Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 63:16B-17, 19B; 64:2-7
November 29, 2020
There is a sense of desperation in today’s reading from Isaiah. As we will see, it is justified and has a very specific cause. Yet, although specific, it has much to teach us.
We will read today roughly from Isaiah 63:16-64:7. This was written by the third person to use the name Isaiah. He was among the Jews who accepted the offer of King Cyrus, the Assyrian conqueror of Babylon, to return to Jerusalem as one of his colonial administrators. This was in 546 BC; he is writing about 500 BC. There have been so many difficulties that many of the colonists are questioning their mission. Isaiah will answer them in a very Jewish way.
To understand how fully Jewish, we will need to back up to the beginning of chapter 63:7.
The favors of the LORD I will recall,(Is 63:7)
the glorious deeds of the LORD,
Because of all he has done for us;
for he is good to the house of Israel
These lines up to and slightly beyond our passage today are a Psalm a communal prayer of sorrow. They begin by acknowledging God’s goodness to them. He made them his people:
He said: They are indeed my people,(Is 63:8–9)
children who are not disloyal;
So he became their savior
in their every affliction.
So great was his identification with them that he did not send angels or other surrogates however majestic to aid them but did it himself:
It was not a messenger or an angel,(Is 63:9)
but he himself who saved them.
Because of his love and pity
he redeemed them himself,
This is most clearly seen in the Exodus. Isaiah and his audience would have been direct beneficiaries of the “second exodus,” liberation from Babylon and thus acutely sensitive to every possible parallel.
Then they remembered the days of old(Is 63:11)
and Moses, his servant;
Where is he who brought up out of the sea
the shepherd of his flock?
Isaiah provides many more examples of God’s care yet now:
Why do you let us wander,(Is 63:17)
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.
They now feel abandoned by God. Indeed, they speak of their hearts being hardened. This was like Pharaoh in Exodus. It is sin that hardens the heart and makes it non-responsive to God.
Too long have we been like those you do not rule,(Is 63:19)
who do not bear your name.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you
They realize that by ignoring the divine law they have made themselves pagans “those you do not rule” and that it will take God’s direct and powerful intervention to aid them.
They have a rather sophisticated understanding of God. They see his power and note here the clear statement of his superiority over every other authority.
While you wrought awesome deeds(Is 64:2–3)
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
Yet note as well that there is always the ethical dimension:
Would that you might meet us doing right,(Is 64:4)
that we were mindful of you in our ways!
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful;
They recognize that offering sacrifices and performing rituals although necessary are not enough. It is only a good life that is able to truly honor the God who revealed himself not only by opening the Red Sea but by giving them the ten commandments. This disobedience makes God angry.
Here is where the desperation becomes acute:
All of us have become like unclean men,(Is 64:5)
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
We have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
“Unclean” and “polluted” are upsetting for us but devastating for Jews. The effect is to diminish them so much that they can be carried away by a wind. Could they have sinned so badly that unlike their ancestors they will not be saved?
There is none who calls upon your name,(Is 64:6)
who rouses himself to cling to you;
For you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
This section ends with a hope that is based on realism. They appeal to God not as a judge, it may very well be too late for that, but as a Father and they recognize that it is he who must form and mold them:
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;(Is 64:7)
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands
It is difficult to know what these colonists expected. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra tell us that they faced many problems. Supplies were erratic and inadequate, there was an indigenous population (the Samaritans) who interfered with the work and there were internal divisions. These should have been expected and any one of them could be blamed for the difficulties they were facing. Yet Isaiah does not excuse the people with any of them but accuses them of sin.
We have seen this before as “Deuteronomic History”; the belief that when the Jews obeyed the law and clung to God they were saved when they did not, they were persecuted. This was an integral part of the Prophetic understanding and can be found in the previous Isaiahs as well as the other prophets. These colonists were also the people who would give the Pentateuch and other writings their final edit. The idea was certainly in the air.
There are obvious flaws in this view especially if taken too far. An overemphasis on this should be buried with the Holocaust. Yet we can learn from it. We need always to place our relationship with God first, without it we cannot flourish.
In rebuilding St Charles, we will need to use all the skills and resources available to us. We will make mistakes. So be it. We will succeed however if we do everything for God our father and potter. St Charles must be the work of his hands.