Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Afterglow of the Baptism: 2nd Sunday of OT

The Second Sunday of OT is one of those “unofficial” feast days in the Church’s calendar, which aren’t given a name, but due to the Readings that always occur on them, have a unique and particular character to them.  The Second Sunday of OT might be called “Afterglow Sunday,” and every third year it is the “Feast of the Wedding at Cana.”   

Why is this? The Readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time this year are like a “holy hangover” from the Feasts of Epiphany and Baptism that we celebrated last week.  Traditionally, three events of our Lord’s life have been celebrated clumped together around January 6, between the Christmas season and the transition to ordinary time.  These are the arrival of the magi (Epiphany), the Baptism, and the Wedding at Cana.  These are the three events in the various Gospels that “manifest” or show forth Jesus’ glory at the beginning of his life or career: the Magi in Matthew, the Baptism in Mark and Luke, and the Wedding at Cana in John.   

In the modern lectionary, the Sunday after the Baptism is always devoted to the events immediately after the Baptism as recorded in John 1:29–2:11.  The most dramatic of these events, the Wedding at Cana, is read only in Year C.  This is Year A, and following the Feast of the Baptism last Sunday, we now read the reflection on the momentous event from the mouth of John the Baptist, as recorded in the Gospel of John.  The Readings for this Mass focus on the role of Jesus as God’s definitive Servant, come to show the glory and salvation of God to the whole world.

1. The First Reading is Is 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.

By some scholars’ reckoning, Isaiah 49:1-13 (from which we read excerpts) is the fifth of the famous “servant songs” of Isaiah.  These songs are poetic compositions that describe the role and the attributes of a mysterious character identified only as the “servant of the LORD.”  All the servant songs are in the second half of Isaiah (Is 40-66), and there have been a few of them already in Isaiah 40–48. Now, in Isaiah 49, for the first time, the “servant of the LORD” himself speaks (49:1-4), recounting the words of the LORD by which the LORD commissioned him.  Although his efforts seem in vain, their ultimate success is guaranteed by the LORD (v. 4) who has formed the servant in order to “gather Israel to him” (v. 5) and also spread His salvation to all the “nations,” the “ends of the earth” (vv. 5-6).  The servant is “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,” but ultimately will receive the homage of the kings of the earth (v. 7).  The LORD reiterates the servant’s mission as a “covenant to the people” (v. 8), and, like Moses of old, he will have a primary role in releasing the people from bondage, leading them through the desert with provision of food and drink, and apportioning the land (vv.8-13).

In the verses of this song that we read in Mass, we can see that the Servant is, on the one hand, called “Israel.”  Yet, he cannot simply be a personification of the nation of Israel, because he is sent to “bring back Israel and gather Jacob,” to “raise up the tribes of Jacob.”  How can it be that the same figure is called “Israel” and yet is sent to restore Israel?  This only works if the servant is a representative figure—either the king or the high priest, or perhaps both.  In the ancient world, kingship was sacred, and the king embodied the people.  This attitude was reflected as recently as the early modern period, during the age of absolute monarchy, when Louis XIV of France (the “Sun King”) famously said, “L’etat, c’est moi,”  “The state, it is me!”  That was a bold claim in Louis XIV’s day, but in the ancient Near East, that was true of virtually every king and kingdom.  The king was the state.  In the case of Israel, the son of David was the nation.  He was Israel.  The “servant of the LORD” in Isaiah is a royal figure, and reading the book canonically, we can figure out that he is the Son of David promised in chapters 9 and 11.

The servant is “Israel, through whom I show my glory,” picking up the glory theme that is so prevalent in the aftermath of Epiphany.  But the servant is also sent as the savior of the world, “so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”  We see this reflected in the preaching of John the Baptist.  John looks suspiciously like an Essene who was kicked out of the order, because the Jewish historian Josephus records similar excommunicated persons living off the land in the wilderness. (See discussion in my new book, Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Revealing the Jewish Roots of Christianity [Penguin Random House, 2019]).   

