Our first reading is pretty short, and if you are not paying attention, you can miss its punch. There are two key things you have to notice to get its point. First, Cyrus is not a Jew. He is a Persian King. So, he is not part of Israel, he is not part of God’s people. Second, Cyrus is named as God’s anointed one. He’s the one who ends the exile in Babylon. And we know the Hebrew word for anointed one is Messiah, and the Greek word is Christ. So, in this first reading, the prophet Isaiah is telling us that God has made a stranger his messiah. God is working in strange ways. This is of course shocking to Isaiah’s audience.
And there is another thing in this first reading that I want to draw our attention to. God says that through his anointed one, he is going to reveal that he is the only God. He is going to reveal that everything else is nothing.
It seems then that in our first reading God is using something foreign, something unfamiliar to reveal God’s power, and God chooses to reveal God’s power by showing that in comparison to God, everything else is nothing. I wonder if we can find any links to our present situation.
God showing us that, relative to God, everything is nothing, is one of the central spiritual insights. It is one of those insights that gets progressively deeper the more we reflect on it. Many saints talk mention this in different ways. One of my favourite depictions of it is in GK Chesterton’s biography of St Francis. Chesterton says that St Francis’s special genius was to see the contingency of everything. Chesterton’s image is that St Francis saw the whole world hanging by a thread. All of creation need not exist and only does exist to the extent it is loved by God. St Francis therefore saw all in terms of love.
This insight into God’s majesty and therefore the insight into the contingency of all else is the spiritual truth of monotheism. There can be no other gods. This is the reason why the old gods, the ones who inhabited the trees or the waters or the mountains, are no longer plausible. Our society, even our atheists, still believe this. This is also the reason behind the success of western science. That God is supreme, and all else is relative means that creation and divinity are no longer confused. It is not sacrilegious to investigate nature. Creation is no longer seen as divinely necessary: it therefore can be put into question. God’s majesty makes creation free, and creation’s contingency encourages our freedom.
In fact, the spiritual insight into the majesty of the one true God goes hand in hand with the discovery of humanity’s spiritual dignity. Humanity is free to ask questions. The revelation of the one true God in the person of Christ dignifies humanity as the priest of creation. Humanity is the site of God’s Word entering into creation. Science is a beautiful example of this.
However, the freedom that comes with our knowledge of the one true God is a limited freedom. Nature is contingent, but its contingency is specific. An elephant need not exist, but if it does exist, it is an elephant and not a peacock. Similarly, the Middle Ages need not have existed, but once they do exist, they are not the same as the times we live in. And even more concretely, I need not have existed, but once I do exist, I am not you and you are not I. We can therefore see, first, the contingency of creation, of our world, of our history, of ourselves as the spiritual consequence of God’s power and then, second, the spiritual revelation of our freedom, and of our freedom as limited or circumscribed.
I mentioned before that the revelation of freedom does away with the spiritual necessity of the ancient world. The old gods are gone. Where it was the case in the past that people didn’t feel able to ask questions because they thought that answers lay with the gods, once people realise the difference between God and creation, they then feel free to ask questions of nature.
However, I also mentioned that our freedom is limited. Creation is specified. Freedom, though, can be intoxicating. The pendulum can swing too far.
We can overcorrect from a sense of divine determinism to one of absolute freedom. We can lose sight of the true nature of our freedom, lose sight of the limitations, parameters, the context of our freedom, and think that everything is up for grabs. I think you can see this happening at the moment. Our society has lost some of its tethers. Everything kind of feels like it is in question, but we are not sure what the questions mean because we are not sure what are our points of reference are, or even if we can have such references, if they can be called into question, too. When everything is up in the air, it can feel like there is an abyss below us.
We see this in many ways. In our society’s belief that it is in control of life and death. Not only do we think that we can create life however we want, we also think it is permitted to kill. And these days we seem also to think that we can stop people dying. There is therefore a loss of a sense of the true scope of our freedom in relation to life and death. Life becomes unreal.
We see this also in our discussion of men and women. Our society seems unable to say what is just so obvious to everyone. Our language gets more and more confused, becomes also more and more unreal.
One of the dangers that our gospel today reveals is our desire for superficial answers. Jesus’s answer should confuse us. We should struggle to think through what his answer means today. However, the added danger in our society is the culture of ignorance. We seem proud to have forgotten the history to these great questions, forgotten the struggle that lies behind our forms of government and our patterns of worship and prayer. We seem happy to banish the accumulated wisdom of the ages to the distant past. We seem to think that tradition begins with us, as though we are the first humans. We are losing our spiritual muscle memory, we are losing our language, our ability to articulate the deepest truths and to say the things we should never forget. Civilizationally, this is incredibly dangerous. Environmentally, this is incredibly dangerous. And personally, this is incredibly dangerous.
Perhaps then this time of the pandemic is a time to reset. Throughout this time we have been at home, yet this is not our home. This is not life as we know it. But that can be a gift. It can be the opportunity to have a fresh look at what is right in front of us. Like going overseas and coming home, we are free to keep what we want and let go of what we don’t want. And this will happen anyway. Some people won’t come back to Mass, and some new people will come for the first time. But this should not happen by accident.
So, perhaps now is a time to remember what is of God and what is of Caesar. What is absolute? What is contingent? How are we free, and what are the limits of our freedoms? What kind of society do we want, and is that the one that we currently have? What are the freedoms we need and perhaps have taken for granted, and do we still have them? Whether those freedoms be religious or political, the freedoms to worship and to speak out, for example.
Finally, let’s pray for a renewal of that spiritual knowledge of God’s power and majesty. This is the fundamental truth. Then, let’s pray for a renewal of the knowledge of our spiritual freedom. And let’s pray that whatever God anoints for our benefit – however strange it might be – that we will receive it with joy and wisdom, so that we might share it with our brothers and sisters to the greater glory of God.