Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, January 22, 2017

Before the first reading:

Isaiah describes the desolation of a region of Israel occupied by a foreign army. He contrasts this with a prospering nearby Gentile region. The enemy power over Israel feels like the yoke, bar and stick used to control farm animals, which God will break again as God had done in a famous earlier battle.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Among the Christians at Corinth were several factions, each claiming allegiance to its first Christian teacher, or to a particular apostle. Paul wants them to rise above these immature rivalries, and speaks of them sarcastically.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Matthew quotes Isaiah to make clear that Jesus began his ministry in a busy place, the crossroads of Jews and Gentiles.

First Reading, Isaiah 8:23-9:3

The Liturgical Setting: Over the Sundays of ordinary time this year, we'll read consecutive passages from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew has many quotes and allusions from the Old Testament, because he wrote for Jewish converts to Christianity, who would understand and appreciate them. Notice the extended quote from Isaiah in today's gospel. This Sunday's first reading includes the verses quoted, loosely, in today's gospel. As always, good preparation for proclaiming the first reading is to read the day's gospel, Matthew 4:12-23.

The Historical Background: At the time Isaiah prophesied, God's people were split into a northern kingdom called Israel, and a southern kingdom known as Judah (where Jerusalem was). Pagan Assyria was the dominant power in the region, and its boot stood heavily on the neck of Israel. The degrading of Zebulun and Naphtali in verse 8:23 refers to Assyria's annexing of those provinces of Israel, circa 733 B.C.E.

Isaiah changes his mood radically in the next verse. He speaks as if a great reversal of fortune has already occurred: light dispelling darkness, great rejoicing, and liberation from the slave-driver. The "day of Midian" refers to a historic battle when the Lord empowered a few Israelite soldiers to conquer a huge enemy army (see Judges, chapter 7). Just a few verses beyond today's passage, Isaiah says why he's so confident: a new king assumes power in Judah (David's throne, verse 9:6), who is to re-unite Israel and Judah.

Proclaiming It: Of course the lector will want to proclaim this passage with the same tone of voice Isaiah used in delivering it, trying to inspire confidence in a dejected people. The lector has the advantage of knowing the gospel, and of having read today's gospel passage in particular. So you know that the last new king, bringer of light, rejoicing and liberation, has begun by revisiting the once devastated lands and gathering his first followers.

Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17

The Historical Background: We saw last Sunday that Corinth was wild and woolly place and that Saint Paul needed to wield his authority there quite severely. Throughout this letter, he's very concerned with preserving the unity of the Christians there. In particular today, you can give your congregation some help in understanding that need by making this announcement before beginning the second reading (unless, of course, your assembly hears another introduction, like the twenty-second digests above):

Among the Christians at Corinth were several factions, each claiming allegiance to its first Christian teacher, or to a particular apostle. Paul wants them to rise above these immature rivalries.

The Theological Background: The last sentence of today's passage is expanded in next Sunday's selection, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. Paul insists that the Corinthians owe their faith not to Paul's own preaching ("not with the wisdom of human eloquence"), nor to their own status (in next week's selection: "not powerful, ... not wise, ... not of noble birth, ... those who count for nothing"). Paul's point is that if humans are already in some way full (spiritually fulfilled, righteous before God), then the self-emptying of Jesus on the cross is emptied of its meaning, because we didn't really need him.

Proclaiming It: Express in your voice Paul's exasperation with the factiousness of the Corinthians. Sound sarcastic when you repeat Paul's rendition of the Corinthians' statements of misplaced loyalty ("I belong to ..."). Use your voice to express Paul's indignation when he asks "Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? In whose name were you baptized, after all?"

A Lector's Notes reader in Dublin suggests we have Paul address his "brothers and sisters," not just his brothers. I agree. Users of the translation from The Jerusalem Bible will have to make that change deliberately. It's already written into the version from The New American Bible.

 
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Credit for the picture at the top:

Two readings today remind us that people once walking in darkness have seen, and will see, great light.

Early in my art appreciation career, I enjoyed the dramatic lighting in the landscapes of the American painters known as the Hudson River School. This is by Albert Bierstadt, 1830-1902, German-born American, and titled A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie.

This graphic came from Wikimedia Commons, which says the painting was made available by exchange to the Brooklyn Museum (New York City, U.S.A.) with help from these sources: Dick S. Ramsay Fund, Healy Purchase Fund B, Frank L. Babbott Fund, A. Augustus Healy Fund, Ella C. Woodward Memorial Fund, Carll H. de Silver Fund, Charles Stewart Smith Memorial Fund, Caroline A.L. Pratt Fund, Frederick Loeser Fund, Augustus Graham School of Design Fund, Museum Collection Fund, Special Subscription, and the John B. Woodward Memorial Fund; Purchased with funds given by Daniel M. Kelly and Charles Simon; Bequest of Mrs. William T. Brewster, Gift of Mrs. W. Woodward Phelps in memory of her mother and father, Ella M. and John C. Southwick, Gift of Seymour Barnard, Bequest of Laura L. Barnes, Gift of J.A.H. Bell, and Bequest of Mark Finley.

For larger versions of the image, click here.

* The first Lector's Notes appeared on the Web January 23, 1999, for this Sunday of the liturgical year; these are a substantial revision. Since then, Notes have appeared covering 180 of the Sundays and feasts in the three-year liturgical cycle.

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 November 28, 2016