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Tag Archive: Isaiah

O Oriens

Posted: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 (6:35 am), by John W Gillis


“O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” (O Antiphon for Dec 21st)

Ironic, isn’t it?, that the antiphon for the Winter Solstice calls upon Christ as the Light of Dawn, or Rising Sun, or Dayspring from On High! Like all the antiphons of this octave, it recalls an Isaiahan Messianic prophecy: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” (9:1 in NAB – 9:2 in most versions).

All the bells and whistles of this commercial season strike me as expressing something between a denial of the dreadful barrenness of the world in the darkness of winter, and a mockery of the hope that looks forward to new life springing out of that barrenness. The shadow of death has long fingers, and truly spares us not. Yet the frivolity we greet it with does not confront it with any kind of meaningful hope, but obscures it with a parade of jingle bells and other distracting inanities. And there are times in which that becomes more plainly evident than others; this is one of those times, I’m afraid.

Comfort Without Complacency

Posted: Sunday, December 7, 2008 (9:52 pm), by John W Gillis


Comfort, comfort my people.

2nd Sunday in Advent, Year B

1 Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! 4 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; The rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. 9 Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! 10 Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. 11 Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, Carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. 9 The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. 11 Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. 13 But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God). 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ ” 4 John (the) Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. 6 John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. 7 And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.”

If Advent is a time of hopeful waiting, the readings for the second Sunday give a good indication of what kind of waiting it is. I dare say that it has little in common with the sentiment of cherub-faced children seen peering out of frosted windows in wondrous winter anticipation that is such common stock on the covers of catalogs that fill the mailbox at this time of year. The “comfort” called for (naham ) is that which is often offered to mourners. It is often used as a messianic promise as well, but not with the idea of making people feel better so much as to transform them. In fact, in certain forms, the word is widely translated as “repent.” We could say that this comforting refers to an act of being moved with pity or compassion.

The idea clearly is that the coming of God is for the purpose of saving His people from tangible distress. There’s no escaping that our waiting is a period of trial – at least if we take the Scriptures seriously. We see a sign of this in the lifestyle of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the long-awaited Comfort, or Consolation, of Israel, as Simeon shows us in Luke’s Gospel (c.f. Lk 2:25).And yet, like Simeon, we too await the Consolation. Even though we live under the Seal of the Promise, we too await the Lord’s patient wish that “all should come to repentance” and consolation.

The picture Peter paints is one that seems to me to be quite thoroughly ignored – the picture of everything being dissolved by fire in the Lord’s return. There is a popular tendency to equate heaven with eternity, and to overlook the material aspect of the promise (a new earth). Scripture is quite clear that the end is a new heavens and a new earth; that “Heaven and earth shall pass away” (Mt 24:35).

And so I wonder exactly what it is that we await. On the one hand, it seems exciting, but then I recall that the Lord saw fit to call his followers to vigilance (Mt 25:13, Mk 13:33; Lk 12:37; etc.), which would hardly seem necessary if the waiting was just wide-eyed expectancy. Nor would it seem necessary if the outcome were a certainty. Advent is nothing if not an invitation to shed any complacency.

Oh, That You Would Rend the Heavens and Come Down!

Posted: Sunday, November 30, 2008 (11:41 pm), by John W Gillis


I had the curious privilege this weekend of proclaiming the liturgical reading for the last Mass of the year on Saturday, as well as the readings for the first Mass of the new liturgical year today. I’m sure that’s not particularly unusual, but given as I only read about three days a month, it was a bit curious to draw these exact two assignments.

In reflecting on them both, it struck me how similar they are – in that even the triumphant scene from Revelation of the vision of the tree of life in the Saturday reading is imbued with such a strong sense of expectant waiting: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7). The confidence of this vision, as well as that of the opening of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that serves as today’s second reading, put us on guard against an overly fatalistic reading of the Isaiah passage from this morning’s liturgy:

1st Sunday in Advent, Year B

16b You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. 17 Why do you let us wander, 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. 16b Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, 2 While you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, 3 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. 4 Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; 5 all of us have become like unclean men, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; We have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. 6 There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. 7 Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, 6 as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus (Christ). 9 God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

33 Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. 36 May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’ “

Yet, for all the confident hope expressed by the end-of-year readings – as well as in paul’s greeting to the Corinthians – both the Isaiah reading and today’s Gospel commend a certain sobriety. “Watch!” Jesus implores us; don’t be lulled into complacency by the times and seasons.

