(Opening prayer: Jn 1:29 – 34)
Isaiah 40:1 – 5, 9 – 11
We hear again from the prophet Isaiah this Sunday, from the beginning of the portion of this book that most scripture scholars identify as part of Deutero-Isaiah (chapter 40 – 55). As you will read in your footnotes, these chapters – 40 – 55 – are usually designated Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah) and are believed to have been written by an anonymous prophet toward the end of the Babylonian exile. There are several significant difference between the first 39 chapters of this book and these chapters:
- Isaiah, who is named frequently in chaps. 1–39, does not appear here;
- the Assyrians, the great threat during the eighth century, hardly appear;
- the Judeans are in Babylon, having been taken there by the victorious Babylonians;
- Cyrus, the Persian king, is named;
- he will defeat Babylon and release the captives.
Second Isaiah, who sees this not as a happy circumstance but as part of God’s age-old plan, exhorts the Judeans to resist the temptations of Babylonian religion and stirs up hopes of an imminent return to Judah, where the Lord will again be acknowledged as King (cf. 52:7). Because the prophet proclaimed the triumph of Persia over Babylon, his message would have been considered seditious, and it is very likely for this reason that the collection would have circulated anonymously. At some point it was appended to Is 1 – 39 and consequently was long considered the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem of the eighth century. But the fact that it is addressed to Judean exiles in Babylon indicates a sixth-century date. Nevertheless, this eloquent prophet in many ways works within the tradition of Isaiah and develops themes found in the earlier chapters, such as the holiness of the Lord (cf. note on 1:4) and his lordship of history. Second Isaiah also develops other Old Testament themes, such as the Lord as Israel’s redeemer or deliverer (cf. Ex 3:8; 6:6; 15:13; 18:8).
As is usually the case, this reading prepares us for the Gospel; let’s examine it.
1 Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.
2 Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service has ended,
that her guilt is expiated, that she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.
Service: this refers to their servitude while in exile; this is about to come to an end.
double for all her sins: Like Job, Israel is to receive a double blessing from the Lord. Unlike Job, it is in expiation for Israel’s sins.
3 A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged land shall be a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.
Make straight in the wasteland a highway… Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged land shall be a plain, the rough country, a broad valley: We heard this passage quoted in the Gospel of Luke (3:4-6) just a few weeks ago on the Second Sunday of Advent. It is a powerful and encouraging description of the way back from exile to Jerusalem that will be made straight and easy. God wants to facilitate the return of his people.
5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
all flesh shall see it together: clearly, God’s revelation will be offered for all to see, not just the Jewish peoples.
9 Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of good news. Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Cry out, do not fear! Say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
herald of good news: we see a similar, hope-filled message in 41:27 and 52:7.
10 Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him.
11 Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care.
God, who rules by his strong arm and, like a shepherd, feeds his flock, is coming; what a hopeful message! As we hear in the Gospel, this promise is fulfilled.
Luke 3:15 – 16, 21 – 22
Although John’s Gospel does not explicitly mention it, as you noticed in the opening prayer, all three of the synoptic gospels report Jesus’ baptism but each one presents it slightly differently. The Lucan story of the baptism account, which we will hear on Sunday, is significantly different from the Matthean and Marcan (cf. Mt 3: 13 – 17; Mk 1:9 – 11). But, all three share some testimony from God as Jesus arose from the Jordan. It’s important to realize that each account helps to present the message of the particular gospel.
There is much discussion among scholars as to why Jesus participated in the rite at the Jordan. Some say it was to offer an example of humility that others might follow. Some have seen in Jesus’ action a sign of his willingness to embrace sinners so as to redeem them. Still others, citing verse 15 of Matthew’s account (unique to the Matthean account), understand it as a sign that Jesus is always going to adhere to God’s plan for him and for the world.
To affirm Jesus’ identity and his mission, a voice spoke from heaven. Voice — or, more literally, bath hoe, which means “daughter of a voice” — was a term used in rabbinic literature to refer to the means by which God revealed the divine purpose after prophecy had ceased. Here, the voice proclaims Jesus as God’s beloved Son with whom God is well pleased. Scholars see this as an obvious association of Jesus with the Isaian servant (as we heard in the first reading).
The image of an opened sky was probably meant to remind Luke’s readers of Isaiah 64:1 (or in some translations, 63:19b): “O that you would rend the heavens and come down.” This cry summed up the hopes of the prophet and his contemporaries as they begged for messianic intervention. By referencing this Isaian text, Luke was affirming that the era of the messiah was now beginning in Jesus.
