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2nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle A)

Readings:
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6
Psalm 40:1, 4, 7-10
1 Corinthians 1:1-3
John 1:29-34

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: The True Identity of Jesus of Nazareth
Today's Liturgy of the Word reveals Jesus Christ to us in three ways: He is the "Servant" of God promised by the Prophet Isaiah (Is 49:5-6), He is the "Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1:29), and He is the "Son of God" (Jn 1:34).

The First Reading is from the second the 8th-century BC prophet Isaiah's four "Servant Songs."  Isaiah identified the Servant as God's divine representative, ordained to his mission before his birth to spiritually restore God's covenant people.  However, his mission will not be limited to Israel but will include the conversion of the Gentiles for whom he will be a "light to the nation," carrying God's universal message of salvation "to the ends of the earth."

The Responsorial Psalm, attributed to King David, expresses the psalmist's gratitude to God for delivering him from a trial that has brought intense suffering.  In giving thanks for his salvation, he acknowledges that God has transformed his life and, as a result, gave him a "new song" of praise.  The psalmist shows that he has a unique understanding of his relationship with God in knowing that animal sacrifice is only a symbol of the humility and self-sacrifice of the individual in obedience to the will of God, and it is the only kind of sacrifice that is pleasing to God.  He responds to God's grace by offering himself as an oblation, yielding his life to do the will of God and to gratefully following His law written in the sacred texts, not only by words but by an internal commitment demonstrated in the actions of an undivided heart belonging entirely to the Lord.

The Second Reading is the introduction to Paul's letter to the Christian community at Corinth, Greece.  St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians of the three ways in which the existence of church at Corinth is grounded in God's initiative by being sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to a holy life in Christ through Christian baptism, and being members of the universal Body of Christ along with all others who call upon the name of Jesus.

Jesus began His public ministry soon after His baptism by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan River.  Our Gospel Reading concerns St. John the Baptist's revelation of Jesus' true identity as the Lamb of God and a sin offering for the atonement and sanctification of the covenant people.  John leaves no doubt that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Servant of the Lord who the prophet Isaiah foretold would redeem Israel.  He is the Christ that St. Paul and the other Apostles and disciples served and proclaimed as the One who brings salvation to the world!

The First Reading Isaiah 49:3, 5-6 ~ The Servant of the Lord
3 The LORD said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.  5 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, and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength!  6 It is too little, the LORD 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. 

Our first reading is from the second of the four "Servant Songs" found in the writings of the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah (Is 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-11 and 52:13-53:12; see the commentary in the previous Sunday's first reading).  In verse 3, God identifies His Servant with the people of Israel as their divinely ordained representative.  God gave His servant the mission to redeem Israel before he was born (verse 5).  However, his mission will not only be the restoration of the covenant people exiled by their enemies and scattered among the Gentile nations.  His mission is also the conversion of the Gentiles for whom he will be a "light to the nations" to carry God's message of universal salvation to "the ends of the earth" (verse 6).

The messianic interpretation of this passage in the figure of the "Servant of the Lord" was widespread among the Jews in the first century AD, including the members of the community at Qumran, near the Dead Sea and the location of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  From the earliest years of the New Covenant Church, Christians applied all four of the "Servant Songs" to Jesus Christ and saw these prophecies as fulfilled in His life and mission.  For example, in our current passage:

The Church's mission is to continue Jesus' work and to share with the world the truth about God's Servant, Jesus Christ.  Sts. Paul and Barnabas, speaking in the synagogue of Antioch Pisidia, testified to the Jews concerning Jesus' universal call to salvation: For so the Lord has commanded us, "I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth" (Acts 13:47).   And Pope John Paul II wrote: "Jesus Christ, the light of the nations, shines upon the face of his Church which he sends forth to the whole world to proclaim the Gospel to every creature (Mk 16:15).  Hence, the Church, as the people of God among the nations, while attentive to the new challenges of history and to humanity's efforts to discover the meaning of life, offers to everyone the answer which comes from the truth about Jesus Christ and his Gospel" (John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 2).

Responsorial Psalm 40:1, 4, 7-10 ~ Being Obedient to Yahweh's Will
The response is: "Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will."

1 I have waited, waited for the LORD, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.  4 And he put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God.
Response:
7 Sacrifice or offering you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me.  Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not; 8 then said I, "Behold I come."
Response:
"In the written scroll, it is prescribed for me, 9 to do your will, O my God, is my delight, and your law is within my heart!"
Response:
10 I announced your justice in the vast assembly; I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
Response:

In this psalm, attributed to King David, the psalmist is grateful to God for delivering him from a trial that has brought him intense suffering.  In giving thanks for his salvation, he acknowledges that God has transformed his life, and as a result, has given him a "new song" that is a hymn of praise (verses 1 and 4).  The psalmist shows that he has a unique understanding of his relationship with God in that he knows that animal sacrifice is only a symbol of the humility and self-sacrifice of the individual in obedience to the will of God that is the only kind of sacrifice that is pleasing to God (verse 7).  He responds to God's grace by offering himself to God as an oblation, yielding his life to do the will of God and to gratefully following His law written in the sacred texts, not only by words but by an internal commitment in the actions of one whose loyalty to God is demonstrated by an undivided heart (verses 8-9).  In verse 10, the psalmist vows to proclaim to the liturgical assembly of Israel the works of God in his life.

