Isaiah 4: The Beautiful Branch

Last night, my boss and I were discussing this year’s Vigil in our time of concern. Rather than minimize readings, she talked our reluctant clergy into our “newest” normal, seven total. With people staying at home and no initiation sacraments, she felt it was important to give our livestream viewers as rich an experience as we could.

If it were up to me, I’d add readings to the Vigil. One to consider from the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite is from the very short fourth chapter of Isaiah. Lutherans and Anglicans have retained it. The first two-thirds of the book have a lot of warning and woe. Every so often, there is an interlude of comfort and hope. Isaiah 12 is well-known to Easter Vigil worshipers as the canticle that follows the “Come to the water” reading. Isaiah 25:6-9 is used to console mourners at funerals.

Verses 2 through 6 constitute a single unit. (Verse 1 really belongs with chapter three.) Its only other appearance in the modern Roman Lectionary is on an Advent weekday. For Spring in the northern hemisphere, the image of a flowering branch strikes me as apt for Easter:

On that day,
The branch of the LORD will be beauty and glory,
and the fruit of the land will be honor and splendor
for the survivors of Israel.
Everyone who remains in Zion,
everyone left in Jerusalem
Will be called holy:
everyone inscribed for life in Jerusalem.
When the Lord washes away
the filth of the daughters of Zion,
And purges Jerusalem’s blood from her midst
with a blast of judgment, a searing blast,
Then will the Lord create,
over the whole site of Mount Zion
and over her place of assembly,
A smoking cloud by day
and a light of flaming fire by night.
For over all, his glory will be shelter and protection:
shade from the parching heat of day,
refuge and cover from storm and rain.

The conducting of the Chosen People through the dangers of Exodus is remembered here. Very appropriate for the Vigil. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) place this reading between the narratives of Exodus 14-15 and Isaiah 55. That makes logical sense.

The Lutheran Book of  Worship assigns a nearby passage as a canticle (5:1-2, 7) to follow. You know this passage as part of the Song of the Vineyard. I think I prefer the BCP’s choice and the Roman pairing for Monday, first week in Advent, Psalm 122. But I wouldn’t start a fight over it.

I think parishes are shy about the full set of Easter Vigil readings. Few are likely willing to tread into new waters. Still, it’s a lovely passage for the season of Easter. It steers us to the hope of God’s restoration of the human race to an original glory and a blessed community of the future. It doesn’t forget a purgation from our sins. It reminds us of historical rescue from danger and turmoil–something Israel experienced at the Exodus, something Jesus offered in his Passion.

The more I reflect on this passage, the more I think we’ve lost a bit of something good with this bit of liturgical reform. Plus, another opportunity to sing Psalm 122 would be welcome.

Photography credit: Greg Hume. 

About catholicsensibility

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