A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Epiphany, Ecumenism, the Holy Spirit, the Sin of the World

 The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

 First Reading (Isaiah 49:3, 5-6). I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth. This beautiful oracle is the second of four “Songs of the Servant” in the Book of Isaiah. (The others are 42:1-4, or 1-7; 50:4-9, or 4-11; 52:13-53:12.) The first of these was read as first reading in last Sunday’s Mass, but the comment on it bears repeating here, as the readings for both these Sundays are very closely related. Last Sunday’s reading, the first of the Servant Songs, speaks of God’s special choice of this servant prophet, beloved by God. As befits biblical leaders he is empowered by God’s Spirit. It speaks of his nature; he is gentle, but faithful to his mission until he has fulfilled it. It tells of the mission given him by God, a mission which God empowers him to carry out. He is to be a covenant of the people Israel, to remind them of their mission. He will also be a light to the nations beyond Israel, and will release captives, captive Israel, from their bondage.

A question naturally arising is the identity of the servant in the mind of the prophet, writing towards the end of the Babylonian exile. Opinions differ: historical Israel, ideal Israel, an Old Testament person before or after the time of the poet prophet, the prophet author of the text himself. The servant is left unidentified, to be identified by his very special personality, his choice by God and his special relationship with him, his tremendous mission. His person and mission could stand as identifying and standing as a model for Israel, God’s chosen people, with a world mission, or for a chosen individual with such a mission. It would be fulfilled as God saw fit, and this was through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as is made clear at the baptism of Jesus when Jesus is anointed with the Spirit, and the voice from heaven, replacing the Isaiah’s word “servant” with “Son”, declares that the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in Jesus.

Turning now to today’s reading, we perceive a certain tension between the first part and the second. In the first part God is speaking to his servant, who in the best reading is addressed as Israel, while in the second part the servant has a mission to Israel, as if the servant is an individual rather that the collective group Israel. The Israel of the first part is the ideal Israel, the chosen people through which God will be glorified. The passage from the collective to the personal meaning of the Servant arises from the fact that the servant is identified principally by his mission and person. In a verse (verse 4) omitted in today’s reading the servant expresses doubt about the effectiveness of his mission, that he has laboured in vain, and spent his strength for nothing. God, however, supports him and tells him that he has been chosen from his mother’s womb for a mission, not merely to restore Israel but for a far greater one: to be a light to the (pagan) nations and to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 39[40]). Here I am, Lord! I come to do your will.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 1:1-3). May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ send you grace and peace. With this passage we begin the readings of the First Letter of St Paul to the young church at Corinth, readings that will continue during the coming Sundays until the Eighth Sunday of the Year, at 1 Corinthians chapter 4, with later sections read at a later date. This letter provides us with a lot of information on the internal life of a young Christian community, with the problems it encountered and Paul’s concern for this young church. Paul wrote this letter about the year 56 AD, to a church he had founded only five years previously (in 51 AD). Corinth was a large and important seaport, with a mixture of races, religions, philosophies and other movements. At his initial visit there Paul spent about a year and a half in his work of evangelization, and later had contact with the local church from Ephesus across the Adriatic Sea. About two-thirds of the population of Corinth were slaves and it is likely that for the greater part the members of the Christian community were also drawn from this class or from the lower classes, although there were also learned and well educated members in the community. But whatever of their social origins or standing, it is clear from Paul’s correspondence with them that the Corinth community was very mentally alert, reflecting on how they could, or should, live their new Christian life in their pagan surroundings. They were also given to disputation and to personality cult, with regard to well-known persons, such as Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), even Christ. In this letter Paul will have occasion to discuss with them many of their questions and problems. But this dialogue he will engage in as united with them in their belief in Christ, in the Church and its mission. In the introduction to this letter, read today, he stresses basic truths: the Church in Corinth, sanctified by Christ, called with all believers to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ. He prays that God will send them grace and peace – a favourable atmosphere in which problems and doubts can be resolved.

Gospel (John 1:29-34). Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.

This is the Second Sunday of the Three Year Liturgical cycle, Year 1 (A) of the cycle in which the Gospel readings will be from the Gospel of Mattew. But this will only begin next Sunday. We are still under the liturgical influence of the Feast of the Epiphany. Three great manifestations were recalled by the Church for the liturgy of the feast of the Epiphany: on Epiphany itself the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles (the Magi), at the Baptism the manifestation by the Father’s voice, and on the Sunday after this (Second of the Yearly Cycle) Jesus’ manifestation of his glory at Cana. In the earlier liturgy the narrative of the wedding feast at Cana was read on this the second Sunday of each year. It is now read on the Third Year (C) of the cycle while other manifestations from the Baptism period, as in John’s Gospel, are read in years one and two (A and B) of the cycle.

            Thus, in today’s reading we are in the Jordan area with John the Baptist, and the text speaks of the Baptist’s witness concerning his own status and his witness to Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel there is no account of the actual baptism of Jesus by John, as there is in the other three gospels. Yet this reading tells of what happened there. We are not told to whom the Baptist’s words of witness to Jesus given in this reading were addressed, but they are for the entire Church. He calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as if one great sin were involved in the many sins. Jesus is described as the Lamb led to the slaughter of Isaiah (53:7), and as the Passover Lamb offered up each year. By his death he will take away the sin of the world. In this Epiphany, the Baptist manifests Jesus to the world, detailing also the essential detail of his baptism at the Jordan: the Spirit coming down on Jesus and remaining on him. He stresses this point by repeating it, an emphasis in keeping with that of the other three Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. This same Spirit will be given as a gift to the Church by Jesus.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day. Reflection and Dialogue: Epiphany, Ecumenism, the Holy Spirit, the Sin of the World.

In this Sunday’s liturgy we are still under the influence of the spirit of the Epiphany, and also of ecumenism as we draw near to the feast of the Conversion of St Paul (25 January) and the prayers for the Church Unity Octave that accompany it. The Magi who visited the new-born Jesus, king of the Jews, were representative of a non-Jewish pagan people, a people looking forward to redemption by God. The answer would come with the resurrection of Jesus and his command to have to the good news preached to the ends of the earth. In our own day churches conscious of the divisions among themselves are seeking ways of coming closer together. In the early days of this ecumenical movement, the Catholic Church believed it arose from, or would foster, indifferentism in religion, and remained aloof from it, until it too came to realize that this movement was from the Holy Spirit and is now actively engaged in this quest for greater unity. From the epiphany at the Baptism of Jesus onwards, the Holy Spirit has been revealing Jesus to the world more and more, and in our own day continues to do so. We now experience a lively dialogue between lay society and the Church. The Church is often accused of being alien to the mind, the values and the aspirations of the world in which we live. A word that is scarcely mentioned from the lay side in all this dialogue is the word “sin”. Practices and teachings of the Church are criticised, and frequent references are made to Christ, as if the Church were not faithful to his teaching and mission, omitting any connection between Christ and sin, Christ the Lamb of God who reveals, shows up, and takes away sin, the sin of the world. In this ongoing dialogue between the Church and contemporary society the many message of the Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ should be borne in mind.

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