09 December 2012
With the Saints through Advent (10): 9 December, the Prophets
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent [9 December 2012]. When we light the second candle on the Advent Wreath in our churches this morning, we remember the Prophets of the Old Testament among the saints of old.
This year [Year C] in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for the Sundays of Advent, our Old Testament readings are drawn from the prophets Jeremiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, Micah, Joel and Isaiah, with the Song of Isaiah as the canticle next Sunday, and the weekday readings in the Church of Ireland are principally from Isaiah but with readings too from I and II Samuel, Malachi, Amos, Jeremiah, Zephaniah and Zechariah.
So-called “Christian names” are usually names found in the New Testament, but apart from Daniel and Jeremiah (Jeremy), but the names the Old Testament prophets are less popular and less enduring in Ireland. After all, you hear of few children with a name like Ezekiel or even Elijah.
Yet, most of us associated readings from the Prophet Isaiah with Advent and Christmas, and many are familiar with passages from Isaiah through listening to Handel’s Messiah through Advent and Christmas, year after year.
The Australian Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins, in All Things New: The Promise of Advent, Christmas and the New Year (Paulist Press, 1998), calls the Book of Isaiah “the Fifth Gospel” because the themes of the Gospels so often draw on the images in Isaiah – even the name Isaiah, which means “Yahweh saves,” appears to foretell the Christmas story.
The Book of Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Old Testament, and was written over a period of many years, so that most scholars believe there were at least three “Isaiahs” who used his name and style because of his importance and effectiveness. Chapters 40 to 55 are often called “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Second Isaiah,” and Chapters 56 to 66 are sometimes called “Trito-Isaiah” or “Third Isaiah.”
In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ begins his ministry by reading a passage from the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and applying the message to his own ministry, as we shall be reminded in the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany on 27 January next (Luke 4:14-21, see Isaiah 61: 1-2, 58: 6).
Isaiah is preaching at a critical time in the history of the Jewish people. The original nation of Israel is divided into two, Israel in the North and Judah in the South, each with its own king, and both constantly at war with each other and their neighbours.
The Book of Isaiah is distinguished among the Old Testament writings for its extraordinary literary quality, including its poetry and its vivid and powerful images and symbols used to preach uncomfortable messages.
Yet Isaiah is a prophet of hope and new beginnings, who he speaks of the birth of a new king who will be a “Wonderful Counsellor” and “Prince of Peace.”
He is a prophet of the compassion of God and of God’s mercy, comfort and consolation. He is the first prophet to articulate that the God of the Jews is also the God of all people, that God’s mercy reaches beyond Jerusalem and Judah to extend to all peoples. And he is a prophet of peace and justice.
In the Old Testament, the role of the prophets is, above all, to listen to God not just with their ears but with their hearts too. They live in close relationship with God, are consumed with love for God, and speak of this deep listening in their efforts to ignite the hearts of the people with the same love.
In this morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 3: 1-6), we hear some of those well-known images from Isaiah as Saint John the Baptist prepares for the arrival of Christ:
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.’ (see Isaiah 40: 3-5)
Father in heaven, who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Baruch 5: 1-9 or Malachi 3: 1-4;
Philippians 1: 3-11;
Luke 3: 1-6.
Post Communion Prayer:
here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Tomorrow (10 December): Thomas Merton.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.