Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod. James Tissot, 1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum.
July 7, 2019
Our first reading this Sunday is from the third prophet to use the name Isaiah. He lived in the first generation of the Jews who accepted the invitation of King Cyrus, the king of Assyria, to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Although his circumstances are different from the other two Isaiahs, he continues their emphasis on the importance of worship; however, he is chastened by a belief that liturgy which does not direct worshippers to justice is idolatry. We will find in third Isaiah not only eloquence, but a realism that is disturbingly real and contemporary.
King Cyrus promised to help the Jews rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but his idea was much less grand than theirs. Many who went off with great joy to the land of their ancestors were disappointed at the rugged conditions they discovered and the relative lack of funding. Although financing from Assyrian empire was not enough to rebuild the temple to its former splendor, it was a substantial project—then, as now, an opportunity for corruption. Isaiah is writing at the time of the completion of the temple around 515 BC and has first-hand experience. He takes the leaders to task:
They are relentless dogs,
they know not when they have enough.
These are the shepherds
who know no discretion;
Each of them goes his own way,
every one of them to his own gain:
He compares them with those who came back to Jerusalem for the right motives and have paid a price for it:
The just man perishes,
but no one takes it to heart;
Devout men are swept away,
with no one giving it a thought.
The just will, however, be rewarded:
Though he is taken away from the presence of evil,
the just man
enters into peace;
There is rest on his couch
for the sincere, straightforward man.
(Isaiah 57:1–2 )
But not by a mere tinkering with human power. Those who took the name Isaiah always experienced power—the glory of God—emanating from the temple. Several months ago, we read the call of the first Isaiah in the temple:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!”
they cried one to the other.
“All the earth is filled with his glory!”
At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook
and the house was filled with smoke.
This Isaiah tells his people:
Rise up in splendor! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
But upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
The Lord will powerfully enter into the world not to reform it, but to transform it:
Lo, I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
The things of the past shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness
in what I create;
For I create Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight;
This will not be by magic, but by a change of heart that will be seen in true worship and religious practice:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
The Lord vindicates his people not only to show his power and his justice but to provide a true home for all people. Isaiah several times tells the people that they are to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem as a light to the nations. Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 52:10 and 60:3 tells us as well:
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.
The section we read today is the final chapter of Isaiah and these themes are brought together very powerfully. The chapter begins with the Lord reminding the people that he is more powerful than they are and they cannot impress, much less intimidate him.
This is the one whom I approve:
the lowly and afflicted man who trembles at my word.
Merely slaughtering an ox is like slaying a man;
sacrificing a lamb, like breaking a dog’s neck;
Bringing a cereal offering, like offering swine’s blood;
burning incense, like paying homage to an idol.
Since these have chosen their own ways
and taken pleasure in their own abominations,
Worship without love, particularly for the poor and marginalized, is idolatry, the first and greatest sin.
Jerusalem, however, will be the mother of those who act justly. It will be a most miraculous birth:
Who ever heard of such a thing,
or saw the like?
Can a country be brought forth in one day,
or a nation be born in a single moment?
Yet Zion is scarcely in labor
when she gives birth to her children.
Shall I bring a mother to the point of birth,
and yet not let her child be born? says the LORD;
Or shall I who allow her to conceive,
yet close her womb? says your God.
This is where we begin today. Through Jerusalem, the Lord is offering us a personal relationship. Note that Jews and Catholics agree that our relationship with God is in through a community. The Jews call it the people, we call it the church. The passage does not however end here. Isaiah continues:
I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.
These Gentiles will be commissioned to bring the name of the Lord:
to the distant coastlands that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
Some of these will even become priests:
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.
As the new heavens and the new earth which I will make
Shall endure before me, says the LORD,
so shall your race and your name endure.
This is a very important passage for we of St Charles Borromeo. We are renovating our physical Church. In order that it be both functional and beautiful, we will spend a tremendous amount of time, effort, and money. How will we know if it was worth it? Practically, of course, if it completed satisfactorily, looks good, and doesn’t leak, but I think Isaiah is showing us that it will also be not only what we do in it but through it. Will we be a light beyond ourselves?