Some alternate readings are optional in liturgical year A, preferred in year B, etc.
The Baptism of the Lord, January 10, 2016
[For the gospel from Matthew, year A]
Last Sunday we heard Matthew's account of the epiphany of the infant Jesus before pagans. This gospel is Matthew's account of the epiphany of the adult Jesus before John the Baptist and other devout Jews.
[For the gospel from Mark, year B]
Saint Mark's gospel begins not with a nativity, but with the adult John the Baptist, preaching in the desert yet drawing great crowds from the cities. They wanted his baptism that "led to the forgiveness of sins."[For the gospel from Luke, year C]
Like the gospel of John, Luke's account addresses a lingering question about the position of John the Baptist and the indisputable memory that Jesus submitted to John's baptism.
Near the end of a desperate period of exile, God calls the Jews to be his servant and gives them an unexpected mission.
A Theological Summary: The passage raises these questions:
Proclaiming It Another Way: Secondly, since this is the feast of the first public manifestation of the mission of the adult Jesus, the lector might try to "get into Jesus' head" as he grappled with this passage in his own heart. Don't assume that Jesus knew the future in detail, and always had a clear career-path in mind. After all, he indisputably submitted to John's baptism. Ask how Jesus "found himself" in this Scripture passage. You might proclaim it as if you were Jesus reading it aloud to himself and mulling it over as he prepares to go public.
* Scholars have called this and three similar passages from this section of Isaiah the Songs of the Suffering Servant. They're about a mysterious figure, who sometimes speaks in the first person, and whom God sometimes addresses. Sometimes the Servant is described as a prophet, sometimes as one whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author's mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. The gospels clearly show that Jesus, and the early church, saw aspects of Jesus' own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs, and the church refers to all of them throughout the liturgical year. Today's is the first Servant Song. The second, Isaiah 49:1-6, we proclaim on the feast of the birth of John the Baptist. On Passion Sunday, we proclaim the third, Isaiah 50:4-7, and on Good Friday, the fourth, Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
When the Judeans returned home after two generations in exile, rebuilding was distressingly slow. The prophet responded with images of hope: good food and drink, a worthy king, prestige among the nations; then a description of the power of the word of God.
Proclaiming It: Isaiah was sure that the exile and the slowness of the recovery from it were punishment for the people's sins. Nor does he doubt God's mercy. To bolster the people's confidence, he prophesies in a set of inspirational images:
As their exile in Babylon ended, the people of Judah prepared to return home. But the journey seemed difficult and frightening. The prophet gave reassuring words. In the last paragraph, the scene changes to nearly empty Jerusalem, where a sentinel sees God leading the exiles home.
The Historical Situation: The people of Israel spent a couple of generations in exile, captives of the Babylonians, from about 600 B.C.E. to 540 B.C.E. The second major part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, concerns the end of this Exile and the return of the captives to their homeland. Today's first reading begins that section.
The Theological Background: Isaiah says that God has told him to tell Jerusalem (that is, the exiled citizens of Jerusalem and their fellow Jews) "that her service is at an end." He means, in effect, that her "sentence" is at an end. The King James Version puts it more strongly: "Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned." However weak or strong the translation, the meaning is that the Exile is over. Isaiah is not shy about saying the Exile was a punishment for sin, but all is forgiven now.
The Poetic Images: The next few sentences describe how the exiles are to return home. The first image is of a grand religious procession from Babylon to Jerusalem. It's not just people who are making the procession, but God as well. (Other ancient people carried idols of their gods on floats in solemn processions; Isaiah, no idolator, imagines God leading the people.) To pave the way, valleys and mountains are to be leveled, and a highway created in the wilderness.
The goal of the exiles is the region known as Judah, and within Judah the city Jerusalem, and within Jerusalem the hill Zion, where their Temple had stood. The last paragraph depicts a lonely sentry who never went to Babylon but waited in Jerusalem, always looking out for the return of the exiles. He finally sees the approach of the procession described above, and he can't contain his joy. He shouts it from the highest hill, "Here comes your God with power!" Then there follows an image in startling contrast, the tender picture of a shepherd cradling lambs.
Proclaiming It: An excellent way to prepare to proclaim this is to listen to the same verses as interpreted by George Frederick Handel, in his oratorio Messiah (1742). Within the first nine short "pieces" of the Messiah, you'll hear all these verses, set to various kinds of music, each appropriate to the text of the verses.
However you prepare, reckon with the rich array of emotions and images. Pause when there's a change in emotion or image. Modulate your voice. To revisit the classical music metaphor, note that Handel didn't render these verses in a single recitative. You shouldn't either. Rather imitate the composer, who wrote several different melodies and assigned them to a wide variety of voices.Pause a long moment before beginning the last paragraph (verse 9), because the scene has changed. Now we're in Jerusalem, or on a hill overlooking it. The character is a sentinel who, after about sixty years of waiting, sees the returning exiles come over the horizon, God marching at their head. The watchman cannot contain his excitement!
In separate visions, God has called Peter the Jewish Christian apostle and Cornelius the pagan centurion to meet each other. It's an unlikely pairing and it breaks old precedents.
Proclaiming It: For Peter, it wasn't meditation on Isaiah 42 that proved this. It was his relationship with Jesus, and his meditation on Jesus' life, from his baptism through his resurrection. So proclaim this like Peter delivered it originally, with the conviction of one who has had the "Aha!" experience, who finally sees it all clearly.
For a community divided by false teaching, the writer gives a clear teaching that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. He asserts that holding the correct faith makes it possible for believers to love each other properly.
To the best of our knowledge, the original recipients of the first letter of John were specific Christian communities,
The inspired writer, of course, wants to ease the pains caused by these rifts, and assure his readers that the saving truth is open to them and clear.
|Examining the verses of the reading in this light, we notice:|
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God,|
and everyone who loves the father loves [also] the one begotten by him. In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.
|Believing the correct teaching about Jesus (point 5, above) lets you become God's child. Thus you're prepared to love God's other children (point 11).|
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments.|
And his commandments are not burdensome,
|The heretics claimed special knowledge of the things of God (item 9, above). The writer refutes them by stating that the commands of God are clear to all and quite possible to obey.|
for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.
Who [indeed] is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
||In other words, holding the correct belief about point 6 enables one to prevail in the world.|
|So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord.|
If we accept human testimony, the testimony of God is surely greater.
Now the testimony of God is this, that he has testified on behalf of his Son.
|In the ancient Middle East, where status and honor were valued above all else, deceit was common, and so was skepticism. So people commonly invoked every possible witness to confirms the truth of their assertions. Here the author backs up his teaching with testimony of three witnesses.|
Proclaiming It: Every time I've written about how to proclaim a passage from 1 John, I've emphasized reading it s-l-o-w-l-y. That holds today. It would also help to break the reading with pauses well placed after discrete thoughts, almost sentence by sentence. Read it to yourself often, so you know where the logical breaks are. Don't be surprised to find this a daunting passage to proclaim; The writer was a poetic mystic, and his every paragraph is packed with meanings that you could fruitfully plumb for years.
François_Rude, The Baptism of Christ, in La Madeleine (Church of the Magdalen), Paris. Click here for the Wikipedia article about the sculptor. This photo is compressed from an image on the blog of Kate Ballbach, who calls herself "an American monolingual living in Luxembourg."
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated December 16, 2015