Reconciliation Lectionary: Isaiah 59:1-4, 9-15

mary-the-penitent.jpgAt number 120 in the Rite of Penance, the prophet Isaiah offers up a two-part reading. First, sizzling condemnation of a bleak system of injustice. And second, a powerful examination of conscience in the consolation portion of the book of Isaiah. The message is for those we might consider the elder siblings of the House of Israel. This message is preached to believers, those who consider themselves part of God’s Chosen People.

This passage is largely acknowledged to be post-Exile, so why the harsh tone? Didn’t God’s People learn from history? From their horrific experiences on that forced march to Babylon? Clearly, human nature was then as it is today. And we are still in need of mercy. The prophet minces no words reminding us that it is our own sins that remove us from God. The perceived remoteness of our Savior has nothing to do with our being lost:

Lo, the hand of the Lord is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
Rather, it is your crimes
that separate you from your God,
It is your sins that make him hide his face
so that he does not hear you.
For your hands are stained with blood,
and your fingers with guilt;
Your lips speak falsehood,
and your tongue utters deceit.
No one brings suit justly,
no one pleads truthfully;
They trust in emptiness and tell lies;
they conceive mischief and bring forth malice.

You get the idea … The Lectionary framers skipped verses 5 through 8, but they continue on this theme of evil. With verse nine, there is a shift to what becomes a dialogue. Here, and to the middle of verse 15, the prophet places these words of contrition on the tongues of the people. This makes sense as a liturgical event, hopefully a “reenactment” of an actual collective cry for mercy:

That is why right is far from us
and justice does not reach us.
We look for light, and lo, darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in gloom!
Like those who are blind we grope along the wall,
like people without eyes we feel our way.
We stumble at midday as at dusk,
in Stygian darkness, like the dead.
We all growl like bears,
like doves we moan without ceasing.
We look for right, but it is not there;
for salvation, and it is far from us.
For our offenses before you are many,
our sins bear witness against us.
Yes, our offenses are present to us,
and our crimes we know:
Transgressing, and denying the Lord,
turning back from following our God,
Threatening outrage, and apostasy,
uttering words of falsehood the heart has conceived.
Right is repelled,
and justice stands far off;
For truth stumbles in the public square,
uprightness cannot enter.
Honesty is lacking,
and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.

This section reads like a wake-up call. It picks up some familiar Isaian images: the people who walked in darkness (9:1), the moaning of doves (38:14), among others. If we’re talking (with Isaiah) about our collective sin, it would seem this passage is optimal for form II, a communal celebration of Penance.

Alternatively, I could see Isaiah 59:9-15a as a powerful act of contrition. The voice of God returns us to a conclusion that seems to leave us hanging:

The Lord saw this, and was aggrieved
that right did not exist.

Hopefully Isaiah 59:15b is not the final word for a faith community. Maybe Psalm 51 and a pairing with a brief Gospel passage (Mark 1:14-15 comes to mind) this makes for a good Advent Liturgy of the Word.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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