare venture out there, if we dare entrust ourselves into grace, perhaps gazing into the deep, we might discover the truth that sets us free from the delusions of our times.
There is much in our world today that makes us imagine that we are worse off than we really are. There is also the pressure to present ourselves as if we were better than others. Isaiah expresses these sentiments: What a wretched state I am in! I am lost / for I am a man of unclean lips / and I live among a people of unclean lips.
Against these delusions, the reality of the incarnation of God in Jesus, the paradoxical power of God that is manifested in powerlessness, sheds light on our own existence. Only in that light of love can we ever hope to understand ourselves. Without that love, we are blind.
Let us keep a few moments of silence, allowing God to gaze at us in love, and asking for the grace that we too might come to see ourselves, to see our world, as God sees us.