The reason to be on guard against such complacency is made clear by Isaiah. Things had gone badly – very badly – for Isaiah’s people, and he ached for God to “rend the heavens and come down” to rescue His people, as He had done through Moses in ages past. But Isaiah also knew that only a people truly open to God could receive His “awesome deeds,” and he knew that a contrite and penitent spirit alone could be open to God.

The thought that really jumps out at me is “There is no one who calls upon your name.” As I embark upon another Advent, I simultaneously and necessarily also embark upon another one of what used to be called the “Christmas Season,” but is now, mercifully – and more accurately – called the Holiday Season.

Like many Christians, I’ve struggled for years to reconcile the public practice of “Christmas” with my faith. That the American cultural “Holiday” stands in stark contrast to its ostensible origins in the Christian Nativity story and celebration really needs no proof. The commandeering of “Christmas” for the purpose of a societal bacchanalia of materialism is plainly contrary to the humble character of Our Lord’s first coming.

Somewhere along the way, Jesus Christ morphed into Santa Claus – himself a caricature of the ancient Catholic Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas, a man renowned for his love for and generosity toward poor women, whom he would anonymously provide dowries for in order to save them from lives of prostitution. Yet, in the transformation, the “bringer of gifts” became one who indulged the rich while overlooking the poor, despite the celebratory thanksgiving song sung by His mother – prayed in unison every evening by the Church in her liturgy for her thousands of years:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53).

There was a time, I will admit – coincidental to a time when I was poor myself – that I was pretty well convinced that the “Santa Claus” entity was no less than an expression of the anti-Christ. I had many reasons, at the time, for my opinion, having identified a host of ways that “Santa Claus” or “the Spirit of Christmas” not only failed to adequately express the truths revealed in the Incarnation, but operated from fundamentally opposing and contrary notions of the good, and contributed to the growing problem of unbelief by distorting children’s openness to supernatural, revelatory truth. I have no interest in rehashing those arguments here, but merely want to suggest that many things can become clear to a man about the purpose and nature of institutions when he is too poor to get in the door. Christ truly came to blow such doors asunder.

And as “the Season” kicks off again, amidst reports of store clerks being stampeded to death by astonishingly graceless “holiday” bargain hunters, the ancient words of Isaiah haunt me:

There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; For you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Isaiah 64:7 (NAB)

As a society that once had at least some sort of claim on God’s heritage, it strikes me that we are every bit in exile as were the Babylonian captives Isaiah ached to see restored to their place as the tribes of God’s heritage. What would seem more impolite than to actually call upon His Name? Rend the heavens, indeed, Lord. Maranatha! Lord, come quickly!

Upon This Rock: Royal Authority & Stewardship

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2008 (3:46 pm), by John W Gillis


A few observations on the Gospel reading for this week…

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

19 I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. 20 On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; 21 I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. 23 I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family; [NAB]

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given him anything that he may be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [NAB]

13 When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah. [NAB]

Knowing & Knowing Of: It’s interesting to note the way Jesus frames the two questions he presents to the disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” vs. “Who do you say that I am?” The people, who are remote, know “the Son of Man,” but He is to them a remote figure whom they know inadequately, in a kind of third-person relationship: not as a “thou” but as a “him”. Really, they know of Jesus; they don’t know him. On the other hand, the knowledge of the disciples is personal, and therefore able to be brought to completion. Not long before this, Matthew tells us, Jesus had explained to His disciples: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.” (Matthew 13:11, NASB). Peter’s confession is the logical conclusion to this string of ideas showing the disciples as the privileged stewards of God’s revelation.

On Peter: Much is made in certain circles of the difference in the Greek between the masculine form of the name now given to Peter (Petros), and the feminine form (petra) of the “rock” upon which Jesus will build His ecclesia. The difference, it is said, is as one between a stone and a large rock mass. The usual rejoinder from the ultramontane crowd is that in the Aramaic which Jesus would actually have been speaking that day to this Galilean fisherman, there is no such distinction, and the word used in both instances would have been kepha. This may be so, but I like to think the inspired character of the text given to us in Greek offers us insight that goes beyond any extrapolation back into the Aramaic.

