What a powerful and wrenching option for the Rite of Penance. It certainly keeps our thoughts on the suffering, yet merciful Christ. This reading is proclaimed every Good Friday. I remember a student lector from my days at Michigan State’s campus ministry who was nearly in tears as she read this. Was I witnessing a breakdown, I worried, or just a deeply emotional moment? It is hard to remain aloof when confronted with the fourth passage of the suffering servant:
Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by (others),
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
I suspect this passage is what drew those who assembled the lectinoary for the Rite of Penance, a very traditional expression of atonement:
Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted,
But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
all following our own way;
But the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.
One shorter option in the Rite is to use just these three verses above. These call to mind the canticle in 1 Peter.
Though harshly treated, he submitted
and did not open his mouth;
Like a lamb led to slaughter
or a sheep silent before shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Seized and condemned, he was taken away.
Who would have thought any more of his destiny?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
struck for the sins of his people.
He was given a grave among the wicked,
a burial place with evildoers,
Though he had done no wrong,
nor was deceit found in his mouth.
But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain.
By making his life as a reparation offering,
he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days,
and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him.
Because of his anguish he shall see the light;
because of his knowledge he shall be content;
My servant, the just one, shall justify the many,
their iniquity he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the many,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
Because he surrendered himself to death,
was counted among the transgressors,
Bore the sins of many,
and interceded for the transgressors.
When would this passage be used? My own sense would be to save it for Good Friday. Perhaps if a parish were celebrating communal penance during Holy Week, Isaiah 53 would be a possibility, or the shorter section of verses 4 through 6 only.
I don’t know about you, but I find the theology of atonement difficult. I think it may be lost on many Christians today. It doesn’t seem to be fair, even if we human beings are getting the good end of the deal.
But Jesus willingly gave himself up on our behalf. Holy Week and the Sacrament of Penance confront us with that reality of God’s love. We can’t get away from it.