By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 49:3, 5-6; Response: Psalm 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; Gospel: John 1:29-34
The Ordinary Sundays of Year A begin with a reading from that part of Isaiah called Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah). The oracles of this prophet are found in Chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah. This unnamed prophet was sent by God to the Israelites in exile in Babylon (today Iraq) about 540 B.C. These oracles were added by editors to the oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem found in chapters 1-39. Among the oracles attributed to Second Isaiah are four poems that are called Songs of the Servant of the Lord (or Suffering Servant Songs). The question has always been, “Who is this Servant of the Lord, of whom the songs sing?” Several identities are suggested. The most compelling possibilities: Israel as a people and/or the prophet Second Isaiah himself. While the four poems do not clearly describe the Servant as Israel, they seem to be describing the activity and fate of this unnamed prophet. Christian interpretation of the four poems, from the New Testament on, interprets them as predictive of the conception, birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Today’s first reading is the second of these poems. It is an example of how the poem seems to move from identifying the Servant as Israel, then to an individual prophet. It begins, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.’” The next sentence no longer seems to refer to Israel as a people, but to an individual. “Now the Lord has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, that Jacob (Israel) may be brought back to him, and Israel gathered to him.” The prophet, like St. Paul centuries later, “boasts in the Lord … and I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord, and my God is not my strength.” Next, the Lord seems troubled by an implied objection from the prophet to his vocation. Such objections are standard for prophets. The Lord replies, “Is it too little for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, to restore the survivors of Israel?” The Lord dangles an enticement before the prophet: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Psalm 40 expresses the gratitude of the psalmist for finally having prayers answered after a long wait. God seems to have had a hearing problem, so that, “He bent down toward me and heard my cry.” Not uncommon among the ancient! The Lord gave the psalmist a new song, a hymn that surprisingly belittles the system of animal sacrifices. In its place is the practice of obedience to God’s will. The psalmist approves in the response of the people, “Here am I, Lord. I come to do your will.” In the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:5-9), this psalm is quoted at length to express the obedience of Jesus to the will of his heavenly Father. And by Jesus’ gift of his will, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all,” thus replacing the Old Testament sacrifices of the “blood of bulls and goats” to take away sins.
The second reading begins St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul had spent at least 18 months with this community of Christians in the province of Achaia in southern Greece sometime between the years 50-53 A.D. He had returned across the sea to probably Ephesus in southwest Asia Minor (Turkey today). There, he received reports by letter and from visitors in person from Corinth. These revealed problems on which they wanted his advice. We shall encounter some of those problems on ensuing Sundays. In today’s reading, he begins with an insistence on being a genuine apostle “of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” something that was under attack by critics in Corinth. Paul greets his Christians: “Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Though the gospel readings of Year A are mostly taken from Matthew, sometimes we detour through the Gospel of John, as we do on this Sunday. The context: the ministry of John the Baptizer. The locality: somewhere along the Jordan River, east or west bank, where there was sufficient water for baptizing. The gospel begins, “John the Baptizer saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’” This introduction is similar to the story of John baptizing Jesus in the other three gospels. The difference: in the Gospel of John, the Baptizer does not baptize Jesus. What’s going on? A peculiarity of John’s gospel is that the author sometimes alludes to an event in the life of Jesus only by noting its effects. For example, John’s gospel does not give us the words of institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In John 6:51-58, however, the author gives us a detailed meaning of what the Eucharist is and what it does. In John 13:5-15 he gives additional instruction through the ritual of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Here, the author omits the baptism but tells us what happened in Jesus’ baptism. At that moment Jesus began what he would complete on the cross — taking away the sin of the world.
The Gospel of John does retain a major element of the baptismal story in the other gospels — the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism. The Baptizer notes that his own baptism was a baptism with water, and that he saw the Spirit come down upon Jesus. The meaning given to this descent of God’s Spirit upon Jesus: “He is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Thus, the author of the gospel proclaims Christian baptism superior to the baptism John administered. John’s baptismal practice paved the way for Christian baptism. Apologetics is at play here because, when the gospels were composed, the disciples of the long-dead Baptizer were still claiming that their master was the real Messiah. Another major teaching in this brief gospel reading, and more apologetics, is the superiority of Jesus over the Baptizer. We see it in his statement, “One is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” But the author is not content with this proclamation of Jesus’ divine status. Therefore, he adds at the end of today’s gospel, “Now I have seen and borne witness that he is the Son of God.” A good example of how catechetics and apologetics were done in and by our gospels.