The obvious Old Testament parallel and type for this passage is the passage from Isaiah 22 that we see in the first reading. The oracle, pronounced against Shebna, the king’s steward (“master of the palace”), makes reference to his being thrust from his office, and replaced by Eliakim, who, unlike Shebna, would act as God’s servant in his fulfillment of the office. This stewardship was not a singular role that was intrinsic to Shebna personally, but an office that he filled – and that others would continue to fill so long as there was a Davidic king to be served as steward. I think this may be a useful interpretive key to the linguistic differentiation of the two “rock” words in the Greek.

Perhaps Jesus is saying here that He will build His Church not simply “on you, Peter” but “on Peter writ large.” In other words, not only on Peter personally (although He certainly did that), but on the office of royal authority – of king’s steward – that Peter would inaugurate anew and serve as the paradigm for. The following verse about the giving of the keys of the Kingdom seems to make this clear, referring quite evidently back to Eliakim’s taking on of the stewardship of the Davidic kingdom.

The calling attention to the stone/rock-mass (petros/petra) distinction often seems proposed as a rather coy means of minimizing the significance of Peter’s foundational role, and more importantly, by extension, in claiming that Peter himself is not the foundational “rock mass” after all, despite the obvious parallelism at play in Jesus’ pronouncement, of writing off the claims of Peter’s successors to a role of chief stewardship. However, I think the Petrine claims to such an office become even more convincing when this passage is seen in its broader Biblical context, and the linguistic differentiation of scale in the Greek text actually points forward beyond the personal (which would have made the statement mythological, since the historical Peter would live only another thirty-odd years or so), to the historical unfolding of that Church which would not appear in an instant, but rather will , we are told, be built. As the rest of the passage makes clear, Jesus was conferring real authority – His authority – upon Peter, and Peter could not possibly have personally exercised that authority continuously until the Church prevailed against the “gates of the netherworld” in the resurrection.

The Rock: Even more interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of the name “Rock” for Simon. He could have called Simon anything, but He chose a term that had been widely used in Scripture to refer to God Himself. This says simply amazing things about Peter, or more properly, about the nature of the authority Jesus was conferring on him. It is clear that Jesus intended that those who heard the voice of Peter should consider that they heard the voice of God. If this is not clear enough in the gospel text, it is recapitulated, by inference, in Rev 3:7:

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:” [NAB]

Here the Risen Lord, seated in authority, uses language that hearkens back again both to Peter’s commission as foundation of the Church, and all the way back to Eliakim, a faithful servant become steward, whose name means “God raises up.” Then, we see at Pentecost, Peter, the faithful servant become steward of Christ, proclaiming to the world “God raised Him up”: “But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” [Acts 2:24, NAB]. Peter then testifies with the Pentecostal Spirit of Truth to the Lordship of Jesus “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” [Acts 2:36, NAB] which proclamation is the faithful fulfillment of his commission.

Peter Receives the Keys to the Kingdom (Perugino, 1481)

The Keys to the Kingdom: The liturgy’s association of the Isaiah 22 passage and Mt 16:19 makes clear both how Christ intended the kingdom He was inaugurating to be the fulfillment of the Davidic kingdom, and the kind of authority He was handing to Peter as steward. The authority is historical. That is to say, while it is certainly a “spiritual” authority, it is temporal, even if it has eschatological implications. The authority of the Kingdom is not something waiting to be revealed in a mythic or even eschatological future. The Kingdom is now, and the king’s steward exercises the King’s authority.

While it’s certainly true that the breaking in of the Kingdom is far from complete, this passage, and its articulation of the historical reality of the Kingdom in the Church, thoroughly repudiates the popular American Evangelical theology known as Dispensationalism – a recent variation on millenarianism which denies the present reality of the Kingdom, and expects instead a future 1000-year temporal reign of Jesus from modern-day Jerusalem, inaugurated in apocalyptic mayhem. It is quite ridiculous to picture Peter exercising Christ’s royal authority on earth in such a scenario, with Christ Himself somehow also both reigning directly on earth as He does in heaven, and yet still “building” His Church on petra! If Dispensationalism is true, then Jesus must not have meant anything He said to Peter that day.