In the four weeks of Advent the Prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary of Nazareth and Joseph help us welcome God with us, Emmanuel. This first week in our Advent liturgy we listen especially to the strong voice of the Prophet Isaiah. Some say Isaiah is our 5th Gospel.
Isaiah was a priest serving the temple of Jerusalem in the eighth century before Christ. He was not simply engaged in temple worship, Isaiah was also engaged deeply in politics of the day. Watching every move they made, he scolds, encourages and warns one king after another. CNN and the news channels are on all the time.
But Isaiah was not trapped in politics, political commentary or solutions. He had a vision of God– which he describes in the 6th chapter of his writings– an overwhelming experience of God in the temple’s Holy of Holies.
The vision was “ so overwhelming that military and political power faded into insignificance. He constantly called his people back to a reliance on God’s promises and away from vain attempts to find security in human plans and intrigues.” (Introduction, New American Bible) He saw how great God was and how small we are.
Of course, most of his contemporaries thought Isaiah’s words were unreal. Ahaz, King of Judea, one of Isaiah’s most prominent adversaries, is mentioned throughout our Advent readings. He was a realist, looking at the “real world.” Absorbed in political maneuvering, Ahaz was intent on an alliance with the Assyrians against the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria.
Isaiah urged the king and those like him to see God’s vision instead of being absorbed in politics. God’s vision was for a world that was one where all nations streamed towards the Lord’s mountain. God’s vision was for a peaceable world, where they would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. God’s vision was for a just world where all would be fed, even the poor. God’s vision was for a world like a rock where all, even the natural world itself, were secure.
Impractical, the political realists said. But Isaiah’s message came, not from what he saw or from political savvy, but from God, Emmanuel, God with us.
One of the great theologians of the Second Vatican Council, the French Dominican Yves Congar, OP wrote a book called “The Mystery of the Temple.” (Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland 1962) The book is about the presence of God in sacred history, the history of the patriarchs and the prophets. Congar wrote the book as France was experiencing rapid secularization and people were abandoning God and the church. He was watching the world he knew and loved disappear, and he wondered where God was in all this.
In one sentence of the book he writes: “We are always tempted to confine ourselves to what we see and touch, to be satisfied with this and to think that a preliminary achievement fulfills God’s promise.”
“Abraham thought God’s promise was fulfilled in Ismael, Joshua thought it was the conquest of Canaan. Solomon thought it was in his immediate descendants…but these promises were capable of more complete fulfillment which would only materialize after long periods of waiting and urgently needed purification. Only the prophets–and this, in fact, is their task–draw attention to the process of development from seminal promises to a greater fulfillment.”
So we listen, especially in critical times like ours, to prophets like Isaiah as they speak of God’s vision. God’s vision is real, greater than we can imagine, greater than we can hope for. We need to rely on more than what we see before us. In Advent, we keep prophets like Isaiah company, asking that we see what they saw. Emmanuel. God is with us.