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Monday, January 13, 2014

Second Thoughts: Seeking the servant's vision

Today I want to take a quick mystagogical look at yesterday's liturgy of the word. You cannot
imagine my chagrin at what happened in my church instead of homilies yesterday on this major church feast, but I'm trying not to quench the smoldering wick here, and just want to accept what I cannot control while helping, I hope, to "move the deal forward."

I find that actually experiencing the liturgy of the word is often quite different from preparing it. After Mass, I often have new insights, heard different things, or concatenated the same things differently, from the way I had heard those passages and thought about those traditions before. This is the way it's supposed to work, of course, and it's why catechesis is built upon the same root as the word echo: you can't have an echo before the sound. Certainly there is good preparation and prayer to be experienced before the liturgy, but what happens because of the liturgy is, explicitly, the word of the Lord. That word proclaimed in the assembly of believers does God's work, rattling around inside of us, banging off of our inner walls and hallways, throwing light on the shadowy places and elating the places where our best selves cower, waiting for some affirmation or the arrival of a hero.

First reading
...he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth (Is. 42, 1b-4a)

Psalm: The Lord will bless his people with peace. (Ps. 29, 11b)

Second reading: 
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..." (Acts 10: 35-36)

And a voice came from the heavens, saying,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3: 17)

Last week, I concentrated on the psalm, and didn't say much about the other readings. And I still think the psalm, especially as it reaches its climax in the refrain (which is the last part of the last verse of the psalm), holds a key to hearing the entire liturgy of the word. It's a valid question, I think, to ask, "What does it mean, that 'the Lord will bless his people with peace'? How does that happen? Where is the evidence? And what does it have to do with the Baptism of the Lord?"

What strikes me on first hearing is that there is nothing particularly "cozy" about the belonging implied by baptism as we hear so often in church. In these readings, the Spirit's messianic call to Jesus, and by extension to the Christian world, is announced on an international stage, most clearly expressed in Acts by Peter's speech in the house of Cornelius. Back to that in a minute. But the song of Second Isaiah is packed with language that speaks of the servant's peaceful mission that invites all nations to enter into the world of God's justice.

John's baptism, more than anything else, was a sign of cutting ties with the past, not augmenting them. It was an act of drowning the past in the sacred waters of the Jordan in order to live in a new way in the new order of God's realm, a realm which John himself did not clearly see but which he was given to know was imminent, definitive, and probably dangerous. His apocalyptic vision saw through the phony peace of Rome and the collaborating oppressiveness of the temple leaders, and in his baptism his disciples would wash away that world and rise envisioned by the nascent gospel. What was missing was peace.

We do not know what Jesus's mindset was as he went into the waters with John. Each gospel successively distances Jesus from the Baptizer, until by the time John is written there is practically an apology for the scandalous event. But Mark's narrative, told in just a few lines, leads to the desert experience from which Jesus emerges as the preacher. Jesus arrives, he is baptized, the dove, the voice, and the spirit "drove him into the desert." (Mark 1: 9-12) Whatever happened, the encounter with John, perhaps Jesus's kinsman (Luke says this, Matthew makes no mention of it), seems to have moved Jesus from a quiet life into a public one.

Peter's speech, in fact the whole narrative about Cornelius in chapter 10 of Acts, is one of the highlights of the New Testament for me. This little piece we hear on this feast is often heard during the Easter season as well. Hearing this bit should revive in us the memory of the whole story, a tale of Peter's unease and conservative fear as well as his openness to the gradual realization that Paul might be right about the Gentile question. Cornelius, remember, is not just a Gentile. He's a Roman centurion, a soldier. You might say, "Strike one, strike two, strike three." But God has other plans, and through visions sent to both men, the world begins to change. I urge you to re-read it, using the link above. It is a mini-gospel. The important thing for this complex of readings is the reconciliation of ancient enemies by the gospel, people whom the world has made enemies and slaves and masters become family in the empire of God.

"You are my servant/son, in you I am well-pleased." This phrase sandwiches the entire liturgy of the word, from the declaration to the Servant in Isaiah to the voice over the Jordan in the last verse of the gospel. What makes the servant beloved? God's favor, of course, but the servant's life is described as a mission of justice, that is, bringing things into right relationship with God. But not through threats or violence. The servant doesn't raise his voice, or break a bruised reed, but steadily, relentlessly, peacefully brings God's justice to all the earth. It seems to be this vision of the servant with which Jesus came to identify, or at least which the church came to identify with Jesus in the New Testament, as he offered an alternate way of peace, and alternate empire of justice to his time and every time. God will "bless his people with peace," the psalm promises.

At the outset of the year, with the song of the angels still ringing in our ears, with the mages from the East still on the horizon, we hear about the mission of the adult messiah. This beloved servant of God will bring glory to God in heaven by announcing peace to all people on whom his favor rests, which, he further announces by his word and deed, is all people. The icon of the baptism of the Lord is painted in a broken world; divine peace, justice, and service bind it up and restore it, transforming it into what it was always intended to be. Peter, that blockhead, that slow but steady learner, dreams of a picnic from heaven and moves the community of Jesus toward the edges of humanity, teaching us that nothing beloved of God can be unclean to the rest of us.

I don't know how hearing all this over and over every year can keep us from wondering whether, for Christians, baptism might be the new circumcision or kosher law. How do we keep a group alive, with a credal and moral center, so that there is a group to expand to the edges? I know that I keep asking that question, not because I have an answer, but because the question won't go away. We continue to tell our story and celebrate in a liturgy that has a boundary, an in-group and an out-group, and that liturgy and story keep telling us that the boundary is just in our imagination. Without the story and liturgy, is it possible to sustain such a counter-cultural vision? Can we stand against tyrannies like economic structures and majority rule, structures that always create insiders-outsiders and winners-losers, without an "inside" group that (peacefully, gently, by example) proclaims a God who created us to be otherwise?

And that God, casting god-ness aside, disappears into humanity. There's something about that, too, isn't there?

Just some thoughts about yesterday's readings, knowing that what's coming next week will keep the questions fresh, right?