April 5, 2020
Readers of these reflections with a good memory will note that this is the usual Old Testament reading for the Mass for Palm Sunday. It is considered so important that it is used other times of the year as well (24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B). We read it this year during the coronavirus pandemic and its message is even stronger and more pertinent.
As with so many of the passages we have examined, we must return to the mindset of the people who rebuilt Jerusalem around 520 BC. A miracle had occurred. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and the leaders brought into exile in Babylon. This should have been the end of the Jewish people. Yet God through the unlikely intermediary of Cyrus, Prince of Persia, has given them a chance to start again. Enough decided to return to the ruins of Jerusalem that they could contemplate reconstruction. Yet they needed a second miracle to know why they were there.
Many seemed to believe that they would be rewarded by God for their faith in the common way of the world: comfort, wealth, and power. However, they were living Spartan lives in rubble as the employees of a foreign emperor. They asked Isaiah why God has abandoned them. Like their forefathers who left Egypt, they began to believe they were better off in captivity.
In the passage immediately before today’s reading God answers them:
Where is the bill of divorce
with which I dismissed your mother?
Or to which of my creditors
have I sold you?
It was for your sins that you were sold,
for your crimes that your mother was dismissed.
They were exiled because of their refusal to follow God, but there was no bill of divorce or sale to anyone else. They were not abandoned permanently. God did not want to sever His ties with them but to chastise them. Note however this is not the past, but the present: He is referring to them not their forbears:
Why was no one there when I came?
Why did no one answer when I called?
Is my hand too short to ransom?
Have I not the strength to deliver?
He called them to make a new Exodus following him to a new land and they did not follow with their hearts only their bodies. Note the references to the Exodus in the next line:
Lo, with my rebuke I dry up the sea,
I turn rivers into a desert;
Their fish rot for lack of water,
and die of thirst.
The next line however marks a change and it is Isaiah who speaks:
The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
That I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
A better translation for “a well-trained tongue” would be the tongue of a disciple. His responsibly is not to convey information however true, but to exhort the people to fulfill their role. This requires continued effort (“morning after morning”) and is not the message we might first have considered.
A key part of “Second Isaiah” are the four “suffering servant songs” in which he speaks as one who has taken on the burden of his people.
And I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
Voluntary suffering was not common in the Old Testament, but it was not
unknown. Jeremiah refers to himself as like a trusting lamb led to the
slaughter (Jer. 12:19). This was however before the exile. Isaiah wishes
to show them what is expected of them in this new world.
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
However unpleasant life may become, he knows that God will never abandon him and dares those who thought him only oppressed to take him to court:
He is near who upholds my right;
if anyone wishes to oppose me,
let us appear together.
Who disputes my right?
Let him confront me.
See, the Lord GOD is my help;
who will prove me wrong?
Lo, they will all wear out like cloth,
the moth will eat them up.
In the verse immediately following he then addresses the people directly:
Who among you fears the LORD,
heeds his servant’s voice,
And walks in darkness
without any light,
Trusting in the name of the LORD
and relying on his God?
He knows that they do not understand him; that they would be expected to follow God for seemingly no earthly reward does not make sense to them. But it is their role to trust God.
All of you kindle flames
and carry about you fiery darts;
Walk by the light of your own fire
and by the flares you have burnt!
This is your fate from my hand:
you shall lie down in a place of pain.
If they think they are walking by light, it is their own and not God’s. Their fate will be pain forever.
There are many statements to the effect that we learn by our successes when young and failures when old. God is teaching the people what he wants them to be mature disciples. In a previous “suffering servant song,” Isaiah writes:
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
The Jews were called to lead others to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They would need to learn that the required humility comes by sacrifice and suffering. Their effectiveness will not be because of their power but their trust.
In a fascinating opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on March 26, Robert
Nicholson reflected on the experience of the great British historian Herbert Butterfield. Butterfield looked at the devastation after the Second World War and turned to the Old Testament for understanding:
The power of the Old Testament teaching on history—
perhaps the point at which the ancient Jews were most original,
breaking away from the religious thought of the other peoples around them—
lay precisely in the region of truths which sprang
from a reflection on catastrophe and cataclysm.
Much Old Testament criticism at the time became so concerned with technical issues and denying any hint of any historical reality within it that it lost sight of this major insight into history.
He further thought:
It is almost impossible properly to appreciate
the higher developments in the historical reflection
of the Old Testament except in another age which
has experienced (or has found itself confronted with)
He felt that the experiences of the two world wars in quick succession forced people to look at the world with eyes familiar with “catastrophe and cataclysm.”
Nicholson takes this further and suggests that the record high religious observance in America for the decades following the second world war was not a sign of a desire for conformity but rather a recognition of the precariousness of life. But as the world went back to “normal,” Americans in particular convinced ourselves that we had created a world that was impregnable, and God was perhaps a pleasant experience but not “missioncritical.”
The coronavirus has perhaps shown us that we are not as self-sufficient as we thought, and we are certainly not impregnable. It would not be surprising if Americans showed great interest in God and Church during and after the crisis.
Yet what will they find in general and most particularly at St. Charles?
The suffering servant passages of Isaiah are generally considered to be among the images that most influenced Jesus. If we want to be a light to the gentiles of our own day and truly be a means for the salvation of God to reach to the ends of the earth, then we must embrace our frailty and allow our suffering to open us up and reveal Jesus within our personal lives and our community.
What people find here is less important that who they find. If it is not Jesus, then St. Charles neither will, nor should welcome anyone.