Liturgy and the Political Isaiah: The second in a series for Advent and Christmas

Of all the Old Testament writers, probably not one has shaped the Christian imagination more than Isaiah. His three Servant Songs enriched the early churchs view of Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. His propheciesespecially Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son. He will be called Emmanuel (Is 7:14)were and are taken as prophecies of Jesus birth.

Readings from the Book of Isaiah give warmth and light to the Advent cycle. Antiphons echo and re-echo Isaiahs words throughout the season. A voice cries out: In the desert, prepare the way of the Lord; Comfort ye, comfort ye my people; the most evocative of Advent chants, Rorate, Caeli (in English You heavens, open from above, that clouds may rain the Just One); and perhaps the most enchanting Advent hymn, Lo, how a rose eer blooming, are based on Isaian texts.

Some of Isaiahs appeal lies in his poetry. The book draws on the best Middle Eastern traditions of oral poetry. It evokes elementary human experiences: light and darkness, hunger and thirst, nursing mothers and suckling children, drought and abundance, enslavement and freedom, war and peace. And it links these fundamental polarities and pairings to deep spiritual yearnings and inspiring visions of the future, entwining religious with political aspiration.


In antiquity Isaiahs messianic visions gave rise to his status as a proto-Christian. St. Luke places Isaiahs words on Jesus lips, defining his messianic mission: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor... (Lk 4:18; Is 6:1). In modern times, Isaiah has become the poet of peace. One of early Americas most memorable paintings is Edward Hickss (1780-1849) The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts a world where...

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down

with the kid,

and the calf and the lion and the

fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them. Is 11:6

When the United Nations building was erected in New York, the statue designed to symbolize its aspirations depicted one of Isaiahs more memorable images, a farmer forging his sword into a ploughshare (2:4).

The modern uses of Isaiah as emblems of peace, justice and the integrity of creation are true to his vision. Isaiah is a political document. The aspirations Isaiah voices are ours: for freedom, for justice, for liberation, for peace. (Even the bucolic painting The Peaceable Kingdom portrays William Penn in the distance, signing a peace treaty with local natives.) Amid the overly competitive politics of our day, we do well to contemplate these divinely inspired ideals in the quiet, elevated setting of the Advent liturgy. The liturgy enables us to disinvest our egos from our political undertakings and to commit ourselves to the common good of humanity, trusting, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, that we are attuned to coordinations wider than personality.

This year we are observing the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VIs encyclical Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio). Paul understood politics in visionary, Isaian terms. He projected Christian charity into the world in what he called a civilization of love where there would be an enlargement of heart, to a more brotherly way of living within a truly universal human society. Development, he told us, is the new name for peace.

Man must meet man, nation meet nation, as brothers and sisters, as children of God, Pope Paul counseled. In this mutual understanding and friendship, in this sacred communion, we must also begin to work together to build the common future of humanity. The agenda he set is as urgent today as it was 40 years ago: human solidarity, the aid rich nations must give developing nations; social justice, the rectification of inequitable trade relations; universal charity, a more human (equitable) world for all, especially migrants.

This Advent, as we listen to Isaiahs words promising justice for the oppressed, it would be well to read Populorum Progressio, allowing ourselves to be captured by its message of a politics and an economics suffused with Gods love. Paul VI knew that some people thought he was utopian. They did not perceive, he said, the dynamism of a world which desires to live more fraternally. In response, he argued, with a vision worthy of a modern-day Isaiah, Christians know that their labors and sacrifices on behalf of the worlds poor represent slow but sure steps to the Creator and to the body of Christ in its plenitude: the assembled people of God.

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