“Comfort, comfort ye my people . . .”
So pleads God to his prophet Isaiah. So we hear in the words not
only of today’s first reading, but in Handel’s Messiah,
performed so often during this season. We revel in the beauty and
consolation of the words – and the hopefulness of all the
Isaian readings of this joyful season. We do so easily, cheaply,
because they offer promises, but seemingly make no demands. Or are
we missing something?
Here is Isaiah’s situation. The prophet is in Babylon with
the Jewish exiles displaced there by Nebuchadnezzar 50 years earlier.
Cyrus the Great of Persia has just defeated the Babylonian army
and will now rule Babylon. He is known for religious toleration
and pluralism, and will support Jewish return to Jerusalem and the
rebuilding of the temple there. No wonder this passage is filled
with hope. God promises a new exodus, a new creation. But his purpose
is not just to bring them home. God wants them to be a radiant city,
seated on a hill, drawing all people to itself (Is. 60:1–6),
showing tangibly what God’s plan for the world is all about.
But what is the response? Despite some of the most eloquent pleading
in all of literature, many of the exiles – probably most –
ignore Isaiah’s words and choose to stay behind. They have
settled in nicely, have their own small businesses. Their children
have married and had children of their own. Hardly anyone alive
remembers Jerusalem. They are OK. What would they get out of returning?
In the end, only a fraction pull up their new roots, place their
total trust in God, and return on foot to the ruins of a devastated
city 600 miles distant.
St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that “all things
recorded in times past were recorded for our instruction”.
But the purpose of the Bible is not to instruct us in history –
rather to teach us what we need for salvation. So, where are we
in this Isaian context? Do we just get a warm glow from hearing
Isaiah’s inspired poetry year after year? Or do we quake in
fear at what it asks us to do?
Both USA Today and Newsweek this past summer had feature stories
about the decline in religion in Europe. Both gave, as the reason,
the fact that Europeans didn’t feel they needed religion much
anymore. They felt in control of their own fates, or at least thought
they understood the forces that impinged upon them. God wasn’t
one of those forces. Perhaps the relocated Jews now comfortably
settled in Babylon, to whom Isaiah addressed God’s plea, felt
In a little less than three weeks we will celebrate the birth of
our Savior. I ask myself often: “What have I been saved
from?” Most First World Catholics are so insulated from
the perils of life that “salvation” is little more than
a catechism word for us, with not much meaning in our lived experiences.
Would we have seen the return to Jerusalem as “salvation”?
Do we perceive the call out of our own exile in self-centered materialism
as a saving call? Do we see our vocation as saving the world? I
have 19 more days to decide whether I really care that I have been