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Today’s readings provide a good “how-to” guide to listening to Sunday readings every week.
Mass readings can come at us like a pious stream that travels through the brain, exciting momentary spiritual feelings, then going straight out the other ear. We may find ourselves focusing on the reader (Look at what he’s wearing!) or our children (What the heck is he doing?) or on what will follow Mass (I’ve been meaning to call Sally. I wonder if she’s home?).
It isn’t that we don’t want to focus on the readings. It’s just that it can be hard to find a foothold on that ivy-covered wall of ancient words.
Here is a mental checklist that can help.
1. How do these words describe Christ?
The first readings, usually from the Old Testament, are chosen because they have direct bearing on today’s Gospel reading and its purpose: the story of Christ and its application to you and me. So, look for that.
For instance, today’s starts out: “The Lord said to me: You are my servant, Israel, through whom I show my glory.”
So, the first thing to realize is that we’re talking not just about Israel, but about Christ. What follows tells us about Israel, but also about Christ and his body, the Church. We learn that the Lord “formed [Christ] as his servant from the womb,” which is a nice little lesson about the Annunciation. And it tells us about Christ’s mission, which we share. “It is too little, the Lord says, for you to be my servant. … I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
1. Ask: Am I saying this or praying this?
It’s easy to get into the mode of thinking of the Psalm as just a song or a formula of words. But it’s a prayer. Don’t just say the Psalm; pray it to God.
Today’s is: “Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.” Put your heart into it. Look at the tabernacle. Tell him you’re ready. When you say, “I have waited, waited for the Lord, and he stooped toward me and heard my cry,” realize that he’s about to stoop down to you in Communion.
1. Find the sound bite.
But we know it was inspired by the Holy Spirit for our benefit and that the Church in her wisdom discovered over the centuries that it is beneficial for a Sunday reading. So even if you personally can’t go into deep theological waters with it, listen to it and find a phrase or two that is striking and convicting.
Today, he is addressing “you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy.” A good reminder. Yes, that is who we are and why we are. We are not “you who are called to be preserved from damnation.” We are not “you who are to be congratuated for your pious goodness.” We are sanctified and called to be holy. Do we take that seriously?
The whole point of going to Mass is to deepen our relationship with a person: Jesus. To do so, we need to know who he is so that we can love him, and we need to love him so that we can imitate him.
Today’s Gospel is a great example. John the Baptist tells us who Jesus is: “A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.” Remember, he’s talking about his younger cousin who was conceived after he was. So we learn that Jesus is an eternal, towering figure. His close older cousin thought so.
It’s also always helpful to look at verbs. The Gospels tell you not just what people are saying, but what Jesus is doing. The verbs are key. This one only has one verb relating to Christ. John “saw Jesus coming toward him.”
So we learn that this eternal, towering figure is taking the initiative to approach this man who “ranks below him.” John picks him out just on the basis of seeing him by the river.
We should realize he is “coming towards” us, too — and look for him in the ordinary events of every day.
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