[Excerpted from the March/April 2018 issue of Emmanuel. Brother John R. Barker, OFM, is a Franciscan friar of the Province of Saint John the Baptist (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.]
The first reading for Passion Sunday is one of the “Servant Songs” from Isaiah. In these songs, the servant is called by God to serve God by serving God’s people. It is the mission of the servant to call God’s people back to fidelity and life-giving relationship with him. In the song we hear today, and especially in the one we will hear on Good Friday, the servant suffers greatly for his service, but in the end ― because he is faithful despite the pain and degradation ― the servant serves both God and God’s people precisely through his suffering.
Very early in the Christian tradition, these songs were seen to reflect the mission of Christ and the meaning of his death on the cross. In his self-sacrifice, Christ the Servant manifests both the ultimate human fidelity to God and the depth of God’s commitment to his people.
Saints and sinners through the ages have been astounded that God so loved the world as to become not only part of it through the incarnation, but then in this human nature to suffer such a terrifying and painful death for the sake of the very creatures who inflicted that death. This profound divine humility is captured in the hymn from Philippians, which speaks of the Christ taking the form of a “slave.”