|To the home page|
of Lector's Notes
The Baptism of the Lord, Year C, January 11, 2004
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.
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.
Our Liturgical Setting: The various "appearings" of the Word of God made Flesh in the world have been much on our liturgical minds for the past several weeks. We ended the last liturgical year at the waning of autumn, with readings about Jesus' appearing in glory at the end of history. We carried that theme into December on the first two Sundays of Advent. We briefly considered Jesus' appearing in human form at his birth, and then his appearance to visiting magi. We may have touched on that touching story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, appearing remarkably learned before the doctors of the Law. In today's gospel, he appears at the beginning of his public ministry; at his baptism, the Holy Spirit appears, too, and the voice of the Father is heard.
Today's first reading speaks of the appearing of Jesus, not in narrative terms but in terms of its theological consequences. Indeed, what has already appeared is not named Jesus, but "the grace of God" and "the kindness and generous love of God our savior." The appearing of Jesus named in this reading is the appearing for which we still wait, his appearing in glory at the end of time.
The Historical Situation: Among the congregation served by the early bishop Titus were Christians who believed they had to practice the laws of Judaism, and impose those laws on pagan converts to Christ. Paul reminds them that God saved us "not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy." In other words, those law-driven righteous deeds don't win our salvation, but God gives it freely. We accept that gift by taking the bath of rebirth, when the Spirit is richly poured out on us. This, not our observance of laws, makes us justified (right with God) and that give us the hope of eternal life.
Proclaiming It: So this passage has a polemical side, as does much of the letter to Titus. With your voice, strongly contrast the false and true ways to be saved, "not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of his mercy." Contrast also the "before and after" ways of life of the Christian converts: "godless ways and worldly desires" versus living "temperately, justly and devoutly."
Your country's edition of the Lectionary may render these verses in a mere two very long sentences. That won't do rhetorically. Even though the first sentence doesn't end there, insert pauses after "worldly desires," after "devoutly in this age," and after "savior Jesus Christ." The resulting phrases may sound like run-on sentences, but in the judgment of this author, that's the lesser of two evils. Do the same with the second sentence. Emphasize "through the bath of rebirth," since that ties our own baptisms to the historical event of Jesus' baptism.
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.
|Several other commentaries on these passages. All are thoughtful, all quite readable, from the scholarly to the popular.
Links may be incomplete more than a few weeks before the "due date."
|Lutheran pastor and college teacher Dan Nelson's notes for a study group (Dan covers the year A passages on this page, with a header date of January 13, 2002)||
Two scholars in the Midwest of the USA treated the year A readings in their syndicated newspaper columns in years past. See these commentaries by Roger Vermalen Karban (2002) and by Francis X. Cleary, S.J. (2003).
Here's how Father Karban treated the year C passages in 2004.
|The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes||Saint Louis University's excellent Sunday liturgy-preparation site|