For the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Every Sunday the liturgical readings present us with a mystery, and the mystery this Sunday might be how these particular readings are connected. Let’s start by considering the First Reading taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
The LORD* said to me: You are my servant,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
The First Reading’s purpose, in general, is to shed light on the Gospel text and make it clearer. The problem for most people sitting in the pews is that they are much more familiar with the New Testament than they are with the Old. This Sunday, the average layman’s understanding of Scripture is a relevant consideration, because the passage from Isaiah makes broad, sweeping references to epic moments in Salvation History, presented in the Old Testament. And if you don’t mind my pointing out the obvious, Isaiah’s text is a bit enigmatic.
The key words in the text that will guide our investigation into the meaning of Isaiah’s oracle and its bearing on this Sunday’s Gospel are “Servant Israel” and “Light to the Nations.” Additionally, in the Gospel, John the Baptist makes pointed references to “Israel,” the “Lamb of God,” and the “Son of God,” all significant words to any Hebrew listener.
The first words of the Prophet, “You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory,” express God’s intent. As Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well, in John 4, “Salvation is from the Jews,” because Israel is God’s chosen people. Seems clear enough, for now.
Isaiah goes on to explain, “the LORD [YHWH]* has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb…” Now the meaning becomes ambiguous, because of the shift to the first person. Is the prophet referring to himself (see also Jeremiah 1:5), or to Jesus, or to Israel?
It remains ambiguous, as Isaiah goes on to say, “…that Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him; and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD [YHWH]*.” First, Israel is the servant, then the servant claims he will gather Israel to himself. Which is it?
John the Baptist gives us a small hint in today’s Gospel when he says, “‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” Technically, John existed before Jesus, in utero. Jesus, however, sets the record straight when he says, “Before Abraham was, I AM [YHWH]*”
We will look back to the story of Abraham, then, for some answers. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham out of the land of Ur and makes the following promises:
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Abraham is like a prefiguration, or type, of God’s servant in Isaiah: God blesses Abraham, making him a great nation; all nations will be blessed through him. Abraham never sees these promises fulfilled in his lifetime. Their fulfillment begins to take place when God calls Israel out of Egypt.
Another place we may look to find answers is Exodus 3, where the God of Abraham – YHWH* – appears to Moses and reveals his plan to redeem Israel, his First Born Son, from Egypt. On that occasion, God makes it clear that Israel is to serve as an example to Egypt of how to worship the one true God. He further makes it known that Egypt can be God’s son too, if it will follow Israel’s example.
Israel is called by God to serve as an example glorifying God and leading other nations back to him, thus fulfilling part of the promise God made to Abraham.
Thus, the oracle continues, “It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
With the words “light to the nations” the prophesy returns full circle, back to God’s promise to Abraham, not only to make of him a great nation, but moreover to bless all nations through Him, so that God’s salvation “may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Israel’s being called out of Egypt to serve the Lord parallels Abraham’s call out of the Land of Ur to initiate God’s salvific plan. The task at hand, to glorify God in this way, far exceeds Abraham or Israel’s ability to accomplish it. In order for God’s plan to come about through them, it must be regarded primarily as God’s work, as the Prophet Isaiah says in today’s reading, “my God is now my strength!” In the words of Abraham, “the Lord will provide.”
The Lamb of God
The Old Testament image that comes to mind for most people on hearing, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” is the Passover Lamb, whose sacrifice ransomed the first born sons of the Hebrews at the time of their Exodus from Egypt. That episode is definitely pertinent here. More relevant still is the Sacrifice of Abraham.
God befuddles Abraham by ordering him to sacrifice his “only son” Isaac, in Genesis 22 (we ought to recall that at this point in the story, Isaac is not Abraham’s only son). After all, God had promised to make of him a great nation through the descendants of his son, Isaac. So if Abraham kills Isaac, how is that supposed to come about?
Abraham, our father in faith, never questions God. He only trusts. Perhaps, Abraham reasons, God could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19) When Isaac starts to become privy to the plan and asks his father “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb.”
At the point when Abraham is about to slaughter his son, the Angel of the Lord stops his hand. Abraham then spots a ram – not a lamb – caught in a thicket, and offers it in the place of his son (similar to how God accepted the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb in the place of the Hebrew’s first born sons in Egypt at the Passover). Abraham then names the spot of the sacrifice Yahweh Jireh, which means “the LORD [YHWH]* will provide.” His God is his strength.
The Lord indeed would provide the Sacrificial Lamb, as John the Baptist proclaims in today’s Gospel:
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”
In effect, John testifies that Christ is God’s Servant, God’s First Born and Only Son. Abraham and Israel are imperfect prefigurations, or types of Christ, pointing forward to their fulfillment in Him. John’s message is the same as that of the Prophet Isaiah: as God’s people, we look to Him and lead our lives according to His example, to carry out His work in the world, that through our lives others may be drawn to Him.
*(When the word YHWH appears in the ancient Hebrew text, the scribes inserted the word ADONAI or LORD, so as to avoid the possibility of profaning the sacred name of YHWH, when read aloud. I marked these words with an asterisk in this post to draw the reader’s attention to the connection between the LORD in Isaiah’s text to YHWH, the God of Abraham who reveals himself to Israel through his servant Moses).