Matthew Kelly’s great book suggests many ways to get to know Jesus better. Here is another. Spend time with the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. The book of Isaiah includes four poems, Servant Songs, and today we hear the third one. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week we will hear the other three at Mass. Who is the suffering servant? Many Jewish scholars see these passages as referring to the nation itself. Some see them as prophecies about the Messiah. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and evangelists recognized Jesus in these powerful poems.
I did it before, and now I am doing it again, even more gloriously! Isaiah wanted the people to make the connection. God had led their ancestors out of Egypt and into freedom, opening a way through the sea. The return from exile was not just a stroke of great fortune – it was the power of the same God, returning them home after their sins and failures brought them into exile. At the Easter vigil, we will hear a beautiful rendition of Miriam’s song at the sea, praising God for the deliverance from Egypt.
For the guardians of tradition and authors of the scriptures, Israel’s time in Egypt came to represent alienation from God. The first Passover, in flight, represented escape from slavery. The Passover we hear in our 1st reading today is the culmination of events, God’s promise of freedom fulfilled. From alienation and slavery, to a time of testing in the desert; finally, freedom in the Promised Land. Think of folks in our world today, oppressed by the slavery of violence and conflict. Pray they may experience a first Passover, escape from a life that has become untenable.
“I am who am.” A fascinating name. One held with tremendous reverence. In respect for our Jewish sisters and brothers, who believe that the Divine name is too holy to be spoken, recently the church has asked that we not use the name ‘Yahweh’ in the liturgy. Songs like “Yahweh is the God of our salvation” are out. But there is more to this reading. Moses has a mission that is central to God’s plan, and the process begins as any healthy relationship does – God shares who he is: I’m the God of your fathers. I’m the one who has heard the cry of the people.
Any robust religion includes sacrifice in some form or another. Self-centeredness and self-absorption are the enemies of spiritual growth, and a living relationship with God, however we understand God. Sacrifice can open us up to God in a powerful way. Our first reading includes a complex animal sacrifice that surely seems strange to us, but in the world of Abram, would not have seemed nearly so strange – animal sacrifices, even trances and visions were part of the warp and woof of the religious world view.
It’s not hard to figure out – for a parish to exist, to have a church in which to gather, ministries for worship, education, pastoral care, and the many other facets of parish life, there needs to be financial support, and the primary way that happens is through the Sunday offering. But our 1 st reading today makes it clear – it isn’t just about human practicalities, it is about divine worship. Why take up the collection when we do? During Mass there is a logic to the flow of our prayer. We gather. We acknowledge our need for mercy.
Was it the hour of incense, or was some other service taking place when Isaiah received his call? Quite possibly. Certainly the backdrop of his hearing God’s call is the Temple; the description is so vivid, we can almost see the incense rising, the room shaking, the embers on the altar, the carved Seraphim coming to life. Awareness of God’s presence, a sense of call can come in many different ways. The prophet Samuel’s experience was auditory – hearing God call his name. Isaiah’s experience is conveyed to us in visual terms.
It’s a concept familiar to adept gardeners – some plants do well next to one another. Why? Well, the color or texture of one can bring out what is best in the other, and vice-versa. Likewise, sometimes one scripture passage can be a great ‘companion’ to another. Read both, and the result is greater than the sum of the parts. Try reading our first reading, about Jeremiah’s call, followed by reading psalm 139. A deeper sense of our origin being rooted in God will come into focus.
The 1st reading doesn’t tell us exactly why all the people were weeping. They had been in exile 70 years, so perhaps with the covenant renewal ceremony, it truly sank in: we are home, and that suffering is at an end. Some may have longed for the chance to renew the covenant for years, and now the time finally arrived. For many who were younger, it may have been hearing from the Torah for the first time. Others may have been struck by God’s love and promises, now fulfilled, while some may have been struck with how far they had drifted away from God’s commands during the exile.
Take just a moment or two to reflect on life for refugees in our world today, who have had to flee their homeland, and we can begin to sense the painful emptiness the people of Israel felt during the Babylonian Exile, and the hardships they experienced. But it was actually much worse. They had no choice, and were literally ripped from their homeland and led away. No wonder then that as 2nd Isaiah sensed God was about to bring them back home, he wrote lofty poetry inspired by God. Our 1st reading today from chapter 62 of Isaiah brings us much closer to the return, and the joy crescendos.