This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:29-34:
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.”
A few days ago, my wife reminded me that the Sunday reflections series was approaching its three-year anniversary, which turns out to be today. In fact, three years ago, I offered my first reflection on this very same Gospel passage. At the time, I was discerning on a potential calling, and to see how I could put whatever gifts I have in better service to the Lord. We went through a two-day seminar on that topic in St. Paul, and during that seminar, the idea of offering my own thoughts on the Gospel as sort of an extended lectio divina came to me. I’ve been doing this ever since, with brief absences for vacations and other interruptions.
In the three years that have passed, I have sometimes found myself floundering a bit. My discernment produced a result I didn’t expect, and for a time it set me a bit adrift. Like everyone, I struggle with sin and distractions. However, the Sunday reflections gives me at least one spiritual anchor — Mass is another and far more important one — on which I can remind myself of the Lord’s love and blessings, even if I’m unsure how He wants me to proceed.
Three years on, these are the issues I see most in today’s readings, if perhaps a bit indirectly. Isaiah prophesied to a divided kingdom who had lost its purpose.Rather than serve as a nation of priests to restore all nations to the Lord, the Israelites and Judeans had focused on competing and allying with other nations for their own purposes. Within a few decades, the northern kingdom would fall, never to return, and a century after that Judea would fall too, and the first temple with it.
Isaiah’s prophecies contain rebukes for these infidelities, but also promise salvation through the ancient Israelite Davidic line. Isaiah will speak of a suffering servant in later passages, sent to carry the burden of Israel’s sins in order to cleanse them for their true purpose. In this passage, Isaiah restates the mission of the Israelites: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” The Lord promised all of that before the fall, and spoke through Isaiah so that His people would remember that promise, even while all appeared to be darkness.
Today’s second reading hints at the same thing, only even more indirectly. We hear Paul’s initial greeting to the church in Corinth, a pleasant and loving greeting for what will be a missive of sharp rebuke. The church he established has fallen into immoral and unnecessarily divisive practices, and Paul intends to set them right on both doctrine and practice. Like the two kingdoms of Isaiah’s day, the church in Corinth has become divided into cliques, fallen into serious doctrinal error, and are absorbing the popular culture rather than acting as a beacon of truth.
The entire purpose of the first epistle to Corinth parallels Isaiah’s purpose centuries earlier — to remind the Corinthians of their mission. Paul admonishes them to remain unified with the resurrected Christ and to put aside the idolatry of Corinth, for which the city was well known. Like the Israelites, their mission is to serve as priests to the city for its conversion away from idolatry, not to get along with everyone by indulging in it.
John the Baptist serves this same purpose as well. As Paul does explicitly and Isaiah does implicitly, he points to Christ, especially in this passage. But like Paul and Isaiah, John goes out into the desert to prepare people for His coming. John the Baptist and Paul will both be martyred for their efforts, and at least initially see setbacks to their work … and yet, they persevered, knowing that Christ triumphs in the end.
Later in this first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul writes that “for now, we see through a glass, darkly.” That describes each of these episodes as well as our own lives, as we discern our purposes and how to use our gifts to achieve them. That describes well the past three years of my life, as well as the fifty that preceded it. It’s easy to become adrift in this world, to focus on the temporal to the neglect of the spiritual, and to settle in with the crowd rather than serve the Lord. Scripture is filled with examples of that tendency, from King David all the way to the Corinthians and more.
Fortunately, we have a beacon of light to guide us, even in our confusion. The entirety of the scripture points to Christ, and to our mission through Him to be priests to the world rather than being people of the world. It’s okay to stumble and find ourselves in confusion from time to time, as long as we put our trust in His light in the end.
Thank you for three years of reading my reflections, and I hope you will continue to enjoy them.
The front page image is a detail from “The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist” by Bacchiacca, circa 1520. On display at Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.