Jan 19, 2020: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

i-will-make-you-a-light-to-the-nations

1st Reading – Isaiah 49:3, 5-6

The LORD said to me: You are my servant,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

This week’s first reading is the second of four passages (42:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) traditionally known as the Servant Songs of Isaiah. (Last week’s first reading was the first servant song.) They describe poetically the person (or nation) that will bring people to an awareness of God’s power, justice, and love.

In order to fully appreciate the hope that Isaiah was offering the exiles in today’s reading we must understand just how traumatic the Babylonian exile was for the Israelites. Not only did they lose their king, their kingdom, and their temple, but their whole self-concept as God’s chosen people was challenged. After all, God had promised to protect them, telling David that his kingdom would be secure forever. What then was the meaning of this present horrible experience?

The LORD said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Although Christians see the fulfillment of these prophecies in Jesus Christ, the actual identity of this servant is quite mysterious. The explicit mention of Israel creates a difficulty for those who interpret the Servant as an individual — but that causes its own confusion because in the next verse the servant will be called to gather back together Israel.

The text states that through Israel, God will be glorified (pā’ar).  This verb suggests a kind of boasting, indicating that God will boast though Israel.

For now the LORD has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, that Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him;

This use of Israel creates a difficulty for those who interpret the servant as a nation. How can the servant nation have a mission to itself?

Because the servant is said to have been formed as a servant from the womb, which is reminiscent of the call of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), some think the servant is Isaiah himself.

Since the precise identity of this individual is unknowable, we can only concentrate on his mission.

and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength! It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob,

The twelve tribes of Israel were named after the sons of Jacob (who himself was renamed Israel by God in Genesis 35:10). It was these tribes who settled the Promised Land after the exodus from Egypt.

and restore the survivors of Israel;

The reason for God’s boasting through Israel seems to be a show of strength in regathering them. This indicates that they are some distance from their home; they are scattered.  This is probably a reference to Exile.  It will be the mission of the servant, whoever that is, to bring them back to the Lord.

The spectacular return of the scattered exiles and their reestablishment as a people will be seen as the work of God.  This is the cause of the boasting mentioned earlier: the glory that will shine forth will not be in their own accomplishments but in what God has accomplished in them through the agency of the servant.

I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

The hope that Isaiah offers the exiles is that through their suffering, God is not only bringing the tribes of Jacob and the survivors of Israel back to covenant love, but he will also make Israel a light to other nations. That is, the mission of the servant is not only the restoration of Israel but also the conversion of the world.

It is noteworthy that a people struggling with its own survival after defeat should envision its God as concerned with the salvation of all, presumably even the nation at whose hands it suffered. Yet this is precisely what “light to the nations” suggests.

In light of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, Isaiah’s suffering servant songs have a level of meaning not originally understood by the prophet. The suffering servant songs gave early Christians the concepts and vocabulary to come to terms with the mystery of a suffering messiah. They understood that Jesus is the Lamb of God and the light to the nations.

God’s promise to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:1-3

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
and Sosthenes our brother,
to the church of God that is in Corinth,
to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy,
with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each year in the span of Ordinary Time between Christmas and Lent, the Church embarks on a study of Paul first letter to the Corinthians.  This year, in Cycle A, we will study the first four chapters.

In Paul’s time, Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaia and the seat of the Roman proconsul. Julius Caesar built it (44 BC) on the ruins of a Greek city of the same name. It had two ports, one on the Aegean Sea and one on the Gulf of Lepanto. Its excellent geographical position soon made it a prominent center of commerce, with a much higher standard of living than its neighbors. Like many prosperous port cities, it was also a place of moral degradation.

Saint Paul established a Christian community at Corinth during his second missionary journey (50-52 AD). He preached the gospel there for a year and a half, aided by Silas and Timothy.

Saint Paul was in Ephesus when influential Corinthians brought him a letter in which they and others asked for guidance on matters they found problematic. The messengers likely explained and expanded on the information contained in the letter, asking him to go quickly to Corinth. Saint Paul delayed going to Corinth, in order to give everyone more time for reflection and repentance; this is why he wrote his first letter shortly before Easter 57. Unlike his letter to the Romans, it is not a doctrinal treatise, but an acknowledgment of their letter and answers to the various concerns they presented.

In dealing with the various moral and practical issues, Saint Paul imparts invaluable teaching about Christ as the Wisdom of God, the Church as the body of Christ, and the gifts of the Spirit in the Christian community.

In today’s reading, Paul follows the conventional form for the opening of a Hellenistic letter (see also Romans 1:1-7), but expands the opening with details carefully chosen to remind the readers of their situation and to suggest some of the issues the letter will discuss.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

Paul is establishing his credentials; he is an authentic apostle, like the twelve, by virtue of his divine call. The word “apostle” means one who is sent by another. Strictly speaking, an apostle is more than a disciple or follower; it is one who carries the full authority of the sender.

Note that Paul’s mission (and the church’s existence, actually) are grounded in God’s initiative. God’s call, grace, and fidelity are central ideas in this introduction, emphasized by repetition and wordplays in Greek.

In a very real sense, this official greeting is a proclamation of faith by Paul.

and Sosthenes our brother,

“Our brother” indicates that Sosthenes is a Christian well known to the Corinthians. It may or may not be the Sosthenes of Acts 18:17, but nothing suggests his conversion and the name was quite common.

to the church of God that is in Corinth,

Paul uses the Greek word ekklesia (“assembly”) to designate a local church, denoting unity. The Septuagint used ekklesia to translate the Hebrew qahal, a term applied to the assembly of Israelites, particularly in their desert wanderings (Deuteronomy 23:2). Although they constitute a local church, as part of the ekklesia, they are part of a much larger congregation, an assembly consisting of all those who profess faith in the name of Jesus, the Lord.

In other words, the Christian community is beginning to transcend local barriers; the Church is outside and larger than just Corinth.

to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus,

That is, those who have been incorporated by baptism into the Body of Christ.

Notice how in the three short verses of this reading, we can see the outline of Paul’s christology.  He never uses Jesus’ personal name without also identifying him as Christ, the anointed one.  He also professes that Jesus is the source of the sanctification and well-being of others.

called to be holy,

Christians are the Body of Christ and therefore called to holiness, just as Israel was a holy nation by divine election (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9).

with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

Again, the Corinthians are not the only Christians; they are members of a much larger body. Paul is nudging them gently to exercise humility, as we will see later in his letter.

Grace to you and peace

“Grace and peace” is a combination of Greek and Jewish greetings. Grace means “blessing” or “gift”; peace (shalom in Hebrew) is a wish for all good things.

from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

An expression of faith, acknowledging that all good things come from God, whom Paul calls Father, and from Jesus who is Lord and Christ.

Gospel – John 1:29-34

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

In each of the three cycles in the lectionary, Ordinary Time begins with a reading from John’s gospel. In each case, John the Baptist directs discipleship away from himself and toward Jesus.

In this reading, John gives his interpretation of Jesus’ baptism. The gospel writer assumes that the reader knows the synoptic baptism story (which were written years earlier) because he doesn’t recount it, he pictures John the Baptist recalling it.

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Catholics recognize this verse from the Communion Rite. At every Mass the priest repeats the Baptist’s wonderful words, confirming our faith in Christ’s presence in the Holy Eucharist.

John is the only gospel writer that refers to Jesus as “the Lamb.” While the background for this title may also be the Passover (Paschal) lamb, whose blood saved Israel (Exodus 12), the statement that he “takes away the sin of the world” favors the primary interpretation of the Lamb of God as the Servant of the Lord, who was led like a lamb to the slaughter as a sin offering (Isaiah 53:7-10). The Passover lamb had no connection with sin but rather protected the Israelites from destruction.

It’s possible that both meanings (Paschal lamb and Isaian servant) are implied.

He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’

Some Jewish traditions claimed that the Messiah was created by God at the beginning of time and was therefore pre-existent (see Micah 5:2[1], Psalm 110:3). This corresponds with our Christian understanding of the pre-existence of Jesus (John 1:1-5).

I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”

John certainly knew that Jesus was his cousin, but he had not known that Jesus was the Messiah, even though the express purpose of his baptizing had been to prepare men for the Messiah’s coming.