The inspired writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes verses 7-9 from the Greek Septuagint translation of this passage in Hebrews 10:5-9.  He interprets the passage as Christ's self-oblation, placing the words in the mouth of God the Son at His Incarnation: For this reason, when he came into the world, he said: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in.  Then I said, 'As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do your will, O God.'"

The Second Reading 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 ~ Christ's Faithful Emissaries to the Church Universal
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2 to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.  3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The introduction to Paul's message to the church at Corinth, Greece, is the conventional form for the initial greeting in a Hellenistic letter in the first century AD.  St. Paul begins by presenting his credentials: he has the authority to teach the church at Corinth because Jesus Christ called him to be an apostle by personally choosing Paul in his Damascus Road conversion (Acts 9:1-19) and appointing him to be a missionary to the Gentiles, a mission that was approved by St. Peter and the Church (Rom 11:13; Acts 9:15; 26:27; 1 Cor 9:2; Gal 1:16; 2:8; 1 Tim 2:7).  This divine appointment, Paul believed, elevated him as a true apostle of Christ and made him equal to the other Apostles who had also seen and talked with Jesus after His Resurrection (Acts 10:41).  He vigorously defends his title of "apostle" in all his letters.  He also founded this faith community on his second missionary journey in 50-/52 AD.

Next, he mentions Sosthenes, a co-author of the letter and "a brother in Christ" who was at one time the president of the Jewish synagogue at Corinth (Acts 18:12-17) but is now a Christian convert and a member of Paul's missionary team (verse 1).  Paul reminds the faith community of three ways in which their existence is grounded in God's initiative:

  1. Jesus Christ sanctified them.
  2. Christ called them to a holy life through Christian baptism.
  3. They are members of the universal Body of Christ with all others who are baptized and call upon the name of Jesus.

St. Paul often refers to Christians in his letters as those sanctified by Christ's sacrifice as "the holy ones" or "the saints" (verse 2).  The people of Old Covenant Israel were a "holy assembly" because they were separated out from all others on earth for the worship and service of Yahweh (see Lev 11:44; 23:1-44).  In the same way, the Christian community was also regarded as sanctified and set apart from the world by Christ in Christian baptism (Rom 6:22; 15:16; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:26-27).  Christians are called to holiness (1 Cor 1:2; 1 Thes 4:7) because they make their lives conform to the gift of grace they have received through Christ Jesus.

Finally, Paul gives the community a blessing in the closing of his greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  It is Paul's blessing found in his letters except for the Letter to the Hebrews, which the Church Fathers attributed to St. Paul, but which does not have the Greek greeting.  The typical Greek greeting was chairein [khah-ee-ren], meaning "greetings."  Scholars have suggested that Paul substituted chairein "greetings" with charis [khar'-ece], meaning "favor" in Greek but with the distinctive meaning and understanding of the Hebrew word hen, "grace," which is a gift of God.  And then to this greeting, Paul added the Greek word for "peace," eirene [i-ray'-nay], which reflects the typical Semitic shalom, "peace" (see 2 Mac 1:1), yielding a combined Gentile and Jewish greeting.

Jewish-Christians may have recognized in his greeting an echo the ancient priestly blessing for God's holy people Israel found in Numbers 6:24-26, May Yahweh bless you and keep you.  May Yahweh let his face shine on you and be gracious to you [give you grace].  May Yahweh show you his face and bring you peace.  If Paul does intend to echo the priestly blessing, then this is an ecclesial blessing, and "grace" represents God's covenantal grace revealed in Jesus Christ, and "peace" is the deep and abiding peace that comes from the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit.  It is a blessing that would have appealed to a mixed congregation of Christian Jews and Gentiles who are one Body in Christ.

The Gospel of John 1:29-34 ~ St. John the Baptist testifies to Jesus' True Identity
29 [The next day, he] John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and said, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  30 He is the one of whom I said, 'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.'  31 I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel." 32 John testified further, saying, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.  33 I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me.  'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'  34 Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."

