Energized by the Advent and Christmas seasons, as the Church goes forth into the new year we are presented with a strong challenge and equally strong encouragement in today’s readings: the challenge is the call to divine servanthood, and the encouragement comes from the prophetic words of Isaiah and John the Baptist.
The Book of Isaiah was likely written over a span of two centuries, and as one would expect of any such lengthy period the nation of Israel saw both triumphs and tragedies in that time. One consistent theme—and challenge—that carries through Isaiah’s prophecies is that of Israel being a servant of the Lord, chosen and specially equipped in order to manifest the Lord’s redemption for her own citizens and for all the inhabitants of the earth.
Earlier in this long book Israel’s role as the Lord’s servant is traced over rocky ground, with the nation drifting from her fidelity to the Lord’s service and being besieged by enemies all about. Later however, in the era today’s reading is drawn from, we see signs of great hope. When today’s passage was recorded Israel was in the process of coming home from a long exile in Babylon, and a new sense of joyful anticipation was emerging: here is where the challenge turns to encouragement; we read, “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” (Isa 49:6).
This verse, and this Sunday’s entire first reading, are taken from the second of four so-called “servant songs” found in Isaiah. The “servant songs” are poetic outbursts of the prophet, marked both by hope and by a realistic understanding of the disappointment that often accompanies hope in human life. Israel came to appreciate the proper places of hope and realism in her role as the Lord’s servant, and we must do the same. The Psalm at today’s mass reflects a similar profound recognition of the Psalmist’s vocation as a servant of the Lord, and in spite of the dual-edged nature of this calling he accepts the responsibility with zeal, saying: “Hear I am, Lord, I come to do your will” (Ps 40:8-9).
With remarkably pointed words John the Baptist takes up his servant role where Isaiah and the Psalmist leave off, exclaiming, “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (John 1:30). John’s statement points to a conclusion he will draw later in the Gospel of John, when he speaks his final words, referring to Jesus: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). Through Isaiah and the Baptist the scriptures today express a basic yet difficult point about Christian discipleship: that we are most fully alive when we embrace, not our own will, but the will of God; that is, when we are “servants of the Lord” and serve others out of love for the Lord instead of being served ourselves.
As Catholics it is our belief that ultimately our best possible “end” is to do the will of God, since that will is always for our greatest good, even if we encounter the challenges of disappointment and suffering along the way. The “servant of the Lord” of Isaiah understood this and gave poetic voice to the summons to find greatness in humble service. John the Baptist joined Isaiah and the Psalmist in giving the perfect witness to this calling through martyrdom. May the encouragement they give inspire us to imitate their example and take up the challenge to live as true “servants of the Lord.”
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Raphael’s image of the prophet Isaiah from the Basilica di Sant’ Agostino, Rome.