Another year winds down; the days grow ever shorter, and this Advent seems especially gray, a time When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/ Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/ Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73). Despite exhortations and efforts to get on with life as usual, it is difficult to be people of hope when our consciousness is flooded with one warning or dire prediction after another. And yet it was in a period just like this that Isaiah forged the beautiful poem of messianic hope in today's first reading.
This section of Isaiah follows immediately the vivid description of Sennacherib's invasion, Ramah is in terror, Gibeah of Saul has fled (Is. 10:29). Isaiah rejoices that through God's saving help, the invasion was halted at the walls of Jerusalem; He will shake his fist at the mount of the daughter of Zion (10:32). The Assyrian chronicles give a far different picture, in which Sennacherib shuts up Hezekiah in Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage. More striking then is Isaiah's paean of hope for a just king from the house of David.
This king will be enveloped by God's Spirit and endowed with wisdom, understanding and other virtues necessary to lead God's people. Leadership will be expressed in judging the poor with justice. Biblical judging always has the overtone of protection (e.g., the Book of Judges) and a major theme of Isaiah and other prophets is that the justice of king and nation is measured on the scale of concern for the vulnerable in society (see Ps. 72, a virtual job description of the king). This king will not be clothed with weapons of war, but with justice around his waist and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
In the middle of this oracle of promise, the atmosphere shifts. Justice in the land will affect even the animal creation. In startling metaphors of peace between natural enemies, Isaiah images qualities that produce justice and peace among humans: welcome (the wolf will be a guest of the lamb), rest and harmony, concluding with an amazing image of innocence and vulnerability: the child not being harmed by the ancient symbol of evil, the snake.
Is this just beautiful poetry that inspired Handel's Messiah or can the poet of 2,700 years ago speak to us as well? The theory of government envisioned by Isaiah is a prophetic voice for us today. The option for the poor is muted by a penchant for the prosperous. This option means that socioeconomic practices and decisions must be assessed by their impact on the most vulnerable members of society. Isaiah's vision flies in the face of political power today, which most often is in the hands of the wealthy and powerful and used for their own benefit (see Walter Brueggeman, Isaiah).
John the Baptist, another Advent figure of expectation, is also a prophet, but today he thunders judgment against the contented and powerful, pointing to a stronger one who will not preach a baptism (cleansing) leading to repentance but will preach with the Holy Spirit and fire. John's Jesus will be a threatening figure who will winnow the good from the bad and throw evildoers (the chaff) into the fire. Yet John was disappointed, or rather his hope was transformed. Jesus was not the fiery reformer John limned, but rather one who ate with tax collectors and sinners and warned against a hurried separation of the wheat and chaff (Mt. 13:24-30).
Isaiah's vision and John's prophecy were not fulfilled in the way they expected. They lived in hope and died in faith. Despite eloquent teaching on social justice by Pope John Paul II and local bishops' conferences, the light of hope for the land's afflicted throughout the world seems dimmer day by day. Isaiah hoped for the gifts of the Spirit that would create a new kind of king who would be a signal for the nations. John points to a mighty one who will baptize and renew people with God's spirit. We will conclude Advent with a young woman overshadowed by the Spirit, destined to give birth to that heir of David whose message, once heard and authentically lived, offers hope in this bittersweet season of joy and sadness.