John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him.

This testimony confirms that the theophany (appearance of God to man) at the baptism was an objective event and not merely a private experience of Jesus.

Note that the Christian revelation of the Holy Spirit as a distinct person in the Godhead had not yet been received — John the Baptist understood the Spirit in the Old Testament sense, as signifying God’s vital power in the new creation (Genesis 8:8) or the community of Israel (Hosea 11:11).

Jesus was never without the Holy Spirit, but in order that we would recognize the truth of the Incarnation, his divine glory was not always visible during his earthly life. At Christ’s baptism, when the dove is seen and the Father’s voice is heard, his divine sonship and union with the Father and the Holy Spirit are shown. A similar glimpse is granted at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, before the Passion.

These mysteries of Christ’s life give us confidence that our union with the Blessed Trinity by sanctifying grace is a stable reality, even when we don’t feel it, when we experience the cross, or when God seems to be far away.

I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’

It troubled John that he hadn’t immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah, as evidenced by his twice stating “I did not know him.”  This highlights the ordinariness of Jesus.

How did John eventually recognize Jesus? His enlightenment was of divine origin, when God revealed it to him and he saw heaven pay its tribute.

Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

Although at this point in the gospel narrative, Jesus is obviously still alive, the christology represented here is clearly resurrectional.  While John may well have perceived Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic expectations, it is unlikely he would have expressed his faith in Christian theological terms, as shown here.  He would certainly consider the Messiah as ranking ahead of him; however, like the good Jew he was, John would probably not refer to Jesus as the Son of God.  That is a Christian title.  The writer of the gospel has given John the faith we now profess.

Connections and Themes

A man of history. Ours is a historical religion. It not only unfolds within the joys and disappointments of time and place, but it is rooted in actual events that took place in the lives of real people. The Christ to whom we commit ourselves is not a mythical character, a figment of communal religious imagination. He is someone who was born into history, at a specific period of time, in a particular place. He was known by real people like John the Baptist; he submitted himself to historical rituals like baptism. He had followers who testified to the truth of both his existence and his life. Jesus was a man of history.

What does this tell us? It tells us that history is important. It tells us that the ordinary events of life are sacred. Too often we look for the extraordinary, the spectacular, and we fail to appreciate the God-filled familiar moments of the day. Actually, it is within these moments that our salvation unfolds. It is within these moments that we love those in our lives with the love of God that we treat others with the compassion of God. We preach the gospel through the way we live these moments. The Buddhists speak of mindfulness, the deep living into the moment of life. The gospels show that Jesus’ life was one of mindfulness. If we are to be his disciples, we too must learn to be mindful of the sacredness of our own history

Called to be an apostle. Paul situates the gospel squarely within the Corinthian church. It is a different time than the time of Jesus; It is a different place in a different culture. A sense the message is the same because it is grounded in the life and teaching of Jesus. The challenge Paul faces is the interpretation of the gospel of Jesus for a new historical moment. He does not merely repeat what he has heard. Because of the sacredness of the present moment of the Corinthians, Paul reinterprets the message for their unique time.

Like Paul, we too have been called to be apostles. We received this call when we were baptized. At times it seems our own apostleship is no less daunting than was Paul’s; however, it is no less immediate either. Whether the period of history is the first half of the first century, as was the time of Jesus, the second half, as was the time of Paul, or the twenty-first century, as is our time, salvation unfolds within the events of time. Furthermore, the followers of Jesus always returned to the events of his life in order to discover the meaning of the events in their lives. These past events are reinterpreted in the ongoing present.  Discipleship is never otherworldly.

The Servant of the Lord.  Jesus was not only the Lamb of God, he was the Servant of the Lord as well.  He came to unite all people, to bring new life to those who suffer defeat, to be a light to the nations.  Paul’s apostleship moves the servant ministry of Jesus forward into the Gentile world.  It is now our turn to step into the role of servant: to work to unite families that have been torn apart, to bring new life to those on the brink of despair, to be a light in the midst of darkness. We all know situations in our very ordinary lives to which we can bring the saving grace of God.  In this way, we too can testify that Jesus is the Son of God.