Do not think of this event and St. John's statement in terms of your familiarity with the concept of Jesus as a sacrifice for humanity or in terms of your understanding of the Last Supper.  Think of how startling this statement was for these people in the 1st century AD, identifying a man as a human sacrifice. There were five kinds of animals used for ritual sacrifice in the Temple of God in Jerusalem: cattle, goats, sheep, turtledoves, and pigeons.  A "lamb who removes sin" would indicate a lamb of sacrifice, but which kind of lamb of sacrifice?   Most Biblical scholars and commentators identify this symbol of sacrifice with the Passover victims; however, the words "Passover lamb" do not appear in any of the ancient Greek manuscripts but are additions by modern translators.  The Passover victim was not a single lamb but thousands of lambs or goat-kids sacrificed on one day and only once a year (Ex 12:5-6; Lev 23:5; Num 28:16).  St. Paul does identify Jesus as our Passover in 1 Corinthians 5:7b, but the Greek text reads, "For the Passover of us was sacrificed Christ" (IBGE, vol. IV, pages 457-8), and indeed, Jesus was the perfect Lamb of sacrifice that every lamb in the Old Covenant sacrificial system symbolized.  But the Passover sacrifice, offered only once a year, was not the most important feast day of the Seven Sacred Annual Feasts.  Even though Passover was the first feast of the liturgical year, it was not designated a "Pilgrim feast" (see Dt 16:16 and 1 Chr 8:13).

An adult ram was offered in sacrifice on Yom Kipper (the Day of Atonement) as a whole burnt offering and a gift to Yahweh from His people.  There were multiple lambs sacrificed on other feast days.  For example in addition to other sacrifices, seven unblemished yearling lambs were offered as holocausts (whole burnt offerings) on the pilgrim feasts of Unleavened Bread (seven lambs on each of seven days) and Weeks (Pentecost), while on the Feast of Shelters (Tabernacles), there were fourteen lambs offered as a holocaust with other sacrifices for seven days and an additional seven lambs on the eighth day.  But none of these lambs were classified as sin offerings, and they were sacrifices offered only once a year.

It is unlikely that any of these classes of sacrificial lambs would have come immediately to the thoughts of the crowd listening to John's shocking statement.  The only single lamb offered as a holocaust for the sins and sanctification of the covenant people was the unblemished male lamb offered as a communal sacrifice in the morning liturgical worship service and the unblemished male lamb offered in the afternoon liturgical worship service at the Jerusalem Temple.  These lambs were called the Tamid (Standing) lambs, and theirs was a sacrifice in a liturgical worship service designated as perpetual for as long as the Sinai Covenant endured (Ex 29:38-42; Num 28:3-8).  For the covenant people, the entire day revolved around the twice-daily Tamid sacrifice.  Of all the sacrifices, it was the most important, taking precedence over all other feast day sacrifices offered in "addition" to the Tamid (repeated 15 times in Num 28:10-29:38).

The Hebrew word tamid means "standing" as in perpetual. When John identified Jesus as a Lamb of God offered for the sins of the people, he must have been referring to be the Tamid sacrifice, offered twice daily for the atonement and sanctification of the entire people, that came to mind for the crowd.  Since the liturgy of the Tamid took place from dawn to dust, and since the Jewish hours of private prayer occurred within the offering of the Tamid liturgy (9 AM to noon and noon to 3 PM), this particular event probably happened during one of the two "hours of prayer" associated with the sacrifice of the lambs in the Temple in Jerusalem.  This connection to the Tamid is also how St. John the Apostle identifies Jesus in the book of Revelation 5:5 when he saw Christ in Heaven for the first time: "Then I saw ... a Lamb standing that seemed to have been sacrificed" (Rev 5:6, bold added).  Dead lambs don't stand up, but "standing" has a double meaning.  It also means "perpetual or continual," as in the Hebrew word "Tamid" (for more information on these verses, see the study of the Book of Revelation Chapter 5 or the book "Jesus and the Mystery of the Tamid Sacrifice."

It is the moment of climax when John identifies Jesus as a sacrifice.  The Children of Israel abhorred human sacrifice.  Yahweh had forbidden the practice, and now their holy young priest/prophet has identified this man as a sacrifice for the sins of the people who also, according to John, is the Messiah, the "Son of God" (or will in verse 34).  It was not their idea of a "Chosen One."  Their concept of Messiah was another David or Moses.  St. John was telling the crowd of Jews how Jesus will bring salvation and redemption to humanity, not as a warrior like David but as "The Lamb" of sacrifice for the people.  Not to cover their unintentional sins, as the blood of the Tamid lambs, but to remove their sin forever. It is important to note that the original text reads sin in the singular to make it clear that the removal of all sin of every kind is the gift of Jesus the Lamb!  He is giving them God's promise to the prophet Jeremiah: they will all know me, from the least to the greatest, Yahweh declares, since I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind (Jer 31:31, NJB).

