Sunday reflection: John 1:29-34

This is the start of what I hope will be a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion

Today’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.”

All three of today’s readings deal with introductions of a sort, somewhat apropos for the second Sunday in Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar. All three introductions deal with salvation in a time of tribulation as well.  In the Old Testament reading of Isaiah 49:3, 5-6, the prophet speaks of a glorious vision not just for Isaiah himself, but for all of Israel to become “a light for the nations.” In 1 Corinthians 1:1-3, Paul’s introduction is all we hear — but it is a powerful introduction meant to command the attention of the Corinth church that had lost its way by becoming too much a part of its culture and losing their mission of conversion and salvation.

In the Gospel itself, the prophet John the Baptist finally sees the one for whom his work prepares salvation. John and the other Gospel writers have already introduced us to Jesus, of course, but this was the introduction of Jesus’ mission to the world, and the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s mission. Through water, John the Baptist gave testimony to the arrival of the Son of God, preparing the way for our salvation, and emphasizes his lesser role in the plan. Although the identity of the Messiah had been hidden from John the Baptist, John was given the gift of recognizing Jesus for who he was when he arrived, along with the broader gift of prophecy — for which John would lose his life.

In one way, we see a contrast between the reaction that such gifts provoked in all three readings.  John the Baptist fully accepted his gifts, and his faithfulness was rewarded — not here on Earth, but with God through Jesus Christ. Isaiah reminds us that God intended Israel to be a nation of priests and prophets to instruct the world from the holy city of Jerusalem where God dwelt, so that salvation might be accessible to all men and women regardless of nation. Instead, Israel grew corrupt by worshiping other idols and falling into the pagan cultures of other nations (even during the reign of Solomon), for which the nation of Israel was punished throughout the Old Testament. Even so, Isaiah prophecies in this passage that his mission will not just be to restore Israel, but to bring all of humanity to the Lord’s salvation.

The same problem afflicted Corinth at the time of Paul’s first letter. The Greek city could be considered the Las Vegas of its time. Aphrodite was the goddess to whom the local pagans paid most tribute, but temples to a number of idols existed at the time. Corinthian sexual excess was practically a proverb by that time. Abortion and killing infants by exposure was common.  Licentiousness and pagan worship abounded, and considerable social pressures on Christians to participate in the culture rather than provide testimony to it had corrupted the local church. Christians still remained enthusiastic, but had lost their way. The church had fractured into factions, and instead of preaching the truth and sticking to the discipline of the faith, the Corinthians tried to hold its members by excusing all sorts of practices, including fornication and (as Paul addresses in this letter in Chapter 5) tolerating incest.

Here we have three examples of the gift of salvation being freely given by the Lord in the context of two explicit rejections. The people of Corinth and of ancient Israel did not recognize this gift well enough to put aside the material temptations of their day. The pull of the culture, especially combined with a sense of modernity and lost opportunities for pleasure, blinded those peoples from recognizing the gift. Yet in all three instances, God does not withdraw the gift. Instead, he sends messengers to remind us of the gift of His salvation, and even provides the perfect sacrifice in His son for all time and all sinners. And even when that gets rejected by most and forgotten by those who should know better, He sent Paul to remind Corinthian Christians that they were to live in the world, but not be of the world and especially the pagan culture from which salvation was needed in the first place.

God’s mercy and love is boundless and everlasting, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to recognize the gift of salvation, and our gifts within it. Isaiah, Paul, and especially John the Baptist all recognized their gifts and their duty to bring salvation to the world. Have we recognized our own gifts, and our own responsibilities to do so — or are we still living in the fantasy that what happens in Corinth stays in Corinth?

Update: Absolve, not “resolve.” Thanks to Upstreamer in the comments for the correction.