There is no way the fourth verse can be left out of Sunday's first reading (Isaiah 49:3-6).

It's the reason the prophet composed his Second Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. In the first three songs (42:1-4, 49:1-6, 40:4-9), Isaiah reflects on experiencing Yahweh in his life and ministry.

In the fourth and last song (52:13-53:12), the prophet's disciples reflect on their experience of him in their lives and ministry.

Amid failure

The Second Song is triggered not by any physical pain or hurt, but by a suffering we all must endure: failure. Though Isaiah never doubts his calling, he faces one gnawing problem: "I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength."

He is simply not able to accomplish the task Yahweh gave him: to bring Jacob back to Him and gather Israel to Him.

Ironically, the second reading (I Corinthians 1:1-3) also springs from failure. Scholars believe St. Paul was no longer in control of the Corinthian community when he dictated this first letter to them. The liturgical passage contains the letter's greeting, words that can only be appreciated after one reads the entire Epistle.

Paul emphatically refers to his apostolic calling because his authority has been challenged. He mentions the community's call to holiness because many in Corinth are not living lives "other" from the non-Christians around them. Neither do they regard themselves as part of a larger faith community.

That's why Paul reminds them that they are always joined "with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Many of the letter's readers seem to have rejected both Paul and his teaching.

In some sense, the Gospel (John 1:29-34) also highlights what Jesus' contemporaries would have seen as a failure: His death. John calls him "Lamb of God," a title that can refer only to His death because Passover lambs were killed, not kept as pets.

Jesus' death was always an obstacle His followers had to hurdle when they spoke to non-Christians about Him.

Finest hours

If we're bothered by failure, it's possible we've forgotten that all of Scripture is reflection. As far as we can tell, nothing was written down as it happened. Only after people of faith had time to think about events did someone eventually actually create the sacred writings:

* Only years after his original hearers rejected him did Isaiah realize his failure to convert his fellow-Jews to Yahweh opened an unexpected door to evangelize non-Jews (the "nations").

* Paul probably had low expectations when he sent I Corinthians to the church to whom he had given so much of himself. Yet this letter has become a rock of faith for all Jesus' followers. It's a gold mine for anyone building and sustaining a Christian community.

* Hearing John call Jesus the "Lamb of God," Christians rarely think of failure. We can't separate this title from John's next words. Jesus is the lamb "who takes away the sin of the world." His dying and rising showed Him to be our redeemer.

Many of us regard parts of our own lives as complete washouts, times in which we failed when we expected to succeed. Yet we might literally be too close to the action to make a valid judgment.

One day, we might be surprised -- as many biblical folk were -- to discover that our times of failure might have been our "finest hours."

(01/17/08)