Why would John have been kicked out of the Essenes?  One possibility is that he wanted to take the good news to the Gentiles.  We see John preaching to Roman soldiers in Luke, for example.  The Essenes had no use for Gentiles, even though the prophets of Israel foresaw salvation being offered to them.  Maybe John became convicted in his heart from reading Isaiah that God wanted to save the Gentiles.  That became a point of contention with the rest of the Essenes, and they expelled him from their community at Qumran.

Jesus is the Isaianic servant who comes with salvation for the nations.  There is no other savior besides him.  We may have respect for other great moral teachers and founders of religion who have graced the history of civilization: Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, Socrates, Ghandi.  But none of them taught the morality of self-sacrificial love like Jesus, none of them claimed to be divine, and none offered his life in atonement for the sins of the world.  Only he can save us from our sins.  The others, wise though they were, can’t even correctly identify what our sins are, much less save us from them.  

P. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10 :

R. (8a and 9a) Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I have waited, waited for the LORD,
and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
And he put a new song into my mouth,
a hymn to our God.
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, "Behold I come."
R. Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.
"In the written scroll it is prescribed for me,
to do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!"
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.

This Psalm echoes themes from our First Reading.  It is as if the Servant is also speaking here.  It is described as a Psalm of David, and the Isaianic servant is also a royal Davidic figure, so there is a profound correlation.  

David was remembered in Israel’s history for the intensity of his relationship with the LORD, an intensity captured in the deeply personal and emotional language of so many of the psalms.  David uses strong language to emphasize that merely going through the formalities of worship does not satisfy God’s will for us:

Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, “Behold I come.”

The words are not to be taken strictly literally—both Samuel and David worshipped God in the public liturgy and offered sacrifices as prescribed by Moses.  But external worship is not pleasing without the interior and personal consent of our will.  Obedience to God’s will, the embrace of his purpose for our life—these are fundamental:

To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!

This verse dispels instantly the false notions of God’s law that are so prevalent in Church and society nowadays.  God’s law is often falsely contrasted with faith, such that the two seem in opposition.  If anyone speaks up in defense of the moral law of God, or stresses the need to follow it, that person is labeled a “Pharisee,” some kind of religious sociopath who gets delight in telling others what they ought not to do.  So parents, teachers, and priests are afraid to talk about morality and the ten commandments, because even high figures and leaders of the Church appear to promote a view of God which separates love and faith from obedience to the law.

How different was David’s experience of God’s law!  For him, the law of God was delightful, like a path of safety marked out before him in the treacherous terrain of this world.  God’s law taught David what was truly helpful, healthy, and good, so he could see it clearly and desire it.  For David, God’s law was the path of love: it showed him clearly how he could express and maintain his love toward God.  So David writes, “To do your will is my delight!  Your law is within my heart!”

How wonderful it would be if Christians today were to rediscover that God’s law, in all its expressions, is an expression of his love and a pathway to love for him!  Sin is never loving or helpful.  It may appear to be sometimes, but it is an illusion, a mirage.  Furthermore, God’s mercy does not simply condone our sin, and then leave us in it.  God’s mercy empowers us to leave a life of sin and walk in God’s ways, which are pleasant, wholesome, and just.  God’s law provides us the parameters and instructions for entering into and maintaining a relationship of intimacy with him.  That is why David connects God’s law with the heart: “your law is within my heart!”  In so saying, David anticipates the New Covenant, where God’s law will be written on the heart through the Holy Spirit.  So Jeremiah says “this is the covenant which I will make … after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it up their hearts.” 

However, the fact that the law is written on the heart and not on tablets of stone emphatically does not mean that it is less demanding!  Far from it!  Let us read the Sermon on the Mount and ponder: again and again Jesus emphasizes that the law of the new covenant, the law of love written on the heart, goes beyond what was written on the tablets of stone.  The stone tablets forbade murder, but the law of the heart forbids even insults.  The stone tablets forbade adultery, but the law of the heart forbids even lustful glances. 

