The Church proclaims the prophet Isaiah during Advent, and listens to him. Traditionally, Christians saw Isaiah as a book that most strongly pointed toward Christ. Sidestepping biblical analysis, it is quite easy to see why. Jesus adopted many of the themes of Isaiah in his own teaching and ministry. And we have his own selection serving as a “lector” and in “unpacking” the Word of God–the beginning of chapter 61.
The material presented in these two sections of the first chapter are a strong strain in both the Lord’s earthly ministry as well as the Church’s effort to reconcile sinners.
Verses 2 through 6 sound like an echo of Jesus’s condemnation of the self-righteous. And make no mistake, after twenty centuries, the cadre of Christian believers have been filled with people who were religious-but-not-spiritual. Sometimes we have been blind to our own transgressions, as we hear the opening salvo of the prophet of Jerusalem:
Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth,
for the Lord speaks:
Sons have I raised and reared,
but they have disowned me!
An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master’s manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood.
Ah! Sinful nation, people laden with wickedness,
evil offspring, corrupt children!
They have forsaken the Lord,
spurned the Holy One of Israel,
Where would you yet be struck,
that you rebel again and again?
The whole head is sick,
the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot to the head
there is no sound spot:
Wound and welt and gaping gash,
not drained, or bandaged,
or eased with salve.
In the Rite of Penance, verses 15-18 are added to this passage:
When you spread your hands,
I close my eyes to you;
Though you pray the more,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash yourselves clean!
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil; learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
Come now, let us set things right,
says the Lord:
Though your sins be like scarlet,
they may become white as snow;
Though they be crimson red,
they may become white as wool.
Do you detect more echoes here? The promise of reconciliation of Psalm 51:9–the shift from blood red to snow white strikes me especially.
As I read through this passage and reflected, that one line stood out: Come now, let us set things right. What does this mean?
Though we are confronted with a litany of wrongdoing, and though God is entirely just in his condemnation of sin, still we are invited into a partnership. Reconciliation involves two. And God offers the sinner a cooperative project. The offer stands–no matter how far we have fallen.
Usually an Old Testament prophet offers a long narrative of condemnation. But the difference in the Catholic imagination is the relationship fostered in the sacrament. God offers us a cooperative hand. We cannot achieve reunion on our own. We can take the initiative. We can respond to the call deep within us, or perhaps something touching us from a distance. Making things right is an enterprise God is quite willing to share with his people. And with any individual sinner.
As I looked to this long passage, I wasn’t sure how to handle the depth and the extent of this reading. But truly, it seems to echo the practice of the Sacrament of Penance. The penitent offers a long list, perhaps a list in which we’re coached. We experience the harm done: the blood and guts of selfishness and cruelty and forgetfulness.
But at the conclusion, God works with us. And that is often the message a penitent most needs to hear. And not only hear, but understand and integrate.
Does this reading work for liturgy? It would be a shame to just proclaim it and not preach it. But it’s rich enough to stand on its own as a personal reflection in preparation of the sacrament.
Despite being a passage from an “Advent” prophet, Isaiah 1 strikes me as ideal for a Lenten communal reconciliation. Use Psalm 51, and possibly a very brief Gospel passage like Mark 1:14-15 or even Matthew 9:9-13. Not only is the Lord calling sinners, but he will actively work with them. What a thought!