It is not enough that we mark our time with a calendar year, a fiscal year, and an academic year. In addition, our Church insists that we have a separate annual cycle called the Liturgical Year, which begins about eleven months into the calendar year, five months into the fiscal year, some twelve weeks into the academic year. Should we, maybe, regularize our liturgical cycle to put ourselves “in sync” with one of those other cycles?
I think not. For, in what matters most, we tell time in a way that differs from the calculations of the world around us. While we have good reason to move with the rest when it comes to marking the motion of Earth around the sun, submitting the next budget, and scheduling semesters, it is altogether right that we symbolize with our “out of sync” liturgical cycle that the time frame of our lives is more than the world of money, larger than the turn of semesters, more, even, than the motions of the solar system. The Big Picture for us is the place where we fit into the full story of creation and redemption, especially as we have come to know that story in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Since there is no way we can be fully aware of all the aspects of that big picture at any given moment, the Church invites us, as it were, to act out the movement of that story through the progress of the Church year. The readings that begin Cycle B of our Lectionary are well chosen to help us begin that acting out of our place in time.
The cutting from Isaiah comes from a communal psalm of lament, Isaiah 63:7-64:12. It is the cry of the Israelites who had responded to the preaching of the second of the three authors we know by the name of Isaiah and had returned to Judah after the Persian Cyrus had conquered Mesopotamia (539 BCE). All was a shambles. The Temple and walls of Jerusalem still lay in the disarray left by the Babylonian conquest. It did not yet feel like the New Creation and New Exodus advertised by the Isaiah of the Exile. Freed from one imperial power, they must now resume life under another. The community needs renewal in every way, and it is going to take a further act of God.
The poet we call Third Isaiah, the one responsible for the last eleven chapters of the scroll, puts the Israelites' desires into powerful imagery. They yearn for the God so evident in nature and in past events to “rend the heavens” and to work another Exodus. The author pleads for God to be a father to them in a way the dead patriarchs Abraham and Jacob/Israel can no longer be. That lament is a prayer from a specific moment in time, somewhere between the decree of Cyrus (539 BCE) and the completion of the second Temple (around 515 BCE). Once expressed, the lament remained a powerful community prayer for a people seeking from their Creator and Redeemer further liberation.
Half a millennium later, New Testament writers could use language from this postexilic lament to celebrate what they understood as God's definitive response to that prayer, the new redemption in Jesus of Nazareth. To set the stage for his account of the beginning of Jesus' public life, the evangelist Mark, alone among the Synoptics, takes Isaiah's phrase and says that, during the baptism in the Jordan, Jesus “saw the heavens torn open [schizomenous]” (Mark 1:10). And Paul, writing to the Corinthians, alludes to this lament by using some of its language (“no ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen”) to remind these new Christians of the “foolish wisdom” they have already received from the Spirit regarding their crucified Lord. Thus both Mark and Paul understand the Christian experience of redemption in Christ Jesus against the long view of Israel's life with God, in these instances as answering the lament of Isaiah 63-64 (First Reading).
The Gospel gives us another cameo of the big picture of our Christian time frame. This little parable is a perfect picture of the Church in the time between the initial grace and the final judgment, the time between the withdrawal of the master of the house and his certain but unpredictable return. When we hear of the unpredictability of the Master's return, many of us spontaneously think of our death, though in context it probably refers to the parousia and final judgment. Both meanings fit. For as we live out a life we know ends in a personal death, we know our short career involves us in a short-term service within a household meant to endure to the end of history.
The Lord who made the world and cultivated a special relationship with Israel, bringing that community out of slavery and exile, has made a fresh start in Jesus. The revelation of God in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is now lived out in the household of the Church. Into that house-hold we have been baptized, which plunges us into a sense of time “out of sync” with the other calendars we use, even as we live out our seasonal, fiscal, family, and professional lives within them.
That chronological dissonance is a helpful reminder that we are a Church whose agenda demands attention to the common good, to a consistent ethic of life, to a special interest in the poor—an agenda that fits no existing political party, challenges every candidate and elected official, and asserts the fiscal bottom line is not the gospel bottom line. Within our faith time frame, the bottom line is fidelity to the relationships of our covenant with God, with one another, and with the rest of creation.