This Church year, this year of grace, began last November with the First Sunday of Advent. Since then, we’ve been through Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord. Today is our first “green” Sunday, actually the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time. (The First Sunday of Ordinary Time is actually the Baptism of the Lord). So, on this first Ordinary Time Sunday that we’re celebrating, we have a Gospel reading that sounds suspiciously like the Gospel reading for the Baptism of the Lord. Confusing, isn’t it? Whenever this kind of thing happens, though, we should ask ourselves what it is that the Church is trying to do, what is it that She is trying to teach us with these readings.
And the first place to start, usually, is by looking at the whole Liturgy of the Word today. When we do that, I think, we find a group of readings that speak of beginnings, which, as it turns out, is not a bad way to start out our celebration of Ordinary Time. But before we launch into a look at the readings, let’s talk a bit about Ordinary Time. There’s a tendency, when we hear that phrase, to think of these Sundays as just “ordinary” or “blah” – nothing special. That’s what the term “ordinary” means to us English Speakers. But that’s not what the Church is going for. A better translation would perhaps be “ordered time” a time that is marked out, set aside, and always observed. That means we don’t have permission to skip them, and that we ought to keep them holy. At its core, “Ordinary Time” Sundays are Sundays made sacred because they are connected to the death and resurrection of the Lord. They are ultimately a celebration of the Lord’s Day through and through.
So on this first of the “ordered time” Sundays, we have a look at some beginnings. The first of the beginnings is the commissioning of the servant in our first reading from Isaiah. The servant may actually be Israel, and if so, God seems to be speaking to the nation while they are in Exile. He is calling them back and foretelling that not only will they be God’s servant to bring back and restore and reunite Israel and Jacob, but they will also bring salvation to all the world. This might not have been real good news for them, perhaps, because presumably that would include the very nation that had been oppressing them while they were in Exile. But nonetheless, whenever we receive a gift, it is never just for us, so it wouldn’t do for God’s servant to just restore what’s familiar to them, they must go out to all the world and bring salvation.
The Psalmist follows up on that notion, giving the servant’s response: “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Let’s take a look at what goes on in this Psalm. First, the Psalmist seems to be involved in some sort of difficulty for which he has been waiting on the Lord. The Lord, for his part, has taken notice, stooped toward him and heard his cry. The response of the Psalmist to his deliverance is one of witnessing. He announces the justice of the Lord and does not restrain his lips.
The second reading from the beginning of First Corinthians is a little strange in some ways. All we get are the first three verses of Paul’s letter to them, and it seems to just be a simple greeting: From Paul to the Corinthians, grace and peace. But these few verses tell us a bit more than that. They speak to the vision that Paul has of his own vocation, and of his belief in Christ. First, he proclaims himself to be an apostle. This is important, because an apostle is more than just a follower or even a disciple. An apostle is one who is sent with the full authority of the one who sends him. Paul has never met Jesus, at least not in person, but he had an experience that clearly revealed Jesus to him, and sent him forth with a mission. Paul then tells us what he believes about Jesus. He never mentions Jesus without referring to him as the Christ, that is, the Anointed One, the Messiah. Jesus for him was no ordinary person. If that were true, Paul would still be out persecuting the Christians instead of leading them as an Apostle. Jesus is the one the Jews were always hoping for, the one to bring salvation. Jesus is the Christ who sanctifies his people.
And finally we come back to John’s version of the Baptism of the Lord. In this version, from the Gospel of John, we don’t see the actual moment, but hear John the Baptist’s take on it. He stresses that he did not know who Jesus was; he mentions that twice in his account. The way he came to know that Jesus was the Christ was through revelation. He was told ahead of time what signs to look for, and when he sees the Spirit come down upon Jesus like a dove after he comes out of the water, then John knows that Jesus is the one he was told to look for. So finally he becomes the herald of the Lord, the mission he was called to from his mother’s womb. “Behold the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sins of the world.” Now he sees and testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God.
So we have three beginnings today. We have the beginning of Israel’s call to be a servant of the Lord, to bring his salvation to the ends of the earth. We have the beginning of Paul’s correspondence to the Church at Corinth, telling them that they are God’s holy people, having been sanctified by Jesus the Christ. And we have the beginning of the recognition of who Jesus is in the Gospels, one anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, one who takes away the sin of the world. It is appropriate that at the beginning of our celebration of ordered time, we would celebrate these three beginnings.
What we need to get about time itself is that it is not pointless. It’s not some meaningless trip through the ages that gets us nowhere. Time is not a waste of time. For the Christian, time is sanctified by God who entered into time with salvation through Jesus Christ. And so today, God blesses our beginnings. What is it that we need to begin these days? Is there a call to something deeper as a disciple that we have been putting off? Is our relationship with God at a turning point, and do we need to get out of our comfort zone to explore that relationship? Are we being called to take our careers in a new direction, becoming people of greater integrity to witness to the Gospel in our workplaces? Are students being called to take their studies more seriously, learning the great wonders that God has placed before them? Are parents being called to bring their families to a holier place this year, remembering that all that they have and all that they experience is a gift? Whatever it is that we need to start right now, God is sanctifying that beginning by reminding us that all of time is holy and that all of time is a gift.
We must make use of this present moment, this sacred space of time, because we can never get it back once it’s passed. It’s not too late to make resolutions, and it’s certainly not too late to start working on the ones we have already made. Today is a day of beginnings, beginnings not just for Israel and Corinth and Jesus, but also beginnings of our own histories, entering into the time with which God is blessing us. Our offering today is an offering of these beginnings, looking at them as gifts of God, and responding “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.”