Take the Long View

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Here we are again. Back to plain ole winter. Just over one week ago the Christmas season ended, and our families and friends, like the three kings, have departed for their distant lands. Like many of you, I reluctantly boxed up our decorations and my husband dragged our still-hanging-on-to-life Christmas tree out to the curb, both of us bemoaning the shortness of the season (but secretly happy to say good bye to the pine needles in our socks).

With our houses swept clean, it’s time to begin our progression through Ordinary Time, at least for the next eight Sundays, that is. Lent is right around the corner.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time always eases its way into a fresh and shiny new calendar year, but this year for many people agita, insecurity, and apprehension about the future have dulled that shiny newness.

At times like these the temptation is to circle the wagons, allow ourselves to complain for a while and hope for the best. Happily, most of us care too much about the future to consider sitting on our hands. I’m in that camp, or at least I strive to be. Despite my occasional “Chicken Little” tendencies, I fight hopelessness and stagnation by taking the long view and making plans.

Earlier this month I reflected on the need for restoration, specifically restorative practices. I was reminded of the work of the late Dr. Erik Erikson, the brilliant German-American psychologist of the past century, whose exploration of human psycho-social growth from infancy through death identified a motivation which he named Generativity.

Generativity resembles the concept of “paying it forward” popularized by the heartwarming movie, Pay it Forward [2000], which, through a series of events showed that the world is a much better place when we share, ad infinitum, our good fortune with others.

Still, paying it forward is just the tip of the iceberg. Generativity is more nuanced; its source is nothing less than primal and its energy emerges from an expectation of a future—a hope for humanity. It is the longest of the long views. Generativity explains why some adults will, for example, plant a fruit tree they may not live to harvest, but do so knowing future generations will be nourished by it. Our current situation and how we handle it is far greater than how it impacts us.

Taken another way, when “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation” is contemplated Theologically, i.e. “where is God in all this?” we have to see that the compelling impulse behind generativity is love. Love of God, and love of neighbor, and love for God’s creation.

The writers of Sacred Scripture could not help but take the long view. They gave witness to the fruit of generativity; they grasped its divine source, they drank from its fountain and endeavored to illuminate the way so future generations would see God’s goodness as they did, and believe what they knew to be the truth.

The Prophet Isaiah, relaying the words God spoke to him, identified Israel as the Servant of God [IS 49:3, 5-6]. Israel’s return to their homeland after 70 years of exile was the evidence of God’s faithfulness to them. Yet, Isaiah made it clear that their survival alone was not the end of the story. “It is too little,” the prophet proclaimed. The future of all involved entailed carrying the message of God’s liberating power to the ends of the earth. In other words, Israel’s stunning transformation would be like a light to the nations: the entire world would see God’s greatness and be converted.

St. Paul understood this too. It was not enough that he had a personal experience of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He was compelled to take what he knew on the road and share it with the greatest number of people for the rest of his life. Paul’s “generativity” is evidenced by the colossal growth of the Christian church in his day. Today’s second reading gives us a clue to Paul’s mission [1 COR 1:1-3]. At first blush it looks to be a typically wordy Pauline salutation, but attend carefully to Paul’s words. Far more than a “Dear friend, how are you, I am fine” Paul’s salutation discloses his grasp of the divine origins of his apostleship and the enduring nature not only of his role, but that of the Corinthian church, sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, from now on, and for all to witness. Pay it forward.

Even John the Baptist understood it was too little to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. He knew it was not enough to preach a message of repentance and then baptize countless individuals for the forgiveness of sin. When he recognized Jesus, he knew there was more.

“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” [JN 1:29]

I wonder if the Baptist’s words comparing Jesus to a sacrificial animal sent a ripple of shock through the crowd. And, as if to explain how he arrived at this astonishing conclusion John continued, piecing his experiences together until everything he had done up to that point made sense:

“I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” [JN 1:31-34].

I also wonder if John realized then that his role in preparing the way for Jesus was nearing its completion. Didn’t he later take a step back from his work, out of the first-century spotlight, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”? [JN 3:30]

Be a light for the nations.

Who is expected to carry this light today? Look in the mirror. It is the Church—you and me—it is our prophetic role to be a light so that God’s goodness is visible to all, so that all may receive it and be transformed.

That’s generativity, that’s paying it forward. That’s how we keep moving forward, despite the darkness.

Happy New Year, light bearers.

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Readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading IS 49:3, 5-6
Responsorial Psalm PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
Second Reading 1 COR 1:1-3
Gospel JN 1:29-34