Merry Christmas lovers of God’s Word!
The Isaiah reading is a favorite for many readers of the Hebrew Scriptures. It certainly breaks a stereotype. You know, the one that describes the "God of the Old Testament" as harsh, judging and quick to punish. In contrast people describe the "New Testament God" as the kind and benevolent God who took pity on us and sent us Jesus to save the world from it’s sin. It is as if, at the end of the Old Testament, God went to an anger management counselor and learned to be kind and forgiving and thus became the benevolent God of the New Testament. Forgive my spoofing tendency, but I still hear this "two-God-split" when people speak of the biblical God.
Israel had been in Babylonian exile for over a generation. The capital and holy city Jerusalem were in ruins and the Temple torn down. Even if they could return to their land they would find it in ruins. Weren’t they supposed to be God’s chosen people and wasn’t their Temple supposed to be the dwelling place of the living God? What went wrong? Had God deserted them? And if so, why?
Well, there was plenty of reason for God to abandon and punish Israel. The "God of the Old Testament" would have had a good case against them. Their misplaced political alliances had gotten them defeated. From their religious perspective they would have seen their plight as a punishment for abandoning God in favor of earthly powers. But the true God is about to shine forth for them and come to their rescue. Isaiah’s words are charged with excitement as he pictures the good news coming to the people in the form of a herald. These messengers would bring news from a battle back to awaiting people. A messenger could be killed for bringing bad news.
But the prophet-messenger is announcing good news: God is intervening on the people’s behalf, rolling up sleeves ("the Lord has bared his arm") to help a depleted and dispirited people. Sometimes God is depicted in maternal images to underline God’s tender care. But the people are enslaved and need a powerful, strong-armed intervention on their behalf and that is what Isaiah is promising. God is coming with help. Can you hear the excitement as Isaiah becomes a cheerleader for God? "Break out together in song O ruins of Jerusalem!" Isaiah is a gospel prophet announcing the good news of salvation. In their history the people have known God as their Redeemer, a God who saves from impossible situations. And that is what they were in… an impossible situation!,
We can pause here, before moving to the gospel, to reflect on what restoration and deliverance we need in our lives right now. How are we experiencing exile from the person we want to be and ought to be?
It seems in each parish where I preach I meet Catholics so scandalized by the clergy sexual abuse of minors that they have gone into a voluntary exile from the church – a church they feel is in ruins, similar to the destroyed Temple and city of Jerusalem the defeated Israelites experienced. In the mess we church people are in we can ask with the Israelites: "Where are you O God? Come to our rescue for only you can save us!" We claim the promise Isaiah makes to us: God has seen our plight, is rolling up sleeves and is coming to help.
Each of the Gospels begins with its own take on how God comes to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Today as we celebrate the birth of Christ we have John’s insight into the significance of what God has done and is doing for us now. Wouldn’t one of the Nativity stories have been more appropriate today, instead of what sounds like a dry, philosophical take on Christ’s birth?
In, "Jesus: A Gospel Portrait" (New York: Paulist Press, 1992, p.27), Donald Senior, C.P., tells us that John:
"...reaches back into the vastness of the universe before creation and time began, into the very life of God, and there finds the ultimate origin of Jesus (Jn 1:1-18). The "word" spoken by God, a word that perfectly expresses God’s love, arches into time and creation and takes flesh. Jesus’ life and ministry began in the timeless love of God for the world.
When we want to assure someone we will be faithful to them, or that we are telling them the truth we say, "I give you my word." Which is what God has done, spoken God’s Word into human flesh in Jesus Christ. God has made a promise to us humans: "I give you my Word – my Son Jesus Christ." That is the attractive and compelling truth of the Incarnation. And that is what makes today’s gospel so attractive to us.
The beginning of John’s Gospel is a profound statement about Jesus, which is also echoed in our reading from Hebrews which ends, "Let all the angels of God worship him." In both readings the preexistence of Christ is clearly stated; Christ was an agent of creation. The Word was there at the beginning – which might sound lofty and detached – except the pre-existing Word entered our history, lived our life, was rejected and died. The evangelist sums it up, "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…." Another translation puts it this way: the Word "pitched a tent" among us. The "tent" is a reminder of the tabernacle, God’s dwelling place, as the people traveled away from Egyptian slavery. Where is our God? God is a "tent dweller," who in Jesus, travels with us through whatever wilderness we find ourselves.
Our contemplative Dominican sisters sent us a prayer for Christmas:
"May the Word of God
spoken through each of our lives
bring love and peace to the world."
Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: