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I Am Wonderfully Made!
by Stephen Bevans, SVD | June 21, 2012
Scripture Reflection for the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist (Sunday, June 24, 2012)
Psalm 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15
Luke 1:57-66, 80
I was quite surprised when I read the first reading. The passage is one of the several “Servant Songs” or “Songs of the Suffering Servant” in the book of the prophet Isaiah, and we Christians have been accustomed to read them in a way that refers to Christ. He is the one who was called from birth, who was given a name in his mother’s womb, who was made a sharp-edged sword, a polished arrow, a light to the nations.
But in the context of today’s feast, the birth of John the Baptist, this passage obviously needs to be interpreted in terms of him, not Jesus. It is clear from the gospel reading that John’s name was given to him while he was in Elizabeth’s womb, the name “John” (meaning “God is gracious”) was given to him when the angel appeared to his father Zechariah as told in the earlier verses of the gospel of Luke. John was chosen, as is implied in both our reading from Acts and at the end of the gospel reading, to witness to the coming of the Messiah. And so he could indeed be called God’s sharp-edged sword, a polished arrow, and even a light to the nations.
There is a famous painting by the sixteenth century German painter Matthias Grünewald in which the artist depicts John the Baptist at the crucifixion, pointing to the crucified with an extended, rather overly long index finger. This is certainly not a historical fact—John had been killed during Jesus’ ministry (e.g. Mt 14:3-12). But it is definitely a truthful commentary. John proclaimed and witnessed to Jesus with his whole heart and soul. “I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet."
So it was surprising to see the text of Isaiah used to refer to John the Baptist, but then I remembered that commentators also say that the “Servant Songs” also refer to Israel as such, and every person in Israel. The whole people of Israel, God’s “‘kingdom of priests,’ a holy nation” (Ex 19:6) was called to be a two-edged sword, a polished arrow, a light to the nations. It took a long time for Israel to begin to realize this, but its chosenness for the sake of others was present from the very beginning. In the very passage where God calls Abraham to leave his home country and become a “great nation,” he is told that in him all nations will be blessed (Gen 12:2-3).
But here comes the real surprise. Because WE believe in Christ, the true light of the nations, WE are now Israel. Because we have “put on Christ” (Gal 3-27) in Baptism, we are now God’s chosen people, God’s two-edged swords, God’s polished arrows, God’s light (in Christ!) to the nations. And because we are God’s chosen people, we can also say that we are other John the Baptists, called to stand under the cross, as it were, and point our fingers by our lives and deeds and words and ministry to the crucified and risen savior with all our hearts.
It is notable—surprising even!—that the responsorial psalm, Psalm 139, is prayed (as it is written, of course) in the first person! “I praise you, for I am wonderfully made! . . . you probe me, you know me . . . you know my inmost being . . . you knit me in my mother’s womb.” Yes, these words on this feast certainly refer to John the Baptist, but if they refer to Israel as a whole they refer to us as well.
As we celebrate this feast of John the Baptist, in other words, we are not just celebrating a historical event, taking note of the birth of a great human being. Rather, as these readings are proclaimed to us today, they become the Word of God, touching us—calling us—here and now. Our mission in life, we realize, is Jesus’ mission. Or perhaps even more accurately, our mission in life is John the Baptist’s mission—to point with all our being to Jesus, just as Jesus with all his being pointed to the present-yet-still-coming Reign of God in the world. When we realize that this feast is our feast we can indeed exclaim “I praise you, for I am wonderfully made!”
Stephen Bevans, SVD
Stephen Bevans is currently Louis J. Luzbetak, S.V.D., Professor of Mission and Culture at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, USA and the Faculty Moderator for Catholics on Call. He is a Roman Catholic priest in the Society of the Divine Word, an international missionary congregation, and served for nine years (1972-1981) as a missionary in the Philippines.
His publications include: Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004, with Roger Schroeder), Evangelization and Freedom (2009, with Jeffrey Gros), and Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009).
He is past president of the American Society of Missiology (2006) and past member of the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America (2007-2009). In 2009 he was visiting lecturer at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, Australia, and in the fall of 2009 he served as Scholar in Residence at the Crowther Center of mission studies at the headquarters of the Church Missionary Society in Oxford.