The mystery of the servant
Nowadays servants only exist in the slightly gaudy German Heimatfilme (homeland-films) of the past decades: They inhabit valleys in the Alps or isolated alpine pastures and grind away as dependent workers under the heel of their capricious farmers. The “servant of God”, whose figure appears in the book of the prophet Isaiah multiple times, has little in common with these characters.
There the figure of the servant of God remains obscure. Is a historical figure meant, a single person or maybe the people of God as a whole? That the text talks about a mission “to the nations” suggests the second interpretation: to be a light that shows the way. This servant in the world is Israel as a people in the service of God. Its task? Showing how God wants this world to be. How peace among people is possible. What a just society is. Its contract? The covenant. Its strategy? Letting its life be shaped by God’s commandments down to the last detail. acb
He said to me, you are my servant, in you, Israel, I show my glory. For now the LORD has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb, that Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him; I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength! It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
About the longing of the coastlands
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is about Israel. God’s pleasure in His servant renews Israel’s vocation. A good 500 years earlier, Isaiah poetically described the image of God’s servant, on whom God bestowed his spirit.
It summarizes what God has planned with His people: Israel is not there for herself. The coastlands wait for her teaching. The people of the covenant are destined to be a light for the nations. That is why it says that God’s servant does not quench the dimly burning wick, but reignites it. hak
Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow dim or be bruised until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching. I, the LORD, have called you for justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
Israel’s wisdom teachers knew that it is worth it to conduct life in accordance with the vocation God preconceived, with the help of wisdom. However, this wisdom cannot be found at anytime and anyplace, but in a particular location.
In the collected wisdom of the people of Israel, meaning in Jerusalem, it became accessible. That is why the three wise men have to first go to Jerusalem to find the way to the Messiah. That is also why Jesus’ life is inseparably connected with this city: from there he obtained his own wisdom and there he ultimately bore testament to it. ruk
Wisdom sings her own praises, among her own people she proclaims her glory. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, in the presence of his host she tells of her glory: “Then the Creator of all gave me his command, and my Creator chose the spot for my tent. He said, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance.’ Before all ages, from the beginning, he created me, and through all ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. In the city he loves as he loves me, he gave me rest; in Jerusalem, my domain. I struck root among the glorious people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.
In early post-new testament times the rumor was deliberately spread that Jesus of Nazareth was the child from an affair between a Roman legionary and a Jewish girl called Mirjam.
His stay in Egypt, which Matthew talk of in today’s gospel, was also denunciated accordingly: There Jesus supposedly adopted the Egyptian priests’ art of magic, so as to take his contemporaries by surprise with his superhuman abilities. What about the son of whom Matthew said in view of Jesus: “Out of Egypt I called my son”? Initially that was a phrase from the prophet Hosea (11;1); and he meant the people of Israel. But in the creed we say of Jesus Christ: “He came down from heaven”. How does all that go together: “my son” in the singular from (Jesus) and in the plural form (the people)? The son of a family in Nazareth and the Son of God from heaven? – The Holy Family was not necessarily an idyll. ars
When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”
He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
Matthew narrates Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. He has to learn that God’s breakthrough in history is natural and unnatural at the same time. If everything happened within the bounds of habit and possibility, how then should God’s great desire, His tangibly awaited presence in his people, succeed?
Maybe Joseph’s hesitation stems from the intimation that he will be the father of the child, which through him is “descended from David according to the flesh” (cf. Rom 1;3) and simultaneously belongs entirely to the Holy Spirit and His preternatural plans. tac
Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.
At the end of the prologue to his opus magnum “Jesus of Nazareth”, which is dedicated to the synoptic childhood stories, Benedict XVI. uses “waiting word” as a key phrase, especially in view of the prophet Isaiah.
He introduces it to show the oneness of the Old and New Testament. Beyond that, as a bridge to illustrate and prove how in the ensuing story Isaiah’s open-ended prophecies unexpectedly became newly concrete. On all four Sundays in Advent the first reading is taken from Isaiah. And in the gospel John has his disciples inquire of Jesus from prison: “Are you the one?” He says neither yes nor no. Instead, with a quote from Isaiah, he invites them to report to John what they can see and hear: the blind regain their sight and the lame walk. Advent: Expecting something great, bringing it to pass and thus updating the “waiting word”, which is no mere word of man. ars
The wilderness and the parched land will exult; the Arabah will rejoice and bloom; Like the crocus it shall bloom abundantly, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen hands that are feeble, make firm knees that are weak, Say to the fearful of heart: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall see, and the ears of the deaf be opened; Then the lame shall leap like a stag, and the mute tongue sing for joy. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning flee away.
For too long the “dear God” was only mentioned in children’s rooms and at dining tables; so it was not surprising when modern man disposed of Him as harmless.
When we hear Isaiah’s powerful language, we realize that Israel’s primordial experience was completely different. It was not a people that invented Him, on the contrary: He conceived Israel. Where a society accepts his commandments – the prophet calls it “fear of God” –, there it can experience healing of the deepest social and individual wounds. Partisanship, injustice, poverty, competition and all-devouring jealousy become powerless. Some undertook this experiment. The prophets described it in images and fables: Wolf and lamb. Lion and calf. Snake and child. It is simultaneously a vision and an experience of reality, always on the brink of failure. However, as His name is not “dear God”, but “justice” and “loyalty”, a people grew. His effects endure. acb
But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him:
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
A spirit of counsel and of strength,
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord,
and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord,
as water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the peoples—
Him the nations will seek out;
his dwelling shall be glorious.
In the books of two prophets, Isaiah and Micah, a great vision is passed on. The peoples will set out for Zion because they want to get to know the paths of Israel’s God. But how does this stream of peoples start?
There is no mention of appeals to Assur or Syria. Because at first it is not the peoples who must do something. Rather the time of the plowshares and pruning hooks begins with a few people from the house of Jacob. They decide to set out and take the first step themselves: Right away they start to walk their paths together according to God’s teaching: “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” hak
This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and set terms for many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
The crowning moment of life
Even the Presocratics knew of the allegation against religion: Humans visualize the divine in ways that mirror them: If dogs had gods, then they would have the form of dogs. The biblical enlightenment also exposes this weakness of the religious and takes a different path.
Therefore the image of Christ as king should not be seen as a religious reflection of human perception. Unlike a worldly king Jesus does not sit on a throne and does not govern a state. It is the crowning moment of his life to walk the lower path. That is why to this day he is depicted on the cross. Through the contrariness of cross and throne the bible shows an image of the invisible in this world. It can be imitated by all who look at it. ruk
Give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven.
Living in the between
The church year is drawing to a close. The liturgical texts embrace this atmosphere, but quite unlike current end-time preachers.
“See that you not be deceived, do not be terrified”, it says in the gospel. Back then the destruction of the temple was deeply unsettling; doomsday scenarios like earthquakes, plagues, famines and wars walk alongside history to this day. The predicted climate catastrophe adds a nuance to this list. But all that is not the end. We are living in the between. What are steady coordinates? For the prophet: the “day” the Lord comes and the sun of justice rises over Israel. For us: the “day of the Lord”, when we welcome His arrival in the assembly of the Church. For Paul: working, also manually, to earn a living. And at the same time gathering as many Jews and pagans, men and women as possible. “See that you not be deceived” – “it will not immediately be the end”. Those who endure shall not lose a single hair, despite oppression and hostility. ars
For the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, the sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings.
For you know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.