We believe that the law is written on our  hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation.  St. Paul mentions the sanctifying effects of these sacraments in the Second Reading:

2. Our Second Reading is 1 Cor 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.

St. Paul speaks of the Christians at Corinth as having been “sanctified” in Christ Jesus, and “called to be holy.”  This is the principle re-articulated at Vatican II that we refer to as “the universal call to holiness.”  Prior to Vatican II, there was confusion, at least at the level of common Catholic culture, about whether holiness was even possible for people who did not enter the religious life.  The common understanding was that, if you married and raised a family, you would never reach sanctity (unless you entered the religious state in your old age!).  This was never official taught by the Church, however, and many saints had spoken against it—notably St. Francis de Sales, but surely many others. 
Vatican II re-emphasized that all Christians are called to holiness by their baptism.  All are called to strive to become canonizable saints.  It is not hubris to make this our goal: nothing less befits our baptismal calling. 

In light of this, it is a shame that in contemporary discourse in the Church, there seems to be a reversion to pre-Vatican II ideas, and an unwillingness to challenge the laity—and sometimes even the clergy—to lead holy lives.  The attitude among many seems to be that even basic sexual morality—such as reserving sexual relations for marriage, and then only within marriage—are “superhuman” goals suitable only for a few very devout persons.  Of course, this is not true.  In previous generations and in other cultures today, even persons outside the Church have practiced basic sexual morality, as well as many other human virtues.  To observe external sexual morals does not even require the gift of the Holy Spirit.  What we expect of the “average Catholic” is so far below what is possible through the Holy Spirit!  Moreover, we must remember that holiness correlates with true happiness.  Holiness is not a restraint that prevents us from having fun, but a dynamic freedom that enables us to love in a profuse way, to love like God loves.

G. The Gospel is 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.”

Jesus comes “to take away the sin of the world,” not just “to take away the punishment for the sin of the world.”  Jesus comes to give us the power not to sin (1 John 3:5-6).  Sin itself is hell.  Sin is turning away from God, and separation from God is hell.  There is no saving from hell that is not also saving from sin.  To be saved from hell but to keep on sinning is an oxymoron. One can’t be in God’s presence (Heaven) while continually choosing not-God (Hell). Thus, we can’t be content with sinful habits.  We have to let the Spirit in us drive them out, and seek the help of the sacraments.

The spirit came down and “remained on him.”  This calls to mind the anointing of David in 1 Sam 16, on whom the Spirit came mightily “from that day forward” (v. 13), in other words, it remained on him.  The Spirit coming down and remaining on Jesus marks him out as the heir of David.  John the Baptist, the prophet, plays the role of Samuel, who anointed the first David.  This Gospel announces Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of the Davidic royal servant, the one who is “Israel.”  Just as Israel washed in the waters of the Jordan symbolically when they crossed into the promised land under the first Joshua (Y’shua, Jesus), so this second Joshua (Y’shua, Jesus) comes to enter the Jordan once more, and lead us all to the promised land of heaven.  This is done primarily through baptism, in which we, as Christians, are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, which gives us power to become children of God, and to live lives of holiness, not continual defeat.

Of course, concupiscence in us (sometimes called ‘the flesh’ in the New Testament) resists the workings of the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes we have to struggle to put down that resistance.  The means remain the same through the centuries: prayer, self-denial (mortification), the sacraments (especially confession), and the support of the Christian community (pastors, fellow Christians, ecclesial movements, sometimes specialized counselors).  These means God, in his goodness, provides to us in order that we may learn docility to the Spirit and the holiness (and happiness!) of a life lead by Him.  

Want to see the place where Jesus was baptized, and the ruins of the monastery where John the Baptist may have been raised?  I'm going June 14-23 of this year!  All day, every day I'll be teaching on site in Israel as we travel around together, praying and worshiping at the Holy Sites!  I'd love to have you join me.  We got a second bus and now have room for late registrations—information is here:

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