Tag Archives: Isaiah

A missing verse in the Christmas lectionary

The first reading from Isaiah for the Christmas midnight Mass (9:1-6) has consoled me for many years. It includes this promise of the end of repression and war against the people:

For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed…
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.

I especially remember one year, perhaps it was in 1989 after the massacre of the Jesuits at the Central American University. As I heard these words, I began to cry, thinking of the many deaths wreaked on the people of El Salvador (and many other lands) by an oppressive military, funded by the United States.

As I prepared this morning to preach at Mass tonight in Dulce Nombre, I read the lectionary in English and in Spanish. I plan to read the first reading and the Gospel in several different translations in English and Spanish (and look at the Gospel in Greek) to try to capture the details.

I am rather upset, though, to find that the fourth verse of the reading from Isaiah is omitted in the Spanish lectionary and that people in Latin America may not hear the verse that prophesies the destruction of military boots and bloody cloaks.

The verses may refer to not taking booty in a holy war, but I hear them more as a promise that violence and war do not have the final word.

In a continent ravished by violence, in a country with a high index of murder, I want to hear this promise. I want to share this promise that the newborn Prince of Peace brings. I want to say to those who have seen their neighbors slain – by gangs in the big cities, in vengeance killings throughout the countryside, by government and death squads – that God’s vision is different, that God is Peace, who comes as a poor baby, born in a manger, visited by shepherds, outcasts of their time.

Maybe I’ll just have to include this verse in my homily – announcing the Prince of Peace.

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Speaking words of encouragement

The Lord has given me the tongue of a disciple
to speak a work of encouragement to the downcast.
Isaiah 50:4

Yesterday I visited the elderly and sick in two villages. What a blessing for me.

It is part of the ministry of the deacon to care for widows, orphans, and the ill. I don’t do as much visiting the homebound as I could, partly because one of the major ministries of our communion ministers is to visit the sick in their communities. I do work with them in their continuing formation but I try not to replace their ministry to the sick.

This Holy Week we have about fifty parishioners in mission to most of our villages, visiting homes and praying with the people there. I’ve come across some who are invigorated by the experience of sharing the Gospel in a simple way with people.

I have also worked with the communion ministers so that we can get communion to the elderly, the sick, and the home-bound during Holy Week. But there were a few villages that were left out – and so I arranged visits in two villages.

So often these visits are a time of grace for me – as I enter the lives of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. Yesterday was such a time of grace.

In the first village I visited a woman about 70 years old who can’t walk to church and so I was glad to share a time of conversation and prayer as well as Communion. She was very up-beat, despite her weakness and aches and pains. Later, in another part of the village, about ten minutes in car from her house, I visited a ninety-two year old man who lives with his evangelical wife and often walks to church. He was much less talkative than the woman, probably partly because he is hard of hearing, but it was a gift to share Communion with him.

Both of these lived in poor houses with dirt floors. But there I found Jesus (and did not merely bring Him there in Communion).

I later went to another village where a young catechist took me around. The four women I visited were all very talkative.

I had visited the first woman a few weeks and go and she was bed-bound at that time. This time she was walking about. We sat down in the kitchen while her daughters and grand-daughters were busy mixing dough to bake bread.

In several places I made a special effort to speak to those who were caring for the elderly, encouraging them and letting them know that their work can be very hard but it is very important. As I speak with them I often tell them how important it was for me to care for my Dad at home in the last years of his life. I feel it is very important to give them “a word that will rouse them.”

This morning, while reading the third Servant Song of Isaiah (50: 4-9), I thought of how visiting the sick and ill has opened up for me a part of myself that I have not really appreciated. I am continually amazed how God’s compassion and God’s words of encouragement pass through me. This has become an important part of my life here and is one of the graces of being a deacon.

Where I got back to Plan Grande I went to the church to put the remaining hosts into the tabernacle. As I walked into the church I was moved by the light falling on the statue of El Nazareno, Jesus carrying his cross, before the altar.

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This helped make sense of my few hours visiting the elderly and the sick.

 

Frederick Douglass, Thomas Merton, and Isaiah

They seek me day after day
and desire to know my ways,
as if there were a nation that does what is just.
Isaiah 58: 2

 It is so easy to think that we are the chosen ones, the just ones, the ones whom God has set apart.

