This Sunday’s Readings

St. John the Forerunner by William Hart McNichols

By Eileen Markey

This week’s readings present a dicotomy between anger and mercy. Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 is interpreted in Catholic tradition as foreshadowing John, who came before and “prepared the way” for Christ. In Luke’s Lk 3:15-16, 21-22 Gospel we read the scene of Jesus’ baptism, where John says he is not the messiah, only the opening act and the voice of God claims Christ saying, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well proud.”

John the Baptist was always my favorite New Testament character. “Make straight the way of the lord” he exhorted from his desert hermitage. He was so hard core: living on locust and honey, wearing nothing but an itchy camel-hair smock. The family bible in my childhood home had a dramatic full-page picture of John the Baptist. It showed a matted-haired man, nostrils flared, pointing one finger to the heavens with teeth clinched and arm muscles flexed. He was filthy and intense and angry and on a mission. I loved him.

I saw him as a sort of punk holy man, unhinged, but definitely in tune. You can easily imagine John the Baptist letting lose on some venial Judean. If there were a quote bubble in that childhood bible it would have read, “Are you kidding me? The lord is coming, you schmuck.” My John the Baptist exhorted. He cried out.

I so often want to exhort. To cry out. To stop traffic. John the Baptist was PISSED at the injustice in society, at the prisons and the people left hungry and the idolatry. So am I. It feels powerful to be angry. It feels wild.

But the other readings for this week’s liturgy don’t exhort. They are gentle. They remind us the the most powerful element in the universe is not rage, but mercy.

The rest of Isiah 40 talks about the good shepherd. “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
 in his arms he gathers the lambs,
 carrying them in his bosom,
 and leading the ewes with care” (you can almost hear the song from school liturgy can’t you?) It is so tender and sensual. This God walks lightly and cuddles lambs to his chest.

The alternate selection for Sunday’s first reading Is 42:1-4, 6-7 has just as light a touch. It’s not talking about my shouting John the Baptist. Instead, Isiah 42 says God’s servant “shall bring forth justice to the nations,
 not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. 
A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;”

Now that’s gentle. That’s some serious self control. There are so many amazing elements and implications to our story of an incarnate, fully human God. This is one of the most staggering. God- as in the force of all living things, master of the universe, almighty- becomes human and turns out to be the sort of guy who wouldn’t break a reed, who gathers wayward sheep. No tossing thunder bolts or striking people dumb or telling anyone off. No, this one’s all about “bringing forth justice” without raising his voice.

That is such a harder act to follow.

Because it’s not as though Christ was not upset by the injustice. This is the social justice Isiah and Gospel that put all of us here in our low-paid social worker/activist/advocate for the poor/ political artist jobs. It’s not as though this gentle messiah has retreated to concerns about his chi, or is pursuing the perfect tea to promote spiritual cleansing. He is described “as a covenant of 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.”

He’s just going to do all that without getting aggressive.

The psalm Ps 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10 is of the same theme, but with the beautiful sense of wonder so often present in David’s poetry.

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters,
the LORD, over vast waters.
The voice of the LORD is mighty;
the voice of the LORD is majestic. The Lord will bless his people with peace.”

That voice over the vast waters, it calls to mind the beginning of genesis, doesn’t it? In the beginning there was a the word, emerging from the void. It towered over the abyss. FIND CITATION.

The waters, so elemental and, well, vast. God is there. God’s voice is there. And God will bless the people not with a purifying fire, not with blindness for their unending list of selfish acts, but with peace.

In the second reading, Titus writes to the young church, addressing his recipients as “Beloved”.

It’s all about grace and mercy.

Titus writes that “the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy,” Ti 2:11-14; 3:4-7

We are reminded that’s God’s love isn’t transactional, it isn’t winnable, it isn’t even given out because we are good. It’s given because God has mercy. Because God – in all God’s ineffable power- is tender.

I sometimes find the metaphor of God as parent demeaning, but here I think it’s helpful, particularly to those of us who are parents. God could rage. God could shout. But instead God cradles us with the same tenderness we show our children. When I linger after bedtime with my 6-year old, holding his little hand, or stroking his small cheek, I know what this kindness is, this quiet and mercy. This week reminds us that God the parent, God the Godhead is tender. Is merciful.

In the Gospel Lk 3:15-16, 21-22 the voice of God claims Christ as his son, marking the beginning of Christ’s public life. It’s a little cartoonish, right? I mean literally a voice from the heavens. But I’m struck by what the voice says. “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well proud.”

It’s so parental. It’s so tender.

The voice said you are my beloved son. Not my ass-kicking son or my son who is going to burn things down. My beloved.

We’re reminded this week that God is gentle, tender. Maybe God is saying that we should release a bit, let the gentleness in, find and offer comfort, not rage. Maybe we should be kinder, more like the deity that gathers the lambs in his arms and less like the madman with the flared nostrils and the pointed finger.

Eileen Markey is a reporter who loves living in a progressive community in the Bronx, New York. She writes about urban public policy, teaches journalism, grows vegetables on the roof of her apartment building, and marvels at the wisdom of her son.

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