This is a phenomenal first reading. One of my favourite theologians thought that this first reading is one of the climaxes of the whole of the Old Testament. Especially when Isaiah asks God to tear open the heavens and come down. The whole tenor of it reminds me of some conversations I had with some American priests about not this presidential election, but the one before it.
I was living in the North American house for priests while I studied in Rome, when that election was happening. Most of the priests I spoke to were horrified at the choice being presented to their country. More than that, they were almost despairing at the whole political scene. They felt like they were being asked to choose between someone of seemingly no moral character and someone who was indirectly responsible for countless deaths in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
But beyond the decision between a failed businessman and a failed diplomat, they were horrified at the choice between a party that seemingly cared only about the rich and another party that was basically owned by the abortion and eugenics lobby. Between one that seemingly worshipped money and one that evangelised internationally for the killing of children and new forms of colonialization. And even beyond this, there was a sense of despair at the culture’s rampant consumerism, the warmongering of the military complex and political elite on both sides of the aisle, and the growth in targeted manipulation of the population through Big Tech companies.
There was a real sense of darkness, very much like we hear in our first reading. The feeling that they’d done it to themselves somehow and there was no way out. In fact, there was a meme going around at the time, that was almost the mirror image of Isaiah’s plea. I don’t know if you remember this, but at the same time as that election was occurring, there was a news story about an asteroid which might collide with the earth. And so, given the choice between the candidates, a number of people were half-jokingly praying for the asteroid. A little bit different to Isaiah’s “tear open the heavens and come down.”
But this is what is so wonderful about this first reading. There is a paradoxical truth to the prayer. Isaiah laments the horror that he finds around him. He laments how far the people have strayed from God. He laments how little they deserve God’s love. But for him this means that they need God to rescue them all the more. It is obvious to Isaiah that they cannot save themselves, and therefore only God can save them. And Isaiah trusts that this will occur. Isaiah places all his faith on God, and not in the failed civilisation.
And of course he is right to do. God does save his people. If we read Mark’s account of the Baptism of Jesus, we read that the heavens are in fact torn open and the Holy Spirit does descends on Christ. The alienation between heaven and earth is overcome in the Incarnation.
As I mentioned last week, we know that scriptures relating to the end times apply to us now. Christ’s first coming points to his second coming, and we live in the in-between. What used to be called the Middle Ages. This is why Jesus tells us that we need to be wide awake. It is impossible to welcome the coming of the Saviour without a deep knowledge of what we need saving from. This is why Advent is a penitential season for the preparation for Christmas.
So, how might this first reading apply to us today, besides the sense of doom and gloom which might arise from a difficult year? I’ll make one suggestion. Perhaps we might pay attention to Isaiah’s comments about the hardening of hearts and the fact that we are clay.
As we know, hearts can harden in a number of ways. They can harden through sin, and they can harden through suffering. Sin hardens them through repetition, through a lowering of standards and a cooling of love. Over time, we tell ourselves either it doesn’t matter, or God doesn’t care, or we are not hurting anyone. And then this gradually changes into a blindspot. We begin to think it is not wrong. And then we harden even further: people who tell us that it is wrong, we begin to call judgmental. We become so fixed that the moral universe must revolve around us. Wrong becomes right.
Or we can harden through suffering. We open ourselves and are let down. Someone treats us unfairly or betrays us. Or things do not work as they should. We begin to lose hope. And so we might begin to stop putting our hearts on the line. We begin to expect less from life, and less from God. It hurts too much and so we begin to build defences against further suffering, perhaps raising the drawbridge on relationships, or at least meaningful relationships.
In both cases, we let the clay of our hearts go brittle. We cease to water it with God’s love and God’s truth. We withdraw our hearts from the touch of the Lord. This Advent then, perhaps we can think about these things. In what ways am I dry? In what ways am I brittle? Where do I need God’s healing? And like Isaiah, let’s not be afraid to express our deepest needs to God, trusting in his love.