Fifth Sunday of Lent – Who I Am, Not What I Do


I would like to thank everyone in the parish for your kind thoughts and prayers for my 40th Anniversary Mass and remind you that you are invited to my 50th Anniversary street party in 2029. About 10 years ago for the year of the priest I was asked by The Tablet to write reflections on priestly ministry. You may find them here: “Priesthood is who I am not what I do”.

– Fr Bill

Communion and Liberation is an ecclesial movement in the Church that recognizes the importance of culture and especially beauty in developing our faith. Several members of St Charles attended their annual “Encounter” last February and were positively impressed. They also sponsor the “Way of the Cross” on Good Friday. It begins at St James Cathedral at 10 AM and ends at St Peter’s Church in Manhattan at 1:30 PM. Information below:

First Reading
Fifth Sunday of Lent
April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21

As we have seen, the Exodus from the call of Moses to the entry into the Promised Land has provided much of the imagery for the parts of the Old Testament that were originally written or edited after the return of some of the Jewish leaders from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem about 500 BC. It formed not only the vocabulary they used, but the mindset behind their writings. Sometimes this remains in the background, but today it is explicit and obvious – its meaning is subtle and surprising.

The returning Jewish elite discovered that, much to their chagrin, they were pioneers. The city was destroyed, and they lived in squalid conditions. They were totally dependent on the Assyrian court and its bureaucracy, which was as efficient and helpful as the DMV. We should not unduly criticize them, and should understand why they thought of themselves like their forbears in the wilderness of the Sinai. They would certainly have understood why some of those who went with Moses wished to return to Egypt. Babylon must have looked very good to them.

The Lord understood this and spends considerable time before our passage to reassure them.
First, he tells them how much he loves them:

3 For I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in return for you.
4 Because you are precious in my eyes
and glorious, and because I love you,
I give men in return for you
and peoples in exchange for your life. Isaiah 43:3–4
Then he reminds them who he is and what he is doing:
11 It is I, I the LORD;
there is no savior but me.
12 It is I who foretold, I who saved;
I made it known, not any strange god among you;
You are my witnesses, says the LORD.
I am God,
13 yes, from eternity I am He;
There is none who can deliver from my hand:
who can countermand what I do?
14 Thus says the LORD, your redeemer,
the Holy One of Israel:
For your sakes I send to Babylon;
I will lower all the bars,
and the Chaldeans shall cry out in lamentation.
15 I am the LORD, your Holy One,
the creator of Israel, your King. Isaiah 43:11–15

Now he will tell us how he is doing it:

16 Thus says the LORD,
who opens a way in the sea
and a path in the mighty waters,
17 Who leads out chariots and horsemen,
a powerful army,
Till they lie prostrate together, never to rise,
snuffed out and quenched like a wick. Isaiah 43:16–17 (NAB)

Isaiah is referencing the original exodus, but speaking in the present tense. God is freeing them as he did a millennium before.

18 Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
19 See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers. Isaiah 43:18–19 (NAB)

For Isaiah, their God is the Lord of history, which does not mean of the past but entering into their present lives to create the future. Nothing in their direct experience would reveal what the Lord is doing, so they need the help of the past but must open their eyes. Here, they can learn from the animals.

20 Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
For I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland
for my chosen people to drink, Isaiah 43:20 (NAB)

As with the original Exodus, there is a covenant. The Lord has made them his people, but they need to show fidelity to the covenant by their behavior:

21 The people whom I formed for myself,
that they might announce my praise. Isaiah 43:21

Yet then, as previously, they did not do so:

22 Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob,
for you grew weary of me, O Israel.
23 You did not bring me sheep for your holocausts,
nor honor me with your sacrifices.
I did not exact from you the service of offerings,
nor weary you for frankincense.
Isaiah 43:22–23 (NAB)

As their forebears, the people to whom Isaiah is speaking did not return the Lord’s kindness with worship.
24 You did not buy me sweet cane for money,
nor fill me with the fat of your sacrifices;
Instead, you burdened me with your sins,
and wearied me with your crimes.
25 It is I, I, who wipe out,
for my own sake, your offenses;
your sins I remember no more. Isaiah 43:24–25 (NAB)

Although the people have continued to sin, they will be forgiven. This is not because of anything they did, but because of God’s mercy. Should they wish to contest this, he reminds them further:

26 Would you have me remember, have us come to trial?
Speak up, prove your innocence!
27 Your first father sinned;
your spokesmen rebelled against me
28 Till I repudiated the holy gates,
put Jacob under the ban,
and exposed Israel to scorn. Isaiah 43:26–28 (NAB)

They have been continually rebellious from your “first father” – not only Adam, but Jacob, and “spokesman”, Moses and required discipline, “repudiated the holy gates” – Judah, the southern kingdom’s captivity in Babylon – and “exposed Israel to scorn” – destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel. But the Lord has never abandoned them. This section ends:

2 Thus says the LORD who
made you, your help, who formed you from the womb:
Fear not, O Jacob, my servant,
the darling whom I have chosen.
3 I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground,
and streams upon the dry land;
I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring,
and my blessing upon your descendants.
4 They shall spring up amid the verdure
like poplars beside the flowing waters. Isaiah 44:2–4 (NAB)

With all the Lord’s care and concern, we can truly ask “did they ever learn?” Yet a better question might be, “Did the Lord ever learn?” He has tried from the call of Abraham to reach out to us, and we pull back and disobey him. This reveals the great and ultimate mystery of God: how can he know us so well and still love us so much?