Second Sunday in Ordinary Time: 1-15-17
Peace be with You,
Having celebrated Epiphany last Sunday and the Baptism of the Lord the following Monday, the Church has entered into what it calls Ordinary Time on the liturgical calendar. However, though we find ourselves in a new liturgical season, our readings for today let us know that we have by no means changed course where our pedagogy is concerned. Instead, we find ourselves exploring the extraordinary depths of the incarnate life of the Son of God, Jesus Christ; who, as we saw last weekend, had come not only that we may be enlightened as to who God is, but that we may be made radiant by participating in the glory of his life. This weekend, we are given further instruction as to how we ought to go about living a life that is in alignment with his.
Last weekend, in discussing the Epiphany, or manifestation of the Son of God to his gentiles (i.e. non-Jewish peoples) as symbolized by the arrival and worship of the Magi before the infant Jesus, we saw that it was important to recognize that the coming of the Son of God meant the incorporation of all the peoples of the world into the special relationship God had long shared with the people of Israel. This reality holds an interpretive importance for our readings for today as well, as made evident by the words of John the Baptist in the gospel reading from John.
In the opening verse of today’s gospel reading, we find John the Baptist see Jesus and declare, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Almost immediately our intellectual and cultural estrangement from the Jewish tradition interferes with our understanding of the text. We hear these words and we think of a furry little animal; innocent, kind and approachable, and thus imagine Jesus as a friendly individual who comes to re-establish our relationship with God in a gentle and unassuming way. However, in the mind of a first-century Jew, the picture that immediately came to mind was one of the bloody sacrifices of the Passover Lamb, who was slaughtered and whose blood was smeared on the doorposts of their homes in commemoration of their liberation from captivity in Egypt. It is precisely this latter depiction that John wishes to conjure up in our minds with his words, and it is thus that John enlightens us as to how it is that Jesus will ultimately ‘take away the sin of the world’ (Ibid.).
It is with this understanding in mind that the Church has traditionally read the Suffering Servant Songs of the book of Isaiah as being prophetic of the salvific work of Jesus. For example, in the fourth and final Suffering Servant Song, the prophet speaks of the Servant being led ‘like a lamb to slaughter, in order that his life be made into a reparation offering’ (Isaiah 53:7 & 10). Moreover, within this song in particular the prophet tells us that the servant bears our pain and bears the punishment that makes us whole though he is innocent (Ibid., 53:4-5 & 9). Thus allowing for a connection to be made between the Passover Lamb of Exodus 12, whom we are told is to be without blemish (Ex. 12:5), and the sinless One who suffers on behalf of the sinful, who because of their state are unable to make reparation on their own behalf. In this we see the necessary pro nobis dimension of our salvation insisted upon by the Fathers of the Church.
For example, Athanasius tells us that “the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able to die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death…Whence, by offering to death the body he had taken to himself, as an offering holy and free of all spot, he immediately abolished death from all like him, by the offering of a like” (On the Incarnation, p. 9 emphasis mine). He later goes onto explain that we participate in both the death and resurrection of Christ, in a very real way both at the end of our lives and in our conversion from the darkness of sin to the light that is life in Christ (Ibid., p. 20-21 & 30-32). Notice please what is being said here. Christ has not become Incarnate simply to accomplish salvation apart from us or for us, but precisely in order that through the grace of his salvific work, we too may begin to live a life in conformity with his, in other words, that starting here and now, we may begin to live a “resurrected life.” Thus, to the “for us” (pro nobis) dimension of salvation is added a “with us” dimension.
This is a very important point, for it indicates to us that our salvation is not some far off thing that we must wait to passively experience at death, but actively experience in Christ here and now. See this now all over the scriptures. For example, we may recall the parable of the vine and the branches from John 15 where Christ tells us that the ‘Father is glorified by the fruit we bear in Christ’ (John 15:8). Connect this now with the prologue of the very same gospel where we are told that in Christ we have seen “the glory of the Father’s only Son” (John 1:14). This comparison allows us to see that it is not simply Christ apart from us who gives the Father glory through the salvific work of love, but that we participate in his work by living out his command to do the same (John 15:12). Thus, we can say that as the Body of Christ, the human family takes on the corporate identity of the Suffering Servant, an implication foreshadowed in our first reading for today from Isaiah. Therein, the prophet speaks of the servant in dual fashion, i.e. both individually and communally, referring to the people of Israel as a single servant who manifests to the world the glory of God (Is. 49:1 & 3), which, as we have seen is accomplished in the loving action of self-sacrifice. Likewise, it is precisely within this paradoxically simultaneous individual and communal identity that Paul greets the Church in Corinth by affirming that they have been ‘called to be holy in Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 1:2), whom he elsewhere identifies as the head of the one body, the Church (Colossians 1:18).
A few weeks ago at Christmas, we saw in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus that the coming of the Son of God in the flesh was, as it were, a recreation of the human family, carried out by the same One who had fashioned them according to his likeness in the beginning (Oration 38.4). Today, we take a step further and find that this recreation takes place with the help of divine grace within our own lives here and now when we assume the same attitude of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5); in other words, when we assume the attitude of the Lamb of God, and what is that attitude? In Philippians, Paul tells us that the attitude of the Lamb of God is one of humble, self-giving obedience; an attitude that does not grasp at the divine life to make it one’s own apart from His to whom it truly belongs, and who, in turn, experiences the exultation of the Father’s glory (Phil. 2:6-11). The late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar would describe this as the Son’s Eucharistic response to the Father, which has taken place from all of eternity, a response which, by virtue of its creation in the Son, all of creation is intended to imitate according to its nature (Theo-Drama, Vol. 4: The Action, pg. 328-329).
My friends, today we are called to live the response of the Lamb of God who comes to offer his life for us saying, this is my body given for you (Luke 22:19), simultaneously offering his life to the Father on our behalf and to us that we might be incorporated into that very same glorious life which he has enjoyed from the beginning (John 17:5 & 22). In the end, it is this response of the Lamb who does not grasp at the Divine life, but instead responds eucharistically, i.e. in thanksgiving, for this gift of life, that teaches us what it means to live a glorified or resurrected life beginning here and now. For, as creatures created in imago Dei, we do not possess glory or even life apart from the One whose image we bear, in other words, our very existence is radically dependent upon our Creator. However, by that very same nature, we are made to participate in the glory that called us into existence and which we manifest to the world every time we echo the words of the lamb himself when we say to our neighbors and thus to the One whose image they bear, this is my body, given for you.
Your servant in Christ,