Rev. Anthony Stephens, CPM.
Rev. Stephens is a native of Angelus, in northwest Kansas and attended Christendom College in Front Royal Virginia. Discerning a call to religious life and the priesthood, he joined the Fathers of Mercy in 2000. In 2001, Fr. Tony professed the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and then he studied for the priesthood at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. While at the Josephinum, he received his Master of Divinity degree. He was ordained a priest in 2005, and he served for two years as the assistant pastor of St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Nicholasville, KY. In 2007, Fr. Tony was assigned to begin traveling and preaching parish retreats. His travels have taken him all over the United States, into Canada, and also to different parts of the Australian Continent. From 2009-2015, he served as the Vocations Director and Student Master for the community. During this time, he also helped out part time in the preaching apostolate of the Congregation. Beginning in August of 2015, he joined the formation faculty at the Athenaeum of Ohio / Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary of the West in Cincinnati, OH, where he currently works at the Director of Field Education, the Director of Pastoral Interns, and assists on the formation faculty.
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One of the fun things to doing growing up was to make a visit to Grandpa and Grandma Stephens’ house. A visit included a trip to the cookie jar, the candy bowl, and stories from Grandpa. Some were tall tales, and those were always fun. The best stories recounted details about family life when he and Grandma were young. Some would revolve around the practice of their Catholic faith in the parishes where they grew up. It was great to receive a little “history lesson” about our extended family, which for me, had the result of deepening my identity as a Catholic Christian from the Great Plains of Kansas.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is does something similar for his audience in Capernaum. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” Capernaum was in Galilee. No one called that region “the Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali” for 700 years. It would be like calling portions of North America, “New France”, which would hearken back to the days prior to the Revolutionary War.
The reference to Zebulun and Naphtali puts Jesus’ listeners in a “historical mindset.” The Jewish tribes of people in Zebulun and Naphtali were the first ones who were deported when the Assyrians invaded 700 years before. For the Jewish people, it was the beginning of the end of the world for them. They had been warned for years not to violate the covenant with God. They were warned not to give in to worship false gods of the pagans, but they gave in to the temptation. Zebulun and Naphtali were the site of the beginning of the purification for Israel’s violation of the covenant with God.
But Jesus promises that “light” will come to Zebulun and Naphtali, and he quotes the prophet Isaiah from chapter 9, verse 2: “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” So Jesus is prophesying about light coming to the lands that had been lost when the covenant was broken 700 years before? What is going on here?
Jesus is stirring His hearers to faith in God’s promise to His Chosen People. He is going to restore something better than an earthly kingdom, some better than the Davidic kingdom. He is going to open for them the way to the kingdom of heaven.
He will need preachers of the Good News of the kingdom of heaven that is at hand. So we see him call Peter, Andrew, James and John in the latter portion of the Gospel reading. Their promptness in following him is edifying. They immediately leave their nets and begin following Christ.
But if Jesus had told them on that first day, “Gentlemen, I want to make you fishers of men. Answering this call, and following me, will entail the following. In this ministry, you’ll be edified by the faith of some, scandalized by the lack of faith of others. Eventually, I’ll be betrayed by one of my close friends, and handed over to the Romans to be crucified. Andrew and Peter, you’ll be crucified as well. James, you’ll have your head chopped off. John, you won’t die a martyr’s death, but you’ll be boiled in hot oil and you’ll suffer the effects of those burns on your body for the rest of your life. “Let’s go be fishers of men! Let’s go restore the kingdom! Are you with me?”
You can imagine the horror on their faces if Jesus had revealed everything that would be required in answering the Call at once. Most likely, they’d have gone and stayed at their nets, and never left.
Jesus knew that if He laid out the whole plan in front of the Apostles, they never would have joined him. But he had to entice them, and Jesus stirred their memories with the history lessons from the past. So he mentioned Zebulun and Naphtali, and He promises that light and renewal will happen where the trouble had started.
We 21st Catholics have the benefit of seeing the witness provided by the early Apostles and early Christians. From our perspective, we see the abundant fruit of apparent failures. Jesus looked like a failure when He preached His most eloquent homily from the cross on Calvary. The other Apostles saw growth from their efforts, even though they were persecuted for their efforts.
We see from the Gospels that God is Father who keeps his promises. Yet we are slow to believe, and even slower to respond to His call. We are not as prompt as we should be when God calls each of us. God knows how little faith we have. God is the consummate gentleman, and in His abundant Mercy, He reveals his plan gently. He knows our weaknesses better than we do. We could not handle the plan all at once, due to our sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness. But God can do a lot with a little good will, if we show Him that we want to follow Him.
Like the Apostles, we need to be prompt in answering His call. Relying on His generous helps, we must not fear to follow Him down any road. Granted, as this plan unfolds, it might be a little bit frightening, as it turned out for the Apostles, and so many Christians down through the generations. Yes, it might involve suffering. In the Second Reading, St. Paul testifies, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”
The Cross? Really? Come on St. Paul…isn’t it enough that I go to Mass every week? Isn’t it enough that I say my prayers every day? And tithe? What is this “cross has meaning” stuff that you’re talking about?
From the day we were baptized, we were marked by the Sign of the Cross. Our communal prayer includes the sign of the cross. Athletes make the sign of the cross, and even Hollywood will work the sign of the cross into movies for dramatic effect, because the sign of the cross is so all pervading and immediately connotes something other-worldly.
As it should. Because we Catholic Christians do not stop with the Cross. We do not stop with Good Friday, but we look through the Cross of Christ to Easter Sunday and beyond. It was by virtue of the Cross that the Kingdom of Heaven has become a possible destination for us in the afterlife.
It is by the power of the cross that we can find some meaning in this life’s sufferings. Because the Jesus Christ dwelled among us for 33 years, and died on the cross for us, He has given even the horrors of human suffering a way to have meaning. When the Son of God entered into the suffering and death of the worst form of execution the Romans had to offer, He opened the possibility that suffering could have merit and value. I say “the possibility that it could have merit and value” because not everyone has faith. Not everyone takes the time to try to see where God might be at work in a particular physical or emotional pain or hurt. That is why it is so important that we give God permission to allow His light and life to shine in the darkness of our lives. ““The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”
Shea, Mark. “Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, Galilee of the Gentiles.” Web blog post. Patheos. 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 Jan. 2017