Our readings for this Sunday are very closely connected. In our first reading from what Scripture scholars deem to be Deutero- or Second Isaiah, God, through his prophet, declares Israel to be his servant “through whom” he shows his glory. God does not desire to make his glory shine through Israel for Israel’s own sake. God desires Israel to make him known to the ends of the earth. This is what the prophet meant when he said, speaking for God: “I will make you [Israel] a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
Way back, immediately following Abraham’s incomprehensible willingness to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, God promised our father in faith that he would bless him and make his descendants “countless as the stars in the sky and the sands of the seashore” (Gen 18:17). Above all, because Abraham willingly obeyed God’s seemingly mad command, God promised him: “in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing” (Gen 18:18).
Of course, the descendant of Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth have been blessed is Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father. As St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, unlike Isaac, whom the angel spared at the last moment, the Father “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Rom 8:32). In other words, Jesus fulfilled in his person what Israel was unwilling and perhaps incapable of doing throughout its history, which was to extend God’s covenant, God’s blessing, God’s salvation to all people. We need not despair because this was God’s plan all along. As St. Paul pointed out in his Letter to the Galatians:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal 4:4-7)Immediately upon seeing Jesus in the vicinity of where he was preaching repentance and baptizing those who desired new life in the river Jordan, John the Baptist recognized Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Baptist went on to say something even more interesting, namely that the whole purpose of his ministry was geared towards that moment when he, the Baptist, would make Jesus known to Israel as the Christ - in Greek Christos, in Hebrew Mashiach (i.e., “the anointed one,” or Messiah)- the one coming after the Baptist who ranked ahead him because he existed before him (John 1:30). The Baptist, who was the seal of the Old Testament prophets, testified that because he had seen the Spirit anoint Jesus, thus revealing Him as the Messiah, “that [Jesus] is the Son of God” (John 1:34).
In light of Jesus’ anointing by the Holy Spirit, today’s reading not only refers to Jesus’ Baptism, but also to his Confirmation. Like Jesus, when you and I were confirmed what was confirmed was our baptismal identity, our identity as God’s daughters and sons given us by rebirth through water and the Holy Spirit, thus making us also one of the innumerable children of Abraham. Through Christ, by the power of the Spirit, we are the Father’s adopted children, whereas Jesus is the Father’s only begotten Son.
What I think really brings the meaning of all this home today is found in our second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2). Being sanctified, that is, being made holy in Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit. You were first sanctified when you were baptized. This was sealed and strengthened when you were confirmed. You are sanctified again in and through this Eucharist, from whence you are sent out to make the Lord present wherever you are. You are sanctified when you are anointed when sick and when you confess and express sorrow for your sins. You are sanctified in order live out your baptismal calling through sacramental marriage, through ordination, by taking religious vows, or by serving your neighbor in sacrificial ways. The life of grace is built on the foundation of the sacraments, of which Baptism, not Orders or anything else, is the cornerstone.
God’s people are those who respond to His loving initiative. We call our response to God’s initiative towards us faith. In this dynamic, God both pulls us and pushes us towards Himself. In other words, even our response is prompted by grace, which is why faith is a gift from God. While God calls everyone to Himself through His Son by means of their Holy Spirit, God never forces a response from anyone.
How does God both pull and push us towards Himself? The short answer is, ever so gently. But a good example of how God draws us from without and within can found in the recent testimony of actor Andrew Garfield, who stars in Martin Scorcese’s new film, the cinematic adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s literary and spiritual masterpiece, the novel Silence. In preparation for filming, the actors who played the Jesuit missionaries, made the silent 30-day retreat, which St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits who composed them, simply called The Spiritual Exercises. When Fr. Brendan Busse, himself a Jesuit, asked Garfield in an interview what he found particularly moving about the Exercises, he conveyed that Garfield
fixed his eyes vaguely on a point in the near distance, wandering off into a place of memory. Then, as if the question had brought him back into the experience itself, he smiled widely and said: “What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing ("Grace Enough," America magazine, 23 January 2017)Like Israel of old, God desires to show his glory through those who have responded in faith so that everyone may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, thus extending God’s reign until it is completely established. As Jesus told His disciples toward the end of St. John’s Gospel, just after washing their feet, which, I think, we can view as a kind of Baptism: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). My dear sisters and brothers, do as as G.K. Chesterton urged and “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Grace is nothing but God’s loving initiative towards us and faith, which is expressed by being baptized, is our loving response.