Life today often seems like a brief interlude between rushing and waiting. We rush to airports only to wait in line, hurry off to Christmas sales (or returns) and again wait, and even wait in long lines to receive the Eucharist. Waiting involves a necessary slowing down as well as hope of fulfillment. The Advent season that begins the church year summons us to slow down (even at a rather hectic time) but also to live in expectation of the various “arrivals” of Christ: his future arrival at the consummation of history (today’s Gospel), his coming as human like us in history and his continuing entry into our personal history.
Through ritual and readings the church sacramentalizes our waiting over the next weeks and sets before us three figures of expectation as models: the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary. During this Advent especially, I recommend a deeper engagement with Isaiah, not simply through the liturgical readings but through Bible study and prayer.
The book of Isaiah spans the period from the rise of the Assyrian empire in 745 B.C., through Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem (701 B.C., Is. 1-39)—when “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold” (Lord Byron)—to the Babylonian empire, the exile (587-37), the return under Cyrus, the Lord’s “anointed” (Is. 40-55) and the hope for a time when all nations will stream to Zion (Is. 56-66). Though the work of many hands, theological themes first forged by Isaiah of Jerusalem (Is. 1-39) in times more tumultuous than our recent history, permeate the whole work. All the first readings this Advent (Lectionary cycle A) contain visions of hope found in the early movements of this oratorio.
In an exceptional recent commentary (Isaiah 1-39, 1998), Walter Bruggemann compares Isaiah to “a mighty oratorio whereby Israel sings its story of faith.” Sounding through this oratorio are notes of the utter holiness of God, God’s anger at the infidelity of the people through injustice and reliance on worldly power, always, however, counterpointed by a call for change of heart: “Put away your misdeeds from my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good; make justice your aim...though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow” (Is. 1:16-17).
Today’s reading follows closely the initial chapter in which Isaiah bitterly indicts sin and summons people to repent. It comprises an oracle that gives hope for a time in the future when the people will proclaim a message of justice, and a time when violence will cease: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” when war and preparing for it will cease. The holy God is repelled by injustice and violence and summons people to turn to a different course.
How unrealistic the vision of Isaiah seems, especially during this Advent when violence and war prevail! Yet Isaiah’s messages were proclaimed in a no less difficult time, when the nation was threatened with destruction. Do we all not need new images of hope today? Years ago in a stunning little book, Images of Hope, William Lynch, S.J., noted that people in sorrow or depression suffer an impoverishment of imagination. They simply cannot imagine a world different from the one in which they are locked. The critic Hugh Kenner once wrote: “Whoever can give his people better stories than the ones they live by is like the priest in whose hands common bread and wine become capable of feeding the very soul, and he may think of forging in some invisible smithy the uncreated conscience of his race” (The Pound Era).
Advent reminds all of us that we are people who can hope against hope (Rom. 4:18), and who are not submerged by a culture of fear dinned over the video screens. Christians are to be a prophetic people who can dream of new, perhaps unheard of paths toward peace and reconciliation. Groups with the names “Plowshares,” “Pax Christi” and “Fellowship of Reconciliation” raise banners of peace, not war. As a priestly people we are summoned to tell people better stories than those they live by. In the midst of struggle and doubt, Isaiah did just that. As we feed our souls in the Eucharist this Advent, can we envision ways to forge the yet “uncreated conscience” of people today?