The Suffering Servant

Published on 30 Mar 2021
A wooden crucifix

For Good Friday, Nick King SJ reflects on one of the songs of the Suffering Servant which we hear as the first reading in the Passion liturgy. 

Today we have the solemn emptiness of Good Friday, and Jesus’ appalling death. The gospel is the story of Jesus’ Passion from John’s Gospel; and as you listen or read it, you might like to notice how John makes it the cross a throne of glory, in contrast to the bleak account of Mark which you will have heard on Palm Sunday.

But it is the first reading that I suggest you might like to pray through on this momentous day; if you do this, you will be following the instincts of the very earliest Christians, possibly including Jesus himself, as they grappled to make sense of his death.

Isaiah 52:13-53: 12

See, my servant shall prosper;

he shall be exalted and lifted up,

and shall be very high.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him

– so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,

and his form beyond that of mortals –

so he shall startle many nations;

kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which had not been told them they shall see,

and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Who has believed what we have heard?

And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others;

a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others hide their faces

he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities

and carried our diseases;

yet we accounted him stricken,

struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,

crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,

and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have all turned to our own way,

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he did not open his mouth.

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked

and his tomb with the rich,

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

When you make his life an offering for sin,

he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;

through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.

Out of his anguish he shall see light;

he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;

because he poured out himself to death,

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and made intercession for the transgressors.

Our passage is the fourth of what are known as the “Songs of the Suffering Servant”, which we find in that part of the Isaiah scroll that was written for the Jewish exiles in Babylon; the author is well aware of the suffering that can come with answering God’s call (have you experienced this?), and is reflecting on it in the presence of God. We do not know who the author was, nor do we know who the “Servant” was, though there have been plenty of learned guesses. But this is a text to help us pray through the sadness of today.

There are several points that might help you go deeper into the mystery:

• First, we hear God speaking of “my servant”. This tells us that the victory is won.

• Next, no punches are pulled in revealing what has happened to the “servant”: “his appearance was disfigured…his form marred”

• The servant, whoever he was (but it fits Jesus very well) is “a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering”

• What happened to him was done for us “he took up our infirmities, carried our sorrows”

• Our part in it brings us no credit: “our transgressions, our iniquities…we have gone astray”

• The Servant (and here we must of course think of Jesus) did not resist: “did not open his mouth…a lamb to the slaughter”,

• Even though he did not deserve what happened: “he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth”

• But God is in there (“it was the Lord’s will”) and therefore all shall be well: “he will see the light of life…therefore I shall give him a portion among the great”.

Today I suggest that you simply sit with this extraordinary passage, reading it slowly, several times over, and see what it says to you. The Lord will be there with you.

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