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The Baptism of the Lord, Year C, January 11, 2004

Note the possibility of alternate first and second readings. Ask your liturgy committee or preacher if you should use the readings from liturgical year A. Notes for year C and year A readings are both here.

First reading, Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

The Historical Situation: The people of Israel spent a couple of generations in exile, captives of the Babylonians, from about 600 B.C.E. to 540 B.C.E. The second major part of the book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, concerns the end of this Exile and the return of the captives to their homeland. Today's first reading begins that section.

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.

Alternate First Reading (from the Year A selections for this feast) Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7

The Historical Situation: The middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 40-55, is set in the period when the Jews were being permitted to return home from their exile in Babylon. Historically, a new emperor, the pagan Cyrus of Persia, had overthrown the Babylonians and ordered the release of the Jewish captives. Isaiah sees this in a cosmic context, and, in verses 41:1 through 42:9, he describes two "trials" in the court of heaven that vindicate the sovereignty of Israel's Lord. Cyrus is described as the Lord's instrument in his plan to free the Jews. Furthermore, all other gods, including the gods of the Babylonians, to whom some exiles were attracted, are convicted of impotence and stupidity. The second trial ends with today's Lectionary passage, the selection of Israel as the Lord's servant*, and the assignment of a mission to the servant.

A Theological Summary: The passage raises these questions:

  1. What is the servant's relationship to the Lord? (The Lord chooses the servant, upholds him, is pleased with him, gives the servant his spirit, forms the servant.)
  2. What is the servant to accomplish? (Establish justice on the earth, open the eyes of the blind, release prisoners and those in darkness.)
  3. How is the servant to behave? (Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard, not breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smoldering wick; these are images of gentleness and patient understanding in the servant's dealings with those to whom he is sent.)
  4. What is the scope of the servant's mission? Wider than merely to the people of Israel. This is the meaning of "coastlands" and of "a light for the nations."
Proclaiming It One Way: I recommend that the lector try to evoke one or both of two mysteries here. In the first place, Israel is being challenged to reach outside itself, and to become God's instrument in a mission to other peoples. This was not a welcome development. However, it's a logical consequence of what has gone before. If Israel's Lord is the only "real" god, then the Lord is God over the pagan worshipers of other gods, and the Jews, willing or not, are the only people qualified to show the pagans this truth. In your proclamation, this calls for an emphasis on the "mission" aspects, on "nations," "the earth," "coastlands," and "the people."

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.

Second Reading, Titus 2:11-14

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.

Alternate Second Reading (from the Year A selections), Acts 10:34-38

The Theological Background: Remember the setting here. Your proclamation will be better if you walk a mile in Peter's sandals first by reading all of Acts, Chapter 10. You'll see what a big change Peter had to go through before he could speak to this group. Both Peter the Jewish Christian, with his typical contempt for Gentiles, and Cornelius, a Gentile distantly respectful of Jews, needed simultaneous supernatural visions to prepare them for this meeting. So for Peter the big revelation is the same as one of the themes of the Isaiah passage, above, "God shows no partiality, and accepts whoever is God-fearing and acts uprightly."

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.


_______________________________
* Scholars have called this and three similar passages from this section of Isaiah the Songs of the Suffering Servant. They're about a mysterious figure, who sometimes speaks in the first person, and whom God sometimes addresses. Sometimes the Servant is described as a prophet, sometimes as one whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author's mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. The gospels clearly show that Jesus, and the early church, saw aspects of Jesus' own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs, and the church refers to all of them throughout the liturgical year. Today's is the first Servant Song. The second, Isaiah 49:1-6, we proclaim on the feast of the birth of John the Baptist. On Passion Sunday, we proclaim the third, Isaiah 50:4-7, and on Good Friday, the fourth, Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
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
The Lectionary selections in the frame at the left, if any, are there for your convenience. The publishers of the page in that frame have no connection, except for membership in the one Body of Christ, with the publisher of this page. Likewise the publishers of the pages on the links above.

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Last modified: Mon Jan 26 21:18:52 CST 2004