Thoughts on Isaiah, Romans, and Matthew, the Mass readings for the 1st Sunday of Advent.
Isaiah exercised his prophetic ministry (742 – 701 BCE) around Jerusalem in times of political crisis and national turbulence. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, as well as the Northern Kingdom of Israel, were both caught up in the constant struggles for supremacy between the great superpowers of the day – Assyria and Egypt. Isaiah brought a new perspective. He filtered political realities through his contemplative spirit. It became an entry into the divine-human dialogue. His vision of a peace was an all-inclusive one. It had to embrace not just his own nation or the surrounding ones but every nation in the world – even the superpowers. God alone had the power to bring peace and justice. The nations were all instruments of God’s designs.‘The “nations” are not forgotten but are still the object of the loving design of God”(Meeting God in Friend and Stranger [MGFR] para.119).
Judah is surrounded by the constant threat of invasion by Assyria and the dread of alliances of the neighbouring nations which might lead to its downfall. Isaiah is seized by an overwhelming desire for peace and unity, a conviction that these can only come from God and that this is the pattern of a plan for all the nations. So, he pictures the hilltop temple of his city Jerusalem being lifted higher than all the other hills. Who lifts it up? Only God can. Why should God do this? So that ‘all the nations will stream to it’. People without number will come to it because they recognise that here, they will be able to learn the ways of God. God will “wield authority over the nations” so that there will be no more war.
God’s oracle, his law, his authority, his teaching – his dialogue with humankind in the ways of peace and justice, cannot be confined to the ‘chosen’ people. Peace can only be achieved between the several protagonists in war. This logic drives Isaiah on to his vision of a dialogue between God and every nation, with all peoples. War and violence divide humanity, nations or peoples, it is in the nature of peace to unite them. It is not possible to invoke God in a partisan way. No nation or humanly organised group can be excluded. This is portrayed in the fact that God’s hilltop with its Temple must be so raised up that it can become figuratively higher than all other hills so that all the nations can stream to it. “They will say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’.”
It may be one of the lessons Christians need to learn today that the ‘quiet presence’ of the roots of dialogue lie in the Old Testament of which Isaiah marks a significant step along the way. He formed the visionary notion that since warfare and violence depends on a breakdown of dialogue between peoples – each invoking and appealing to their own gods to bring them victory – then if there is to be an end to violence, there must be, in diverse ways, a recognition of the one God who teaches the paths of peace. And that therefore we must all “stream” to the mountain of that God.
Our situation today is not far removed from that of Isaiah – if now on a global scale. God is invoked to justify the use of terror on different sides. Christians must learn, as Isaiah learnt, that God is the same God for all – they cannot use violence in the name of God. We cannot use our faith or religion to divide and justify tribalism. Nor can we set up attachment to Christ as a tool for excluding others. God has been seeking to invite Christians to climb his mountain – and he has been inviting everyone else to do the same! This invitation has been part of God’s plan for the whole of humanity since the story of salvation started to be told. Sometimes we Christians need to see the bigger picture. The church only makes sense if it is contextualised by that bigger picture. It is the picture Isaiah projected into the future ‘In the days to come.’ It is the picture of salvation universalised which Jesus recognised, and the early Church recognised in Jesus.
In answer to a question of how we can reconcile the notion of Jesus as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ with recognition of the validity of other religions, the writer Richard Rohr points out in his book The Universal Christ that if Jesus was inclusive in terms of his message before the Resurrection, taking pains to include everyone, especially the marginalised of his own society, how come his followers ever since present him as exclusive? Or is it his Church which has reversed his inclusivity and has sought in practice to divide people into those ‘in’ and those ‘out’? We know that the Church (catching up with Isaiah’s vision) teaches that all the nations have been invited to “stream” up to God’s mountain; and that there are elements of what is holy and truthful in members of the other religions and in all cultures of humanity. In all this we are simply applying the lessons to be drawn from his vision. We can be united in seeking the paths of peace.
In the New Testament Paul basks in the sunlight of the universal dialogue of God foreshadowed by Isaiah. Out of his conviction about the fulfilment of dialogue in Christ he simply says Christ is the ‘armour’ we must put on in the fight to stay in the light God has created for all.
Matthew completes the message, dreamt by Isaiah, realised by Paul and now fully flowering in the Gospel. He has Jesus reflect the urgency of the call of God to humanity to enter the dialogue which will reveal all identities and destinies. Can we detect a certain amount of macabre humour in his choice of images to describe the seriousness and urgency of the call to dialogue? So, people were living in blind oblivion to the approaching flood; of two in the field or at the millstone – one is taken and another spared. Then he gets to the first punch line: “So stay awake.” He then returns to an image of the householder and the burglar digging through the house wall before coming to the real lesson: “You too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
We must not let the apparent mundane mask the truth that it is precisely through the mundane that God speaks his invitation to dialogue – God has no other way. This is the meaning of belief in the Incarnation when the Word became flesh –the divine dialogue takes on our humanity. Since then, every moment can be dialogue with God. There is no need to seek the esoteric or the sacred or the mysterious – every second of our mundane reality is shot through with the sacred – with God. Every human situation can deepen our awareness of the divine dialogue going on in and through it or lull us into a life-denying complacency. The task of religion is to free God from the control of religion and allow God into our human lives. Lastly and most tellingly – who or what should we expect? Why – “The Son of Man”! We expect not a devastating flood or a sudden death – but another living and ultimately life-bringing human being! Be on the look out for the God who comes to us ‘disguised as our daily life’ or as our neighbour.
Meeting God in Friend and Stranger – Catholic Bishops’ 2010 Teaching on Interreligious Dialogue.
The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For and Believe, Richard Rohr. 2019. SPCK Publishing.