When the Jews returned to exile in Babylon, their land and cities seemed desolate. The prophet encourages them with images of light and the promise that God will make their land his bride.
Members of the early church in Corinth had a variety of spiritual gifts, also known as charisms. Some used their gifts in proud and individualistic ways. Saint Paul reminds them that the gifts come only from the Spirit of God, and should be used to unify and benefit the whole community.
Some early Jewish Christians were concealing their conversions in order to avoid expulsion from their synagogues. Saint John's gospel tells the story of Jesus in ways that provoke a crisis for these indecisive members. Today's passage points to Jesus' passion (his "hour") and his symbolic replacement of Jewish customs.
The Historical Situation: After their exile in Babylon, the Jews returned to Judah and had a difficult time restoring their old institutions, their economy, their capital Jerusalem, and their temple on Mount Zion in the center of Jerusalem. They were quite discouraged when a prophet, whose words are recorded in the book of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, tried to build up their spirits again.
Our Liturgical Setting: We cite this prophet frequently, using his imagery of light piercing darkness in the naturally dark days of Advent, and on feasts like the Epiphany. Today, early in Ordinary Time (the season that's not Lent/Easter and not Advent/Christmas/Epiphany), our gospel passage is about what the evangelist John calls "the first of Jesus' signs." To faithful readers of the gospel, the signs reveal Jesus' identity. To the skeptical and indifferent depicted in the gospel, the signs cause at least wonder and consternation. So this prophetic image of the appearance of something startling and unexpected is appropriate.
Understanding the Details: Of course you should read the first reading on its own terms. Here the prophet's imagery is of about a conversion from gloom to joy and confidence. Isaiah compares the dispirited people to a woman who thought herself unmarriageable (a much more dreadful situation in the ancient Middle East than it is in the modern West). But she suddenly finds a suitor before her, proposing marriage!
To be precise, it's the land of the Jews that the Lord proposes to marry, and, by extension, make fertile. And the prophet's real goal was probably to get the hopeless people to plant crops in the land, despite their "Why bother? What good will it do?" attitude. You can see that in the sentences where the land is described at first as "Desolate," then "Espoused."
Another feature of Judah's reversal of fortune is that she'll be able to hold up her head again among the other nations, which shall see her vindication. All kings shall behold her glory. This is something that Isaiah can't be quiet about (verses 1 & 2).
Proclaiming It: You've surely participated in "the buzz" that attends the announcement of a marriage. In our offices, nothing causes more excitement than the display of a new engagement ring. We proclaim engagements in the newspapers, we shower the couple several times with gifts. We're especially happy for those whom we hadn't expected to find a mate. That's the kind of joy and confidence that Isaiah was trying to convey. Let it inform your proclamation.
The Historical Situation: Today is the first of three Sundays on which we'll consider 1 Corinthians 12-14, where Saint Paul teaches about the proper use of the charisms or spiritual gifts. These are powers that the Holy Spirit gives to members of the church for the building up of the church, like the power to heal, to teach convincingly, to preach persuasively, to prophesy, to speak in tongues, and to interpret those speaking in tongues. Corinth, a Greek seaport, was a wide-open place morally and philosophically; the Christians there needed strong guidance from Saint Paul, even in the uses of the spiritual gifts. That's what Saint Paul gives in these chapters.
The Theological Background: Paul is primarily concerned with fostering the unity of the church, by directing each member's energy to the building up of the whole. People with great gifts, including the spiritual gifts named here, are tempted to aggrandize themselves by flaunting their gifts. So Paul stresses that all the gifts have their origin not in the gifted persons, but in the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit distributes the gifts purposefully, for the good of the community as a whole. (In next Sunday's passages, Paul uses the analogy of parts of the body to reinforce this point).
Proclaiming the Passage and its Tedious Lists: Knowing the above, you're ready to read aloud Paul's argument and all the supporting details. The first three clauses form a unit, the ones ending in "same Spirit, ... same Lord, ... same God who produces ..." Make sure your listeners hear that triad, and pause after the last clause.
The next sentence, "To each individual ...," is the topic sentence of what should be a paragraph of one-sentence examples. There are nine examples in all, down to "the interpretation of tongues." In reciting these, emphasize "the same Spirit" over and over, and switch between high and low voice registers, using contrast to avoid monotony.
Pause before the last summary sentence, and pronounce it slowly. You've really described something marvelous: The Spirit of God orchestrating and harmonizing a bunch of unruly individualists, coaxing them into loving each other and subordinating their egos to the common good, for the glory not of themselves but of God. That calls for a voice that sounds awed and pleased at the same time.
Ah, weddings. They're usually exuberant expressions of love, hope and confidence. Today's first reading tries to inspire the same by combining hopeful images of light and of marriage, specifically the surprising marriage of a woman thought destined for spinsterhood. A search of the Google image collection for "wedding AND sunrise" yields many predictable pictures, and some interesting ones. This one's from MormonBride.com. And click here for a fetching photo of a wedding at Sunrise Senior Living, Roseville, Minnesota, U.S.A., in late 2015.
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 January 5, 2016