I have always had a great love for the Book of Isaiah, found in the Old Testament. I love that in Advent we get a huge dose of his prophecies pertaining to the coming of the Messiah. I am surely biased because all the prophets write beautiful imagery in their messianic prophecies, but I find the writing of Isaiah particularly stunning. I think that is part of why I look so forward to Advent, (besides longing for the coming of Jesus.) I always wait for the gorgeous images with which he blesses us that describe the glory of the Lord and the safety and love which He offers to us. Oh yes, the book of Isaiah has some pretty raw, biting prophecies, but he was a prophet, and that was his role: to wake the people from their slumber and arouse their love for God once again. The point for him was to save them, not to doom them.
As with any prophet, the words were God’s and the prophet was the mouthpiece. (The Hebrew word used for prophet is ‘nabi’, and its translation is ‘God’s mouthpiece’.) Isaiah wrote what God inspired him to write. But how he wrote it, the images he used, and the sheer poetry of it, were the gifts Isaiah brought to the table. Though we know little about Isaiah, the man, I believe that he was rather humble. Unlike the other major prophets who tell us about how they came to be chosen by God as prophets in the first chapter of their books, Isaiah waited to the 6th chapter of his book to tell us about the vision he had. The only introduction he gave at the beginning of his book is that he, the son of Amoz, “had a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.” (Isaiah 1:1) He mentions so many kings that we almost forget him. Then with no further ado he launches into quite a blast of accusations and warnings.
However, it is what happens in chapter 6 that makes us really understand the man. Isaiah was praying in the Temple when he had a dazzling vision of God, the Holy One of Israel, sitting on His throne surrounded by seraphim, the fiercest of angels (enough to make one faint) crying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” Isaiah, trying to grasp what he was seeing, cried out, “Woe is me, I am doomed. For I am a man of unclean lips....” Isaiah realized that he was a sinner, not worthy to see such a vision. But God sent one of the angels to purify and empower Isaiah, and so the angel touched his lips with a burning coal. (Remember, this is a vision and is symbolic. God did not burn the man’s lips!) Then God asked who might go forward as His prophet, to which Isaiah responded with a wholehearted and zealous, “Send me!”
With this in mind, one of my favorite images from the readings in Advent is of God’s holy mountain. Isaiah tells us many times about God’s holy mountain to which we are all being drawn. The word ‘mountain’ appears 22 times, in 21 verses;* of these, all but two (Is. 18:6 and Is. 31:4) are about coming to a place of joy, peace, and security. The Mass for the second Sunday in Advent has one of the notable passages about God’s holy mountain: “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!” The good news being shouted from the mountain is that the messiah will be like a shepherd who feeds His flock, caring for them with great tenderness. (Is. 40) A few days before this we hear that He will call us to His mountain and “provides for all peoples rich food and choice wines, destroying the veil that veils all peoples,” (Is. 25:6-7); and that we will find joy in the Lord because “the tyrant will be no more and the arrogant will have gone.” (Is. 29:20)
Simply put, Isaiah is not just telling us about the Messiah, but he is revealing to us why God is sending Him. Isaiah knew that the people of his time were far from the Lord and that they were following false gods, had immoral practices, bad leadership, and arrogant attitudes. (Sound familiar?) He knew that God was trying to save His people through the messages being sent. And the message was essentially this: “Repent. Change your ways now, before it is too late. Return to God who loves you. But if not, you will lose all you hold dear, not because God wills it, but because you are pushing Him away.”
The image Isaiah provides us of what God’s holy mountain is like is best described in chapter 25, but the purpose of the mountain is best seen in chapter 2. He says: “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it. Many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways and we may walk in his paths…. He shall judge between the nations, and set terms for many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” This passage is so important that another prophet repeats it almost verbatim. (Micah 4:1-3) God wants us to know that this is His dream for His people: He wants us to have peace and security. But mostly, He wants us to desire it freely. He wants us to have open hearts and minds to His ways, to desire His law which comes forth from a wisdom we do not possess, but that is His alone. He wants us to trust in His ways, knowing that it comes from the love which He bears for us. He wants us to love one another because He does. And He wants us to receive His love because it is who He is. That is God’s dream for us.
Because of this dream God has for us, He knows we need help. We cannot achieve this on our own. Therefore interspersed with this imagery revealed by Isaiah, He tells us of the messiah who will embody this same message and bring His love, because this one will be His Son, born in Bethlehem according to prophecy, and given the name Jesus. He is God-Hero, Wonder-Counselor, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
So what does all this mean for us? We know He has already come, but if we are honest we also know that we are no different than the people of Isaiah’s day. The sad reality is that we have not yet fully welcomed the Son of God into our world. As a people we still have morality problems, problems with leadership and those who should set good example for us, problems with poverty, disease, war, brutality, greed, arrogance, injustice, selfishness, and alienation. We still want to be comfortable without responsibility, enjoying the fruit of our labor as if it was for us alone. We forget that all is a gift from God and that our time, talents, and treasures are meant to be shared. We were created by God as a community, not as individuals who only take care of their own needs. Is it no wonder John the Baptizer is presented in Advent as coming before Jesus so that we hear the message of shaking up the status quo? Therefore every year we remember the glory of the coming of Jesus so that we might once again try to spread that message.
Yes, Jesus is coming. He is coming again in at the end of the world and we still have a tremendous amount of work to do in preparation. Isaiah reminds us that Jesus comes with peace and mercy in His heart, but also with justice in His right hand, so to speak. He is inviting the faithful to God’s holy mountain, and God wants us to bring others with us. To do so, we have to learn to love them as He does. Otherwise they will not want to come with us. Isaiah got the message right: God’s holy mountain is a place of peace and love, a place of abundance and joy. We need to prepare to be at that mountain not only for ourselves, but with our brothers and sisters. And where is that mountain located? In a tiny manger outside of a little, almost unimportant town called Bethlehem. Let us prepare the way!
May we see the beauty of the mountain of the Lord as described by Isaiah as our true home! May we be inspired to bring others to the holy mountain with us! May we have the courage to work with our neighbors against injustice and the ills of being godless! May we find the consolation and joy in the message of the coming of the Messiah, our Prince of Peace! May we be filled with gratitude at all we have been given, and may that move us to share what we have! And may we be filled with the love of the Lord who empowers us to go and do the same! Let us meet in the Heart of Jesus! Marana tha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The information about the references to God's holy mountain can be found at http://www.catholiccrossreference.com/bible/nab-search.cgi?books=isaiah&query=mountain&mode=whole
The top photo is mine. It is actually a mountain in Colorado.
The first icon of Isaiah can be found at http://www.royaldoors.net/2013/06/isaiah-the-fifth-gospel/
The painting is called The Peaceable Kingdom. It is the work of John August Swanson.
The final icon is called St. John the Baptist (The Forerunner) and it is the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Heart Speaks to Heart