NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 40:1-5, 9-11
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
USCCB link to all three readings
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
the rugged land shall be made a plain,
the rough country, a broad valley.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD,
who rules by his strong arm;
here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
I pointed out last week that the Biblical book referred to as the Prophet Isaiah is believed to be three separate works in one cover: Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah (or second Isaiah), and Trito-Isaiah (or third Isaiah). Scholars believe that the three sections correspond to the before, during, and after periods of the Babylonian Exile of the sixth century B.C. The first and the third are “angry” books. But Second Isaiah, from which next Sunday’s reading is taken, carries a different attitude. There are several Bible books written during the exile, perhaps most famously the text of Psalm 137, which you may remember as the sad melody from the musical Godspel. Psalm 137 is believed to be written early in the exile when the memories of home were still fresh and hope of deliverance a long way off.
Deutero-Isaiah, which begins at Chapter 40, has a much different tone, leading scholars to believe it was written later in the exile when it became clear that the Persian leader Cyrus was about to overtake the sitting Babylonian government. We know nothing about this author who has come down through history with the name of the original Isaiah, the author of chapters 1-39. His theology and outlook are distinct and intriguing, and our “house expert,” Father Lawrence Boadt, (see home page) lays out some of Deutero-Isaiah’s (or D-I’s) religious outlook (pp. 371-76).
D-I’s theology begins with the principle that God is all powerful. At the onset of the captivity one might have doubted not just whether God was willing to rescue Israel, but even more depressingly, was God able to conquer foreign conquerors. D-I lived and preached at a time when deliverance seemed more likely; perhaps Cyrus’s benign reputation had preceded him. The second point in D-I’s outlook is that God will give mercy and forgiveness. The opening line of Sunday’s text, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God,” reestablishes to suffering exiles that God’s basic stance toward Israel is love and not wrath. Whatever has happened before has not changed this basic truth.
D-I preaches that God will do new things never done before. Israel’s religion was essentially a celebration of history, particularly the Passover and the giving of the Law. D-I introduces an apocalyptic note of a future that remains hidden. In Isaiah 43 God commands his people to stop looking to the past and to focus on the new things He is performing now. One of these “new things” will be a new exodus, as God will lead his people out of Babylon just he led them out of Egypt centuries before. It is hard to understate Israel’s admiration for the pagan King Cyrus as an agent of God, who would indeed allow Israel to return to its land. D-I is remarkable for his universalism and concern for all nations. He envisions a great restoration of Israel by God, making the homeland the city on the hill which would unify all of God’s creation. Restoration here implies a religious awakening, not a military resurgence under a soldier-king. Israel, in D-I’s thinking, is God’s gift to the world. These universalist tendencies will cause difficulties when the exiles return home to the parochial outlook of Jews who remained in Jerusalem.
The Catholic Lectionary has placed Deutero-Isaiah in the Advent sequence of reading because of its strong emphasis upon God’s future work of restoration through the faithful body of Israel. It was not hard for the early Church to identify Jesus as the personification of the hopes and promises of Deutero-Isaiah—Jesus as redeemer/savior and universal king. The Gospel of Sunday’s Mass is the opening of St. Mark’s Gospel, in which John the Baptist describes the deeds of Jesus in terms that D-I would recognize—one who would do things never seen before.