Why the words of Isaiah never get old

The Book of Isaiah is incredibly versatile.  We read from it regularly at Mass.  Its words speak strongly to us year of year when we are passing through very different circumstances.  The rich versatility of Isaiah arises in part from the fact that although it possesses an overall unity, different voices are discernible which were initially aimed at distinct audiences in dissimilar settings at specific moments in history.  When we identify with certain aspects of one of these audiences, the message originally intended for them exerts power over us.
Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah were initially directed towards a people under threat in the 2nd half of the 8th century BC.  At this time, both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah faced the very real possibility of being wiped of the map by the Assyrians, the strongest and most brutal force at that time.  Isaiah called this threatened people to trust in God and to use this moment of crisis to convert and grow closer to Him.  At different times, we too can feel as though everything is about to be taken away from us.  Those faced with health troubles, financial insecurities or tensions in their marriage often feel like they are living under the weight of a looming threat.
Chapters 40-48 were originally spoken to a devastated people in the 2nd half of the 6th century BC.  At this time, the Jews were living in exile in Babylon.  The temple, Jerusalem and the surrounding cities lay in ruins.  All seemed lost and many felt abandoned by God.  To this people, the author of Isaiah spoke a message of hope in the darkness: God is still with you and He will make something new rise from the ashes.  When I think of people today who are experiencing something similar, my mind turns to those in Syria.  There are, however, many circumstances that provoke us to lose hope and feel that all in our life has been destroyed, for example, the death of someone we love, the loss of a job or a family break-up.
Chapters 49-66 were initially addressed to people trying to start anew.  After the Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon in 539 BCE, Jews began returning to Jerusalem.  Once there, they faced the challenge of rebuilding.  There were setbacks.  Divisions arose regarding the best way to proceed.  The author of Isaiah called this fractioned people to be united and focus on what is most important, namely, the love of God and neighbour.  This is the only foundation on which anything can be built.  Often we need to be challenged to return to basics when we are trying to accomplish something individually or as part of a group.  Divisions can too easily arise in families, Church groups, schools and other communities over inessentials.

The Book of Isaiah illustrates a principle we find throughout Scripture.  Words addressed to people living more that 2000 years ago who had a culture alien to our own are heard today as though they were spoken personally to us.  The message comforts and challenges us.  The words God uttered to His people long ago have not lost their power.

Choosing to be agents of unity

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron. A divided holy site in a divided city.

I hoped that after having spent some months in the Holy Land I would have gained some clarity regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.  The longer I stayed, however, the more confused I became.  I had the opportunity to hear from people on both sides and found aspects of each narrative compelling.  I cannot say that one side is all in the right while the other in the wrong.  Unless things change dramatically, I do not see how things will change for the better.  A critical problem, in my opinion, is the breakdown of communication. People on both sides of the conflict rarely get to personally know one another.  They often don’t appreciate what the other thinks and why.  This problem is hardly confined to the tensions between Israel and Palestine.
There seems to be growing division in many areas.  Politics is becoming increasingly polarized.  Within the Church factions can easily arise.  In families a breakdown of communication is all too frequent.  Disagreements are becoming more charged.  Those on the other side are quickly dismissed, often in a nasty way.  People don’t seem to be able to talk with those who have a different view than themselves, let alone trying to understand why they think as they do.  This deterioration in dialogue is ironic considering we live in an age where technologies such as social media promise to make us more connected.  It seems to do just the opposite.  On Facebook for example, the algorithms of the program ensure that we generally see content we like and agree with.  Hearing and learning from those we disagree with is not really facilitated.  More traditional media operates similarly.  The variety of newspapers and television newscasts cater to every taste.  Unless we really make an effort, we tend to read, watch and listen to perspectives we find most in line with our own.
This fracturing of community goes contrary to our Christian understanding of what it means to be human.  We believe that we are made in God’s image.  God is a Trinity of three persons living in a perfect relationship of love.  Though we are all unique individuals, we become more like God and therefore more human when we grow in deeper relationships with others.  When we polarize into groups we move further away from how God intends us to live.
On the one hand, when we consider the various conflicts around us, whether it be between Israel and Palestine, local politics, the Church or within our own family, it can be tempting to despair because the situation is so complex and seemingly hopeless.  On the other hand, the first and most important step towards peace is simple: we choose to get to know those on the other side, attempt to understand their point of view and empathize if possible, even if we disagree in the end.  Maybe the other will not reciprocate, but we will never know until we try.  Moreover, we need to seek to be agents of unity if we really believe we have been created in God’s own image.

Christmas Midnight Mass in Bethlehem

The birth of a famous person is usually a pretty big deal in our society.  For example, when Princess Charlotte, the daughter of Prince William and Princess Kate, was born not so long ago, the news was on TV and in newspapers around the world.  Countless pictures were taken.  The parents were sent many messages from government leaders and ordinary folk alike.  Because of all the media coverage, it was difficult to miss the birth of Princess Charlotte.  Things were very different when Jesus was born some 2000 years ago in Bethlehem.  His parents had to leave behind their family and well-known surroundings in order to travel to an unfamiliar city where they were strangers.  They had trouble finding a place to stay.  The birth of Jesus was not covered in the media of that time.  Mary and Joseph probably did not receive many congratulatory notes!  The birth of Jesus passed largely unnoticed.

This Christmas I had the opportunity to concelebrate the midnight Mass in Bethlehem, steps away from the place where Jesus was born.  From antiquity, the Basilica of the Nativity has stood over the grotto where Jesus was born.  Though this Basilica is ancient and beautiful in its own way, it is not the kind of monument that stands out and is immediately recognizable by everyone in the way St. Peter’s in Rome is.  The Basilica of the Nativity can also be a bit complicated to get to.  In spite of the fact that Bethlehem is less than 10 km from Jerusalem as the crow flies, it takes a while to get there as you need to pass through the border wall that separates Israel from the West Bank.  Although the Mass was solemn and well prepared by the Bishop and the Franciscans who care for the holy site, the liturgy was also humble and simple.  While it was December 25th, it didn’t quite “feel” like Christmas.  The day is not a holiday in Israel.  In Bethlehem, the minority Christian population is continually declining.  In comparison to the Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s or even many parishes in Vancouver, the celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is modest.  When we went to pray in the grotto after Mass, it struck me that this precisely is the way that Jesus enters the world: humbly and unnoticed by most.
Star marks the spot. The place where Jesus was born. Grotto.
Basilica of the Nativity. Bethlehem.
As we have just celebrated Christmas, perhaps it is helpful to consider how we expect that Jesus should enter our life now.  Do we think that Jesus acts in a flashy, St. Peter's-style or in a more quiet and humble Bethlehem-style?  As we enter Ordinary Time, it is important to remember that Jesus usually works in very ordinary ways.  In our simple prayer, when we perhaps feel that “nothing” is happening. Through our family and friends who are so familiar to us.  At the daily grind at work.  Like in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, Jesus enters our life in a quiet, seemingly-unremarkable way that is all too easy to miss.