This affirmation was further clarified by the presence of the Spirit of God coming upon and “anointing” Jesus. Just as kings, priests and prophets were anointed by God in order to carry out their respective duties, and just as the Isaian servant (Is 42:1-2) was anointed for his salvific mission, so was Jesus endowed with and empowered by God’s own Spirit. In addition to representing the presence of God, the dove was often regarded as a symbol for Israel as God’s beloved (Song of Songs [pg. 892] 1:15; 2:14; 4:1; 5:2; 6:9). Perhaps the author of Luke’s Gospel would also want readers to recognize the dove as a symbol of the new Israel: that is, all the people of God for whom Jesus would exercise his saving ministry. With all of this background, let’s read the passage.
15 Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.
16 John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire: in contrast to John’s baptism with water, Jesus is said to baptize with the holy Spirit and with fire. From the point of view of the early Christian community, the Spirit and fire must have been understood in the light of the fire symbolism of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4); but as part of John’s preaching, the Spirit and fire should be related to their purifying and refining characteristics (Ez 36:25–27; Mal 3:2–3). See note on Mt 3:11.
17 His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
19 Now Herod the tetrarch, who had been censured by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil deeds Herod had committed,
20 added still another to these by [also] putting John in prison.
21 After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,* heaven was opened
Jesus also had been baptized: Luke is purposely vague about who baptizes Jesus. He has already removed John the Baptist from the scene by noting that Herod had put him in jail. Thus, he marks the clear delineation between John, the greatest prophet of the Old Covenant, and Jesus, the one who will introduce the New Covenant.
was praying: Luke regularly presents Jesus at prayer at important points in his ministry: here at his baptism; at the choice of the Twelve (Lk 6:12); before Peter’s confession (Lk 9:18); at the transfiguration (Lk 9:28); when he teaches his disciples to pray (Lk 11:1); at the Last Supper (Lk 22:32); on the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:41); on the cross (Lk 23:46).
22 and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” As Jesus prepares to begin his public ministry, he is given the assurance that his heavenly Father is with him.
As you will read in your footnotes, this episode in Luke focuses on the heavenly message identifying Jesus as Son and, through the allusion to Is 42:1, as Servant of Yahweh. The relationship of Jesus to the Father has already been announced in the infancy narrative (Lk 1:32, 35; 2:49); it occurs here at the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry and will reappear in Lk 9:35 before another major section of Luke’s gospel, the travel narrative (Lk 9:51–19:27). Elsewhere in Luke’s writings (Lk 4:18; Acts 10:38), this incident will be interpreted as a type of anointing of Jesus.
Titus 2:11 – 14; 3:4 – 7
We don’t often hear from Paul’s letter to Titus; at the Christmas Midnight Mass and the Christmas Mass at Dawn, and in year three on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This letter was written to Titus who, as we read in Ti 1:5 – 9, was in charge of the Christian community in Crete. St. Paul never visited Crete but he sent Titus, one of his co-workers to develop the Church there. We read in Gal. 2:1 and Acts 15:2 that he went with Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to Jerusalem. Titus had also taken Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth (2 Cor 7:6 – 8) and had the responsibility of taking up the collection in Corinth for the Christians in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:6, 16 – 19, 23).
The passage that we will hear on Sunday follows an admonition to the Christian community; let’s read that first (Ti 2:1 – 10). As we will hear on Sunday, Paul argues that we are able to behave in this way because of God’s appearance in the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s examine this passage:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, saving all
12 and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
13 as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ,
14 who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.
3: 4 – 7
4 But when the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
5 not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy,
he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit,
6 whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior,
7 so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
In all three passages this Sunday, we learn about Jesus, the servant foretold by Deutero-Isaiah, affirmed by God as “my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” and the one who calls all people to God. That’s how we end the Christmas season and return to Ordinary Time: fully aware of God’s work being done through Jesus, his beloved son, for the good of all who would come to believe in him.
This is also a good time for us to reflect on our own baptism. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, the first sacrament we received, we were cleansed of the stain of original sin. If you were an adult, you were also forgiven of all your sins. Through baptism, we were welcomed into the family of God, allowed to call God our Father, as we do every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Like Jesus, we had the Holy Spirit given to us as we were anointed by the same sacred chrism that would be administered when we received the fullness of the Spirit at Confirmation. You will notice that we are never baptized again since the sacrament can never be absolved. Although baptism does not guarantee our entry into heaven, it marks us for Christ in a way that can never be erased. As we return, once again to Ordinary Time, that is, time ordered by God, let us continue to unite ourselves to God so as to deserve the title, children of God.