It is so easy for nations to act as if they are doing God’s will. I’ve seen it in the US and I see it here in Honduras. God is called upon to justify the policies of a political party or a government. Here political leaders show up for the feast of Our Lady of Suyapa, the patroness of the country. Last year the president announced that the government was giving the church a radio station – at the Mass in the basilica.

But God is not to be mocked. God is beyond our petty political machinations and our desires to justify our policies – whether personal or political.

Do we really live as God wishes?

Isaiah clearly calls Israel to real change, to the real fasting of liberating the oppressed, sharing our bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and more.

But how do we really live? Frederick Douglass, who died on February 20, 1895, once said:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked…I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.

Are we a people who really live the way of Christ, as expressed in Isaiah 58 and n Matthew 25?

Or do we deceive ourselves by relying on our public prayers and fasting as ways to try to placate God?

Do we trust more in our wealth and power than in the works of mercy?

I think Thomas Merton was right when he wrote

“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”

Will we be a people who fast from injustice – and not just from meat and chocolate?

Disarming nations and hearts

The lectionary readings for Advent are full of promise and hope.

Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom in Isaiah 2: 1-5, promises a new city where peace reigns, where swords are turned into plows and guns are melted down to make tools for life.

It’s almost too much to hope for.

The violence that surrounds us calls for something that will give hope. I’m not just thinking about ISIS and Ferguson; I’m thinking about the violence here, where the young are not spared and where all too often simple disagreements escalate into deadly quarrels, mostly because of the presence of too many weapons.

We need this hopeful vision that Isaiah offers – as inspiration for our work for peace and reconciliation.

But even today’s Gospel , Matthew 8: 5-11, offers us signs of hope. A Roman centurion comes to Jesus and asks him to cure his servant.

The Greek word used – παῖς – is ambiguous. It can mean servant, slave, or child.

Why would a centurion care about the health of a child servant? What moved him to seek the help of one of the conquered peoples? What caused him to declare his unworthiness before one of those oppressed by the Roman Empire?

What in the world – or out of this world – moved him to compassion?

What moves us from our fears and our desires to protect ourselves from others whom we consider as threats?

What can move the world to care for the little ones, the marginalized, the servants?

What can disarm our hearts?

Or, rather, who can disarm our hearts?

A loving God who comes among us as a poor man, in a conquered country.

A disarmed God can disarm us.

The victory of justice for the poor

I have called you for the victory of justice.
Isaiah 42: 6

 The poor you will have always with you.
John 12: 8

The Servant of the Lord, portrayed in today’s first reading (Isaiah 52: 1-7) and in the three other servants songs that we’ll read this week in the liturgies, is one who brings justice.

The justice and the righteousness of God means that the people of God serve the Lord and the people. Righteousness is not just something we seek in relationships with God. It is also the justice of God which gives courage to the people and brings them out of captivity. It is liberating – in all dimensions of life.

But when Judas complains about the expensive nard that Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus, we hear Jesus say, “The poor you will always have with you,” quoting Deuteronomy 15: 11.

It sounds like a way to excuse wealth.

But a good Jew would know that the phrase Jesus quotes is not normative, but descriptive.

In fact at the beginning of the chapter where we encounter this quote, the sacred writer challenges the people of God: “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15: 4).

In Holy Week, we often concentrate more on the accounts of Jesus’ death in the first century.

I’d suggest that those accounts should open our hearts to the accounts of the deaths of the poor in our day.

When we seek to an overflowing love for Jesus and a commitment for justice for the poor in conflict, I think we miss the message of Jesus and read the scriptures out of context.

The Lord wants our love – and wants us to love the poor.

Uselessly spending our strength

Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and, for nothing, uselessly spent my strength…
Isaiah 49: 4

 The first readings for most of Holy Week come from the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah. Today’s reading from Isaiah 49 often sustains me.

In ministry – as well as in many other parts of our lives – we often feel as if we are achieving nothing, “uselessly spending our strength.”

Part of this. I think, is due to our US emphasis on achievement, on proving ourselves by what we do.

Part is due to our desire to not have wasted our time.

But, I think, in some ways, that it’s a question of our spirituality: It’s all about us and how we feel about what we do.

No, it isn’t, God reminds us.

God works with us, with our failures and our half-baked efforts. And we never will know all that God does through our actions that do not show immediate results. I have experienced this many times. Once someone told me how much something I said helped him; yet I don’t remember saying what he said I did.

For me, that means that I must be faithful in the little things: in the way I treat the people I minister with, in how I use my time, in how I prepare my presentations for people. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “A saint preaches sermons by the way he walks and talks, the way he picks up things and holds them in his hands.”

But we still crave for results.

But God calls us for more than this. He calls us to be “light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49: 6).

That’s not something we can plan or measure.

But it calls for faithfulness in little things – done in love.

 

Rough ways and winding roads

Prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight His paths….
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth.
Luke 3:4,5

I almost had to laugh when I read these words of Isaiah in this morning’s Gospel.

In the rural parish where I help, it’s hard to find a straight road. Going up, down, and through mountains is tricky – especially those hairpin curves where you hope that another car is not coming.

A valley seen from Cerro Negro

And the rough ways made smooth – what a dream. Not only are many rural roads  rough – to put it mildly, but the major highway here is full of potholes. It’s so bad that I cracked the crankshaft of my pickup ten days ago and it’s still in the shop!

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But there is a promise of straight and smooth roads – so that Jesus the Messiah can come to us.

There are a lot of curves and potholes in our lives – habits that need to be straightened out and empty spaces that need to be filled in.

But the promise is there.

Jesus is God walking among us, knowing the winding roads and the rough places. He helps us walk the way with Him, even while the roads are rough and the routes crooked.

And though we have to navigate the ups and downs of life, avoiding potholes and being careful about what may be around the next curve, God is there with us.

 

Hope for the poor

The lowly will find increasing joy in the Lord;
and those most in need will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
Isaiah 29: 19

 The Advent readings from the prophet Isaiah are filled with hope, often a hope for that poor: they will find joy and salvation in the Lord.

All too often I think we hope for things for ourselves and miss the community sense of hope. Hope is not something I can just get on my own. It needs the loving hand of God and the presence of a community.

We are social creatures and need others. When we really hope for something we don’t sit back and just wait for it.

Hope is an expectant waiting, like a pregnant mother, who gets ready for the coming of a child into the world. And mothers know that they need others to help them bring new life into the world.

So too we should prepare ourselves and the world for the coming of the Lord – and in the course of that help bring joy and hope to the neediest among us.

Yesterday I spent the morning in a rural village that was initiating a water project that Caritas had managed, with the help of money from Holland. The people were organized, worked hard together, and now had water they could drink out of the faucet.

This is a poor community, seemingly without resources. But their faith, their sense of community, and their efforts to work together had made clean, drinkable water a reality (with the help of a good bit of money).

The celebration was filled with joy – Mass, blessing of the new water tank, skits, songs written by community members, and food.

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There was joy for the neediest there – thanks be to God. Let us find ways this Advent to see the joy the Lord brings and share it with the neediest among us.

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More photos from the event can be found here,

Rescue the oppressed

learn to do good
seek justice
rescue the oppressed
defend the orphan
plead for the widow
Isaiah 1: 17

 Today’s reading from the first chapter of Isaiah points to what the Lord desires: justice, which is more important than sacrifices.

Isaiah calls the people of God to care for those at the margin and to oppose oppression.

On March 6, 1984, the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller died. He had been a decorated navy commander in the First World War but later became an opponent of the Nazis and a member of the Confessing Church. After the Second World War he became an ardent pacifist, opposing war.

He is most famous for a quote which is usually  cited as:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

But I found a much more theological version of this – seeing Christ in the oppressed:

“If we had recognized that in the communists who were thrown into concentration camps, the Lord Jesus Christ himself lay imprisoned and looked for our love and help, if we had seen that at the beginning of the persecution of the Jews it was the Lord Jesus Christ in the person of the least of our human brethren who was being persecuted, and beaten and killed, if we had stood by him and identified ourselves with him, I do not know whether God would not then have stood by us and whether the whole thing would not then have had to take a different course.”

In a world where oppression continues the followers of Christ need to identify ourselves with the victims, as Jesus did, and speak up with them.

That’s the call of Jesus  – and the call of Isaiah in today’s first reading.