NEXT SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: ISAIAH 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT: DECEMBER 3, 2017
USCCB Link to all three readings
You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways!
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.
I must admit to some readjusting on my part when I sat down to this new Tuesday template of Scripture commentary. For the past three years Tuesdays have been devoted to the Sunday Gospel. I felt at home in that setting, and I have long believed that the Sunday Gospel is the only portion of the three Lectionary readings that a congregation takes home. I can recall many times as a celebrant looking out over the pews as the lector would proclaim the first reading, from the Hebrew Scripture, and wondering what and how the folks were taking in what they were hearing. In one of the Lectionary readings there is an Old Testament reference to “the Plains of Megiddo.” I had never checked to see where this was and why it is important enough to find its way into the Bible. “Megiddo,” as it turns out, is the root word of “Armageddon,” and in the world of Hebrew apocalyptic the site of the final clash between the forces of God and the army of the Evil One.
Addressing Old Testament texts is admittedly harder than reading the Gospels. Those of you who might be planning a year-long study of St. Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel of Cycle B starting next Sunday, will already have some sense of the times, the places, and the major characters in the book. The same would not be true with the Hebrew Canon. For starters, the Old Testament is considerably longer than the New Testament, and it covers of span of history of about eighteen centuries. The OT is history, but its literary forms are quite varied, from chronicles to prayers to poetry to philosophic myth to law codes.
Given our text at hand, Isaiah 63-64, some history and context is certainly in order. Around 590 B.C. most of the citizenry of Jerusalem and its immediate environs were captured and moved to Babylon itself, creating a milestone in Jewish history, the Babylonian Captivity. Jews were held in Babylon until about 539 B.C. when a conquering Persian king, Cyrus, overtook Babylon and decreed that the Jews could be returned to their homeland, now a protectorate of Cyrus and his successors.
Israel was a different entity after the exile. The OT books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe life after the exile, and it is not pleasant reading. After a half-century in captivity, the exiles had adapted to their circumstances to the point of marrying Babylonian women. They looked forward to release and deliverance, but the return to Jerusalem was stretched out over many years, and some did not return at all. Both Ezra and Nehemiah had become men of considerable importance in Babylon and were dispatched to Jerusalem by civil authorities to bring order and reconciliation to an Israel marked by internal division.
The remnant of Jews who remained in Israel had retained a strict observance of the Law. The returning captives had naturally been impacted by their years in a pagan culture. Clashes were common between the two groups; the conservatives demanded that the returning Israelites abandon their alien wives, for example. For their part, the Babylonian captives had looked forward to their return in an almost utopian and apocalyptic way; many of them had never seen Jerusalem before, having been born in captivity. The wreckage of the temple and the religious struggles in Jerusalem must have been bitter disappointments to these dreamers. All Jews had to reconcile themselves to the likelihood that there would never be a day again when a glorious king like David or Solomon would make Israel a power among its neighbors.
In this maelstrom of grief, bitterness, and broken dreams, Isaiah (Chapters 56-66) came forth to offer a new religious vision. Although we speak of Isaiah as one book and one man, scholars identify three distinct literary collections and three different authors. Our text here comes from the third section, referred to in biblical studies as Trito-Isaiah or Third Isaiah, and dated in the post exilic era after 539 B.C.
The text opens with the lament that God, “our redeemer,” had let the Israelites go off into a disregard of the Law and an absence of purity of heart. Isaiah recalls that God has done wonderful acts on Israel’s behalf in the past, and he seems to long for a return of such days now. He seeks a dramatic divine intervention now, but it is worth noting that the prayer here is no longer for a great king, national success, or the restoration of the temple and its rites. Isaiah is praying for God’s final arrival in glory; this is apocalyptic expression at its best.
Isaiah’s prayer expresses the hope that when God arrives, “you might meet us doing right.” The prophet acknowledges that Israel’s sins brought the Captivity down upon them, and he accepts the reality that God is still angry with Israel after the return from Babylon, because “all of us have become like unclean people,” going as far as to compare the people to “polluted rags” [i.e., soiled with human discharge of some sort.] Isaiah is clearly disturbed that the recent crisis has not moved his people closer to God, and he acknowledges that it is understandable that God would hide his face from the people.
For all that, Isaiah still carries a hope that Israel’s existence will carry meaning before God. The Babylonian Captivity dashed many of Israel’s preconceptions, and it would be the next generations who would discern the meaning of Israelite experience. He concludes this section with the reflection that the future is in God’s hands, and that Israel’s hope is greater dependence upon God as Father: “we are the clay and you the potter.”
In the B Cycle this text from Isaiah falls on the First Sunday of Advent, a liturgical season of waiting and expectation. In Sunday’s Gospel Mark 13 warns of the importance of being at the watch when the lord of the household returns. Mark’s words are an echo of Isaiah’s, “would that you might meet us doing right” on the day of the Lord’s glorious return.