What’s Wrong With Isaiah?

Jesaja (Michelangelo).jpgOr, more accurately, that Deutero-guy?

Another complaint in the comments here about Isaiah 40-55, but as we discussed many years ago, is it a real thing? Fritz Bauerschmidt:

At least in the G&P music of the 70s and 80s (OEW notwithstanding), there was something of a dominance of deutero-Isaiah, so it really gave only a thin slice of scripture.

Nineteen songs out of 243 seems more thin than dominant.

Were early post-conciliar composers influenced by the Lectionary? According to Felix Just SJ’s table for  Sundays and major feasts, I counted nineteen citations of Isaiah 40-55, and a total of 44 for the book under that prophet’s name. Of the 15 citations of the first 39 chapters, four times Isaiah 12 is assigned for music after a reading.

Here’s how all of Isaiah breaks down by season:

  • Advent, 8
  • Christmas season, 9
  • Lent including Palm Sunday, 2
  • Triduum, 4
  • Easter season, zero as you would expect
  • Ordinary Time, 21, including the “Psalm” on the observance of the Sacred Heart

The three or so Isaiahs combined to produce the longest book of the Bible outside the Psalter. Lots of notable composers mined it for really good stuff, G.F. Handel comes to mind as first in that line.

Let’s climb out of the rabbit hole for some commentary:

  • First, Scripture literacy is not at a good level for the people in the Catholic Church. Maybe it’s better than it was sixty years ago. I’d put good money on that.
  • Second, I might include some church professionals in that assessment who could be better–many of my colleagues in music as well as some clergy. Complaining about G&P or the text choices of composers is not the way forward. If every Catholic knew Isaiah backwards and forwards, even just the central chapters in discussion, we’d be better off than we are now.
  • Importantly, Biblical awareness among believers won’t improve unless people develop a love and awareness of Jesus Christ as the Word of God, and find in themselves a desire to engage with him not only in his quoted words and described actions, but in all of the Bible, even the Old Testament. Here’s an example of my line of thinking: I could list off my wife’s favorite books. You would fall asleep, but to me, as the titles came into my awareness, I could click off some things, I bought that one for her, her friend gave her that one, that was a gift from her favorite priest, that one she read and I loved hearing her laugh out loud, etc.. In other words, the list would be more meaningful to me than anyone else because of what they represented to her.
  • Taking off on that, texts like Psalm 51 would be more meaningful to Catholics if they were utilized more often as an Act of Contrition during the Sacrament of Penance. Don’t you think? Or Psalm 104 if it didn’t just drop in on Confirmation day, but was prayed and studied all during the year of formation for that sacrament.
  • Maybe it’s not a bad thing to ask people, especially children, to memorize Scripture passages. My ninth grade homeroom teacher didn’t ask us to memorize, but each student was in a rotation to do a Bible reading as part of the morning prayer of the day. The year before, the Bible assignments that stood out for me were reading the prophet Jonah and Nahum. I think clergy and catechists have low expectations. People get the message.

I could go on a lot longer here, but the danger of another rabbit hole might beckon. On PrayTell I offered a list of the Church’s problem children where Biblical literacy was concerned. Here, I’ll mention favorably: 

  • Fr Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a year thing
  • The Saint John’s Bible
  • The Little Rock Scripture study
  • Efforts to promote and pray the Hours online, like eBreviary
  • All the people who recognize ordinary Catholics do want to engage the Bible and are doing unsung work in parishes and schools with relatively little support and encouragement.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to What’s Wrong With Isaiah?

  1. Liam says:

    “Don’t you think?”

    Frankly, thinking about that….no, I don’t.

  2. Liam says:

    One Lenten practice I have found fruitful, adopted in midlife, is planned reading of the Gospels. Mark-Matthew-Luke-John before the Last Supper for the weeks before Lent 5; the Passions of the Synoptics during the week of Lent 5, and Final Discourse and Passion according to John for Holy Monday through Good Friday, and all of the Resurrection/post-Resurrection accounts on Holy Saturday.

    Each year, I gain from this; one thing I gained from this year was getting a more emphatic sense for how John interweaves with Mark, so much so that *next* Lent I may well change the order of march for the weeks before Lent 5 to be: John, Mark, Matthew, Luke.

    I also get to choose my English translation – the Revised English Bible – which has a way of arresting my attention much better than other translations (second choice is RSV-Catholic). I also have a course reading plan through Acts for Eastertide, but I don’t do that every year.

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