Today, the Monday of Holy Week, Father Steve Grunow shares his sermon about Isaiah, Christ, and the many complexities to a story that ultimately serves to simplify, redeem and illuminate.
Our first reading for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In this text, the prophet reveals a mysterious figure, which he names as the servant of the Lord. The servant of the Lord has been chosen by the God of Israel for a particular mission.
The mission of this servant is the restoration of Israel. The prophet Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord from the midst of distressing and painful circumstances. The once-mighty Kingdom of David has fallen into ruin and its past glory has retreated into memory. The fall of David's Kingdom has left Israel vulnerable to the powers of the world that have seized their lands, destroyed their cities, desecrated their holy places and reduced Israel to the status of a slave. It is to this Israel, seemingly forsaken, that the servant of the Lord will come.
The Church understands Isaiah's vision of the servant of the Lord as a foreshadowing of Christ.
As one reads further in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah one discerns that the servant of the Lord will effect the restoration of David's Kingdom through his suffering and through his willingness to accept this suffering as a mission that comes from God, he will offer Israel forgiveness and hope.
That the servant of the Lord would suffer confounded many in Israel and still seems strange to us today. Humanity has tendency to read service to the Lord as by necessity resulting in material blessings. In this construel of Biblical revelation, the commitment to serve the Lord should result in deliverance from the hard facts of life and result in a life that is by all measure successful.
The tendency to equate service to the Lord with a life of good fortune represents a distortion of the totality of the bibilical vision as it is viewed through the lens of Christ. God in Christ reveals that his purposes are not accomplished through an exemption from reality, but in a passage through it. This is on evident display in Christ, who accepts the reality of the human condition as his own, and by entering into the fullness of human experience, he effects its transformation. Christ does not exempt himself from suffering and death, but in his passage into both, he transforms each forever. So it will be for us as well!
The Gospel of John sets a magnificent scene before us today.
It is in the house of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, that the Lord Jesus is annointed with the costliest of aromatic perfumes. This gesture is met with the protest and condemnation of Judas Iscariot.
Today's Gospel is often used by Christians to justify the manner in which they lavish gifts upon the Lord, usually in expressions of art and worship. The Church's use of its resources to serve Christ in the poor are complemented by efforts to represent Christ in works of beauty and creativity. The words of Christ in this text are used to support both service to the poor works of mercy and service to the Lord through works of culture. In both ways the mandate of Christ is fulfilled.
However, there is more to this text than a clarification in regards to the management of the Church's resources and the allocation of funds.
In this Gospel passage, the Lord Jesus is annointed, a sign of his Messianic identity and mission. Like David and the kings that followed him, Christ is annointed, which is a sign that he, like Israel's kings, has been set apart in terms of who he is and what he will do. The reference the Lord makes that connects his annointing to his burial is a foreshadowing of where his mission as Messiah will take him. The kind of Messiah he will be is revealed in the manner of his death.
During Holy Week, the Church invites the faithful to an ever deeper consideration of Christ's suffering and death. This invitation is not intended simply to garner sympathy for Christ in his passion, but to show us the kind of God and king that he reveals himself to be. The revelation of Christ as suffering servant and crucified God is troubling for us to see and many would rather just look away or diminish the blow with sentiment. Yet, the Church insists that the full meaning and importance of the identity and mission of Christ the Lord can only be discerned from the vantage point of one who is willing to look upon his cross.
We might rather look away, but we shouldn't.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.