The film 12 Years A Slave, tipped to win the Oscars this year, is a harrowing account of the inhuman treatment of slaves by their owners, made starker by the fact that its hero was a free man living a normal life in New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Many of its scenes are brutal and hard to watch, but perhaps the most shocking thing is that the slave-owners read the Bible to their slaves and believe that the Scriptures justify their ownership and even their cruel and degrading punishments.
This film is set in the nineteenth century, but according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 20.9 million men, women and children around the world are in slavery today. In the 21st century people are still sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and at the complete mercy of their ’employers’. The media have recently brought to our attention ‘modern slavery’ here in the UK, which takes many different forms, including forced labour, debt bondage, human trafficking and the exploitation of children. Pope Francis has joined his voice to the outcry against all these forms of slavery.
This is one example of the darkness which oppresses many people in our world, a darkness which can only be banished by the true light of the Gospel. The images in our first reading, echoed by Jesus in the Gospel, speak powerfully of liberation: the people that sat in darkness have seen a great light, the yoke that was weighing on them, the rod of their oppressor – these you break.
The effect of the liberating light of Christ is gladness, joy, and rejoicing. This is the Good News Jesus came to bring. It is the mission he called his disciples to share, but through the centuries his followers have often distorted the truth, divided into factions and hidden the light of Christ. Pope Francis is calling us to hear the word ‘Repent’, to go back to our roots, to help the Church move into a new phase of Christianity more faithful to Christ, to live with a new awareness of being followers of Christ. He asks us to pray for a new heart for the church, so that we may help to bring the light of Christ wherever there is darkness.