Sunday, December 7, 2014
Click here for the Sunday Readings - Second Sunday of Advent [Cycle B]
What is the context of the First Reading?
With 66 chapters, the Book of Isaiah is one of the largest and most important books in all of Scripture. Named after an eighth century BCE prophet who was most likely a member of the royal court in Jerusalem, the text is generally divided into three different manuscripts from three identifiably distinct periods in Jewish history, that later became amalgamated by scholars and scribes around several central, unifying themes.
The first part of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, can be traced to the time of the original prophet Isaiah, who forcefully denounced the idolatry, corruption, and injustice of Israel during the approximate years of 740 BCE to 700 BCE. Several major themes are developed during these first chapters, all premised upon the belief that Israel was God’s chosen people, and thus were called to a unique standard of Holiness and righteousness. Isaiah excoriates the rich and powerful among his contemporaries, warning that their indifference toward the poor and oppression of the vulnerable would lead to God’s wrath.
Moreover, the prophet Isaiah sharply criticizes the idolatry of his age, both in terms of religious worship and political alliance, the two of which were inextricably bound up. Because the king of Judah feared an attack from the Northern Kingdom, he forced an alliance with the pagan king of Assyria, an alliance that would contribute ultimately to the destruction of both North and South. Isaiah warned that Israel should put its trust in no one but YHWH, and so the alliance with a foreign king, to whom Israel swore allegiance and paid fealty, was perceived as an egregious offense to the Lord, who alone was Israel’s protector and ruler.
Thus, prophet predicts not only imminent destruction for Israel, but the coming of a future king, Immanuel, who will be a just and holy ruler, and who will restore the glory of Zion in accordance with God’s plan. This just ruler would come from the family of King David, and many centuries later, the followers of Jesus would apply these prophecies to Jesus.
The second part of the Book of Isaiah, known as Deutero-Isaiah, comprises Chapters 40-55 and was written almost two centuries after the original prophet lived. We are able to project fairly specific timelines for the writing of these works because of their allusions to actual historical events. The author of Chapters 1-39 is projecting (into the future) that the alliance with Assyria will come back to haunt Israel, whereas the author of chapters 40-55 speaks about events involving Assyria as having already occurred. Instead, the author of Deutero-Isaiah speaks in the present tense about the exile in Babylon, which lasted from 586 BCE until 537 BCE.
(Recap: the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel, completely destroying Jerusalem in 586, and, as was the practice of the time, exported many thousands of Israel’s leading families back to the Babylonian homeland, sending their own citizens to occupy the land of Israel. Thus the Jews were held in captivity for about 60 years, away from their homes, away from the Land that had been promised to them, and without access to the now-destroyed Temple that served as the focal point of their religious identity.)
The portion that constitutes today’s First Reading is the opening of Deutero-Isaiah, and it sounds an entirely new tone from the first 39 chapters. Whereas the original prophet warned of judgment and punishment, this second part begins with a beautifully consoling tone: “Comfort, give comfort to my people!” and “Speak tenderly.” In fact, there is not a single instance of condemnation nor prediction of further atrocity in this second part of the Book of Isaiah. Instead, the motif is that, yes, Israel elicited God’s anger and punishment for their sin, but that the time of punishment is up, and that salvation is near at hand. The tone is hopeful, optimistic, and comforting. The author of Deutero-Isaiah seems to have been writing near the very end of the Babylonian Captivity, and so his emphasis is on mercy, forgiveness, and redemption; those who have been faithful to God during this time of trial will now experience the salvation that the Lord has had in store all along.
So what does this have to do with us?
The Book of Isaiah is remarkable both for its beauty and its insight. Underlying everything that we read in these 66 chapters is the unmistakable and unshakeable understanding that God has a plan for Creation, including during periods of disaster and pain. The authors of Isaiah depict the Kings of Assyria, Babylon, and, later, Persia, as instruments of God’s work in the life of Israel. When the Israelites forsake their Covenant, when they ignore the poor and afflict the marginalized; when they put their trust in human leaders rather than God’s providence, God allows them to be conquered by these foreign powers. And when they have learned their lesson, i.e. complete and unfailing faith in God, and God alone, and the call to both personal and national ethical righteousness that such faith entails, God uses another external power, i.e. Cyrus of Persia, to liberate them.
Furthermore, throughout the time of despair, the Book of Isaiah calls the people not to lose hope, but to trust that, if they remain faithful, they will experience salvation.
These two complementary pieces: a stern warning to remind us that our call to holiness requires us to trust wholly and totally in God; and that such trust compels us to treat our fellow sisters and brothers in a certain way, i.e. caring for the poor, challenging systems of injustice that afflict and oppress... remain every bit as relevant to us in the 21st century as they did to the prophet Isaiah’s original audience. Moreover, the successive call to hope when we find ourselves in moments of despair, is equally important.
How many times in our own lives have we professed faith in God on a Sunday at Mass, and then failed to live out the particulars of that Covenant in the way we interact with others throughout the week? How many times have we form idols of our own? Perhaps even of ourselves? The cardinal sin of pride, in this day as it was then, is one of self-reliance. Of saying to God, “I have this adversity, and I’ll figure it out myself.” How many times do we catch ourselves saying to friends or families, in the face of some challenge, that we just have to figure something out on our own? Do we pause, in such moments, to solicit God’s help in resolving the issue? Do we trust in God’s plan for our lives?
In which case, how wonderful, how comforting, how liberating are the words of today’s First Reading! The ones that, once we find ourselves in such a moment, assure us that our suffering is not in vain, nor is it indefinite. Rather, we trust that, just as the Babylonian Captivity ended for the people Israel, so too, will our own trials and tribulations come to an end. A broken heart will not last forever. A failed exam will cease to haunt us eventually. A rejection from law school, or a lack of job interviews, or a declined mortgage application... none will be so permanent as we may fear when we are in the throes of its painful grip. Instead, we trust not only that God will deliver us from our suffering, but that God is actually at work behind the seemingly evil events. It may take months, years, or even decades to see how God used such experiences to shape and form us, but we have hope that, one day, God will reveal the wisdom of these inscrutable designs to our mortal minds.
This passage from Isaiah is a call to hope in a time of despair. As we look around the world at the myriad examples of human suffering, it is obvious that the need to hear it is timeless.
Questions for Reflection
1. The Book of Isaiah places great emphasis on how we treat the poor and marginalized. How do you, as a 21st Century American, make use of your resources?
2. Isaiah likewise warns against placing our trust in anything or anyone but God. Can you think of a time where you tried to do it all yourself? How did it go? How about a time when you stepped back and placed your trust in God’s plan?
3. Do you believe God has a plan for your life? If so, how have you seen it unfold? If not, how do you grapple with the challenges you face and the suffering in the world? Does faith give you hope?