1999 01 – Baptism of the Lord (Prison Writings)
Cycle A B C
Is 42, 1-4. 6-7
Acts 10, 34-38
Mt 3, 13-17
By Frank Cordaro
(Written December 9, 1998 Charles Co. Jail)
“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. (Is. 42:1)
This week’s Old Testament text comes from a section in the book of Isaiah (Chap. 40-55) written by an anonymous prophet known to us only as “Second Isaiah”. He did his prophetic ministry over 100 years after the death of the original Isaiah, during the dark days of the Babylonian exile. Within the body of Second Isaiah Writings are four poems given the name “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” This week’s reading is the first of these songs.
The work of this prophet was truly remarkable and revolutionary. He managed to turn a seemingly hopeless and dreadful situation into a life giving and redemptive experience.
In his book Prophetic Imagination Walter Brueggeman makes the case that all true prophetic insight comes from the prophet’s ability and willingness to embrace the full measure of grief and suffering in any given unjust human situation. Brueggemen uses Second Isaiah as his primary example of how this grief-based prophetic imagination works.
Second Isaiah’s ministry took place at one of the darkest hours of Jewish history. Their beloved city of Jerusalem was destroyed, their Temple looted, burned and leveled. Every living heir to King David’s throne was killed, their armies destroyed and their people either killed or in captivity in Babylon. By all rights, the Jewish people should have disappeared from the face of the earth.
Every major tenet of their faith seemed to be proven wrong. The land that God had promised to them forever was taken away. Their holy city and temple was destroyed. And the dynasty of King David, which was supposed to last forever, was wiped out. If there ever was a time to “throw in the towel”, declare the death of their God and assimilate into the nearest “working” faith tradition, this was that time.
But Second Isaiah would not let his happen. Far from running away from the grief and suffering of his people’s situation, denying the experience or covering it up, the prophet took it on, full measure. And let the pain and suffering of the experience reform and revisions his understanding of what being faithful was all about.
The first thing the prophet had to Re-assert was that God does not lie, that God’s word and promises always come true. The second thing the prophet did was to re-claim that the Jews were indeed God’s chosen people and as such they were called to remain faithful to God and his promises, despite all appearances of failure and hopelessness.
It was in this grief based tension between God’s seemingly failed promises and the exiled people’s blind faith that Second Isaiah made his theological breakthrough visioning their painful exile experience as part of God’s plan, a suffering that redeems.
Within the Four Songs of the Suffering Servant, the prophet was able to incorporate many of the major themes from the original Isaiah’s message with his idea of redemptive suffering. The Faithful Suffering Servant was now the force behind the bringing together of all the nations of the world into the service and obedience to God. This suffering servant would right the world’s wrongs and establish justice for all. The means by which this servant did his work were not the traditional worldly means of force and violence but through the means of self-sacrificing love and non-violence. In essence, this suffering servant redefined what success and Godly power were all about.
Second Isaiah was never really clear about who this suffering servant was. At times he appears to have a corporate identity referring to the nation of Israel or the faithful remnant. At other times, he seems to be referring to an individual person, a king, a prophet, one just man. In today’s text the servant appears to be a King with the task of establishing “justice.” Regardless of second Isaiah’s original intentions, there is no doubt that in the New Testament, Jesus is understood and described as the absolute Fulfillment of Second Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.
“This is my beloved Son. My favor rests on him.” (Matt. 13:17)
One of the most certain historical facts recorded in the Gospels is that John baptized Jesus. It’s directly reported in all three of the synoptic Gospels and referred to in John. From the earliest time, followers of Jesus were embarrassed by his submission to John’s baptism. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and Jesus, John’s superior was free from sin and had no need for repentance.
Even though it is correct theologically to say that Jesus was sinless and in need of no repentance, humanly speaking the historical Jesus had to go through his own developmental stages of self understanding. Beneath the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ dealings with John the Baptist are solid historical indicators that Jesus must have been associated with John if not an outright disciple of John’s. (See John 3:22 – 4:1-2) It must have been a kind of apprenticeship for Jesus.
The three accounts of Jesus’ Baptism in the synoptic Gospels serve the same dramatic purpose in all three Gospels. It is the kick off story, the opening scene of the first act of the main story. Jesus appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. His baptism serves as the occasion and backdrop for a powerful special effects event, God the Father’s commissioning and endorsement of his Son Jesus.
As Matthew tells it in this week’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptized and comes up out of the water the sky opens up and the Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove hovering over his head. And the voice of God is heard saying, “This is my beloved Son, My favor rests on him.” The voice of God says the same words in all three baptism accounts.
God’s words are not randomly chosen, spontaneous accolades made up on the spot. They were in fact two carefully selected Old Testament references brought together to identify the nature and character of Jesus and his mission. The first reference, “This is my beloved son” comes from Psalm 2:7, a messiah-king psalm. God is telling us that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s long awaited Messiah-King. Right alongside this reference is the second Old Testament reference, “My favor rests on him” which comes from Is. 42:1, this week’s first reading, Isaiah’s First Suffering Servant Song.
In this ten word message from God, the Gospel writers are able to put the reader on notice about what to expect in the rest of their Gospels. In many different ways and on many different levels what follows in the Gospel accounts is a fleshing out of these two identifying characteristics of Jesus’ true nature and purpose.
Peter addressed Cornelius and the People Assembled at his house. (Acts 10:3)
When reading the book of Acts I’m often envious of the “free wheeling” “from the seat of their pants” spirit way that the early church and its leaders lived. Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his household is a good example. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who was a “devout and God-fearing man along with his household, who gave alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly.” Acts 10:2. He and his household were very exceptional and extraordinary, the proverbial “one in a million.”
Peter and Cornelius’ households are brought together through corresponding dreams and visions. That which separates them is compelling; Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, the occupied and occupiers. When God finally brought them together Cornelius and his household were ready to receive the Good News of the Christian message and Peter was ready to proclaim it to them. This weeks’ second reading from the book of Acts is the first half of Peter’s proclamation speech to Cornelius and his household.
There are many aspects about this story in Acts worth studying. What strikes me at this time, it being the Baptism of Jesus Sunday, is the fact that Cornelius and his household were baptized by Peter only after they received the Holy Spirit! How can this be? As any Catholic grade school student will tell you, the order of receiving the sacraments is baptism first followed by reconciliation, Holy Communion and then confirmation, “the receiving of the Holy Spirit.”
It seems that the first generation of Christians and their leaders were freer to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit without the burden of established Church practice and canon law. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the need and benefit of long standing church traditions and practices and the necessity for canon law.
Yet there must always be a living experience of give and take, a healthy tension between the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the dictates of church traditions and law to insure the church’s continued renewal and rediscovery of Jesus’ dynamic spirit for each succeeding generation and age.
One recent example in our diocese and in the larger Church where the promptings of the Holy Spirit appeared to be ignored happened a few years ago. The Vatican declared the end of the experiment of Sacramental Communal Penance. The practice of Sacramental Communal Penance had become a vibrant and faith filled practice for many of our parish communities. Before the Vatican’s directive was implemented there was a time for grassroots input about the practice through the office of the Bishop. Many of our priest and lay leaders made compelling and impressive pleas in defense of the practice. As we soon discovered, all our input was to NO AVAIL. When the allotted time for discussion was over the Vatican decision to end Sacramental Communal Penance was enacted.
For many of us, this was a clear example of our church leadership not giving a fair hearing to the authentic faith experience of their people and siding with the dictates of law over the promptings of the Holy Spirit.