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: I Corinthians 1:1-3; Gospel: John 1:29-34
Last Sunday’s first reading for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord was Isaiah 42:1-7. The Message column for this feast gave an explanation of that reading as one of four poems or songs relating in poetic form the origin and ministry of a mysterious figure called the Servant of the Lord. The poems are found in that part of Isaiah called Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55. This Sunday’s first reading, Isaiah 49:3, 5-6, is from the second of those four poems. It was pointed out in last week’s Message column on the Sunday readings that the identity of the Servant of the Lord is not always clear. Sometimes the Servant is Israel as a people or nation. In other instances the Servant seems to be an individual prophet. Since his name is unknown, and because ancient editors combined this prophet’s oracles with those of Isaiah of Jerusalem, he is known as Second Isaiah. When the poems do not explicitly identify Israel as the Servant, they may be describing the activity of Second Isaiah himself. Christian interpretation however understands them as predictive of the conception, birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. And that is the reason for selecting them as readings for the liturgy.
Today’s first reading begins, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.’” Undoubtedly this part refers to the Israelites collectively as the Servant of the Lord. The next verse no longer seems to refer to Israel, since the Servant is said to have been formed in the womb “that Jacob may be brought back” to the Lord. “Jacob” is a synonym for Israel. The prophet receives a commission “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel.” The last verse could refer to Israel or to an individual prophet, “I will make you a light to the nations (Gentiles), that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Poetry by its nature can be confusing and can have more than one interpretation. Whatever identity of the Servant was in the prophet’s mind, for our liturgy he was speaking about Jesus.
The Responsorial Psalm 40 was composed as a song of praise and a desperate prayer for help. The verses selected for the Response are intended by the liturgy to refer to Jesus Christ just as the first reading was given a new meaning pointing to Jesus as the Servant of the Lord, whose life and ministry is centered on doing the will of God. A new song or hymn is put into the mouth of the Psalmist. That song: “Here am I Lord, I come to do your will.” The thoughts of this Psalm become a theme in the Gospel of John when Jesus repeatedly refers to his mission as “to do the will of him who sent me.” See John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38-40. See especially Hebrews 10:5-9 for the influence this Psalm had on the formation of the theology of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial offering.
The Second Reading is from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the three verses that begin the letter. On the Sundays of Ordinary Time the second reading is not usually connected in theme to the first reading and the gospel selection. That’s how it is on this Sunday. Paul had a long and sometimes troubled relationship with the Christians at Corinth in Greece. This becomes clear when we read the whole letter, but there is no shadow of trouble in this introduction. They knew Paul from his ministry at Corinth. He identifies himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” because his right to the name apostle was disputed at Corinth. He addresses the Corinthians as “the church of God that is in Corinth.” He proclaims them “sanctified (baptized?) in Christ Jesus,” and “called to be holy,” with all Christians. He wishes them grace and peace as a remedy for the troubles about which we hear in next Sunday’s second reading.
From time to time the liturgy will take leave of the gospel which dominates a given year and take a detour through the Gospel of John, as it does on this Sunday. We are situated in the ministry of John the Baptizer. The locality is somewhere along the east or west bank of the Jordan where John happened to be baptizing at the time. He greets Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Why “Lamb of God?” This metaphor is clearly intended as a sacrificial term, since the Lamb, “takes away the sin of the world.” The meaning of this symbol for John the Baptizer and what it meant to the author of the gospel may be different. The Baptizer, being acquainted with the oracles of Isaiah, could have been thinking of the fourth Servant Song, Isaiah 53:7, 10. There the Servant is said to have been “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, when he makes himself an offering for sin.” For John, the author of the gospel, Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb. In the time of Jesus, the slaying of the Passover Lamb, at least in Jerusalem, was done at noon in the temple by the priests — thus giving the slaying of the lambs a sacrificial meaning. The spilling of the blood was seen as an act of atonement for sin. Thus the Gospel of John depicts Jesus condemnation to death at noon on Passover Eve.
The Baptizer is depicted as recognizing Jesus’ superiority over himself, “A man is coming after me who ranks before me, because he existed before me.” In case a reader or hearer did not understand what this meant, at the end of this gospel reading, the Baptizer says, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” In last Sunday’s gospel commentary it was noted that Matthew changed the original story of Jesus’ baptism as it was found in the Gospel of Mark. The Marcan Jesus simply approaches the Baptizer and submits to baptism. In Matthew’s version, the Baptizer objects, but Jesus commands him to “Just do it!” Luke is even stranger. John is imprisoned by Herod Antipas before Jesus comes to the Jordan for baptism. Luke never tells us who baptized Jesus. Both are trying to weaken the fact that Jesus, the sinless one, submitted to John’s baptism for forgiveness of sins. (See last week’s commentary on Jesus’ baptism.) John’s gospel, still later, when the divinity of Jesus was emphasized more and more, deletes any reference to John baptizing Jesus. He does however retain the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus.