Today’s First Reading is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which is no surprise during this Advent season. Selected from the 54th Chapter—known in exegetical circles as “third Isaiah” given the construction of the book over a lengthy period of time—this passage conveys God’s assurance of love, peace, and mercy to a people whose future is uncertain, whose commitment to the covenant has certainly been unsteady. God calls them to a renewal of their relationship with the Creator and the prophet draws on several traditional images of barrenness and spousal metaphors to express this.
Fear not, you shall not be put to shame;
you need not blush, for you shall not be disgraced.
The shame of your youth you shall forget,
the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember.
For he who has become your husband is your Maker;
his name is the LORD of hosts;
Your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,
called God of all the earth.
The LORD calls you back,
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
A wife married in youth and then cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great tenderness I will take you back.
In an outburst of wrath, for a moment
I hid my face from you;
But with enduring love I take pity on you,
says the LORD, your redeemer.
It’s a complicated description of relationship, one rooted in customs and expectations of a deeply traditional culture in which the birth of children signals the blessings of the Creator and a sign of favor. When no children are born, there is a sense of shame or disgrace that is presupposed, and it might mean the abandonment of that relationship.
Through the words of the prophet Isaiah, God’s message here is one of a renewal of commitment on God’s part to the covenant with the chosen people. Though it might appear that God has abandoned the people, a people that has not provided the offspring of justice and peace, righteousness and mercy that God expects, the Lord nevertheless expresses a desire to renew the relationship. God has not in fact abandoned the beloved.
The closing paragraph of this First Reading signals to me a sign of hope in the midst of the troubled times in which we find ourselves today.
This is for me like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah
should never again deluge the earth;
So I have sworn not to be angry with you,
or to rebuke you.
Though the mountains leave their place
and the hills be shaken,
My love shall never leave you
nor my covenant of peace be shaken,
says the LORD, who has mercy on you.
It is an assurance of God’s love, peace, and mercy. And yet, it is an open-ended point of reflection for us. While God does not abandon the relationship with us, do we?
The mountains of our social setting and the hills of our worldly context might be shaken to their core and we, startled and afraid, may find ourselves rejecting the love of God, the peace the world cannot give, and denying the mercy God shows us and requires we pass on to others. Can we change our ways? Can we return to God? Can we show what is assured to us in the voice of the prophet to those we encounter, especially those with whom we disagree?
Like the people of Israel in today’s reading, the choice is ours. God has already chosen to be faithful to us.