In his Gospel, St. John is also making a connection between the revelation of the Baptist and the "Songs of the Servant" passages in the book of Isaiah.  The fourth Servant Song reads: Ill treated and afflicted, he never opened his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before its shearers he never opened his mouth (Is 53:7, underlining added), and  It was Yahweh's good pleasure to crush him with pain; if he gives his life as a sin offering (Is 53:10a NJB, underlining added; also see  CCC#536, 608).  Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecy of these passages in His suffering and death on the Cross.

St. John testified to the crowd: "He existed before me" in verse 30.  In this statement, John is affirming Jesus' pre-incarnation.  Physically Jesus was born six months after John (as the ancients counted but five months as we count today with the concept of a zero place-value).  However, the Holy Spirit gave the Baptist the knowledge of Jesus' eternal existence.

31 I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.
The promise is that the Messiah would redeem Israel.  The gift of redemption must first be offered to Israel before offered to the Gentile nations.  Jesus will tell His disciples in their first missionary effort: "Do not make your way to Gentile territory, and do not enter any Samaritan town; go instead to the lost sheep of the House of Israel" (Mt 10:5-6).  Israel, as Yahweh's "Bride" of the Old Covenant Church, had the spiritual privilege of place as the "firstborn" (Ex 4:22).  However, the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah also speak of the "redemption of the nations."  But Israelites (living in the Galilee) and Jews (living in Judea) only thought in terms of personal and national redemption even though their divine call was to reveal Yahweh as the One true God to the other nations of the earth.  The celebration of the pilgrim feast of Shelters/Tabernacles looked forward to a "redemption of the nations" led by Israel.  The revelation of universal redemption is what prevented may Jews from coming to Christ (see Eph 2:11-3:13 for St. Paul's explanation of this mystery).

32 John testified further, saying, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.  33 I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me.  'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'  34 Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."
Each of the Gospel accounts includes the description of God's Spirit descending like a dove.  John's account differs from the other Gospels only in that he does not describe the baptism itself, and in describing the descent of the Spirit, John has the phrase "from heaven."  See CCC#438.

verse phrase
Matthew 3:16 "God's Spirit" "descending like a dove coming on him"
Mark 1:10 "The Spirit" "like a dove descending on him"
Luke 3:22 "The Holy Spirit" "descends in bodily form like a dove on him"
John 1:32 "The Spirit" "descending like a dove from heaven and remain on him"

It is from this time forward that God the Holy Spirit becomes associated in Christian iconography with the symbol of the dove.

I did not know him
This seems a curious statement because we know from Luke's Gospel that they are kinsmen.  John's ignorance of this relationship may be necessary to show that there was no collusion between Jesus and John.  That Jesus is the Messiah is purely a revelation from God.  Jesus' upbringing was in the Galilee in the North, and John was born in Ein Karin, which is just outside of Jerusalem.  If his elderly parents died when he was quite young and other relatives raised him, or if he grew up at Qumran in a community of priests who called themselves "sons of Zadok" and who had separated themselves from the established priesthood in Jerusalem, it is likely that he would lose contact with Mary and her family.   The sectarian documents at Qumran indicate that the community adopted orphaned children of priests.

"but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me.  'On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'"
In this statement, John makes a distinction between his form of ritual purification in water immersion and the baptism that Jesus will bring.  Jesus will bring a baptism of God the Holy Spirit that will result not in just a purified life made ready for the coming of the Messiah like St. John's baptism but a baptism that imparts a transformed life in which the Christian, through the power of God the Holy Spirit, becomes a new creature in Christ.

34 Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God."
In this statement, John reveals Jesus' true identity.  He is not only a son of God in the collective sense of Israelites who are sons of God in the Sinai Covenant.  Jesus is the Son of God!  Most ancient texts read "Son of God" as in our passage from the New American Bible translation, but other ancient manuscripts read instead "Chosen One," reflecting the title of God's "Servant" in the first "Song of the Servant" in Isaiah 42:1.  Nevertheless, John's audience would probably have made the connection with what John says in verse 33 to Isaiah's Servant of Yahweh: Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights.  I have sent my spirit upon him (Is 42:1, bold added for emphasis). There would have been no doubt for the crowd that St. John was identifying Jesus as the promised Redeemer-Messiah.

Catechism References (* indicated Scripture quoted or paraphrased in the citation):
Isaiah 49:3, 5-6 (CCC 64*, 713*)

Psalm 40:7-10 LXX (CCC 462); 40:7 (CCC 2824)

1 Corinthians 1:1-2 (CCC 752*, 1695)

John 1:29 (CCC 408, 523*, 536, 608, 1137*, 1505); 1:31-34 (CCC 486*); 1:31 (CCC 438); 1:32-34 (CCC 713*); 1:32-33 (CCC 536); 1:33-34 (CCC 719, 1286*)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013; revised 2020