‘A light to the nations’

| Father Michael Joncas | January 13, 2020 | 0 Comments

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Last weekend’s readings marked both the first Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, concluding the celebration of Christmastide. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that the Gospel for this Sunday is not taken from Matthew (which is the norm for Ordinary Time in Year A) and also recounts John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus in the Gospel of John. Nevertheless the first reading, psalm and Gospel assigned for this weekend all invite us to consider what it means to be the Servant of God.

Isaiah 49:3, 5-6 are verses selected from a longer poem that Scripture scholars have identified as the “Second Song of the Servant of God (YHWH).” Since the nineteenth century scholars have been divided on whether or not the “servant” is an individual (e.g., Hezekiah, Isaiah, Uzziah, Jeremiah, Second Isaiah, Zarubbabel, an anonymous prophet or saint) or a collective (e.g., the people Israel). The literary form of today’s passage is that of a “call narrative,” in which the singer identifies that God has called him for a particular mission, that of a prophet “through whom (God) will show his glory.” The servant-prophet will manifest God’s glory in two ways: 1) by bringing those who have been scattered by exile back to their ancestral home; and 2) by serving as a light to the (Gentile) nations, that they too might share in the salvific promises of God. In this passage we sense a trajectory from understanding God as the God of the patriarchs and their descendants, through that of the God of the 12 tribes, to the universal God who has willed a unique role for Israel in relation to the other peoples of the earth. It is not surprising that Christians would re-interpret this poetic narrative seeing in the conflation of an individual and a collective in the figure of the servant a parallel to the conflation of Jesus and the Church in bringing about God’s saving will for humanity.

The verses chosen from Psalm 40 as today’s responsorial psalm powerfully portray the work of the Servant of God, oriented toward proclaiming God’s message of justice to the “vast assembly.” By singing the antiphon “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will” together in our worship, we are recommitting ourselves both individually and collectively to foster this godly work as Christians.

The Servant Song and the psalm prepare us for John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus in the Gospel (John 1:29-34). Interestingly, the Gospel of John doesn’t present John’s ministry primarily in terms of baptizing the people who came out to him in the Jordan River “for repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” but as a witness to Jesus as the Anointed One. Here he witnesses about Jesus under two headings: 1) Jesus is the “Lamb of God,” a paschal image probably connecting Jesus’ redemptive activity to that of the blood of the Passover lamb that caused the angel of death to pass over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt; and 2) Jesus is the Son of God, the one manifesting in a unique way permanent presence of the Spirit.

Although it might be possible to draw a connection between the call narrative of the prophetic Servant of God in the Isaiah reading and Paul’s self-identification as an apostolic servant of Jesus in the opening material of his First Letter to the Corinthians, it is probably best simply to see this passage as the opening of the Church’s in-course reading of the letter on Sundays until the season of Lent with its own sets of readings.


Sunday, January 19
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Category: Sunday Scriptures