I have a confession to make: I am in love with the writings of Isaiah the prophet. There are many beautiful Scriptures offered during Advent about the coming of the Messiah, don’t get me wrong. Isaiah, however, writes with a particular poetry which I find captivating. It is clear that he had been blessed with an intimate experience of God which he described as a vision of the Holy One of Israel seated on His throne. (Isaiah 6) The vision is what fueled his vivid imagery, and especially so is the ‘icon written in words’ which he provides concerning God’s holy mountain. The season of Advent began with one of his best descriptions of it: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills.” From this holy mountain, often referred to as Zion, “shall go forth instruction” and we are invited to “walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:2-5) God has invited us to His holy dwelling and to insure our presence He will even light the way! Perhaps we can allow the light which comes forth from our Advent candles, adding one each week, to symbolically call us, reminding us that we find the holy mountain within our own hearts so that we might deepen our understanding of God’s love and that we might become an invitation to others to find Christ anew.
Advent is a very short season, although this year we will have four full weeks to reflect upon the daily readings which contain a predominance of the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah lived at a time in the history of Israel when things were about to unravel terribly if the people kept up their sinful ways. They had descended into paganism and a value system that was very far from the love for the "widow, orphan, and alien in our land," which had been proclaimed numerous times in the Law given by God. Isaiah knew that much of what he said was falling upon deaf ears. Yet he never gave up: while he steadfastly prophesied of the impending doom which would occur if the people did not change their ways, he also never failed to remind them of the mercy and love of the Holy One who would forgive them if they heeded His words (spoken by Isaiah) and repented. Isaiah also addressed the ‘remnant,’ the minority who remained faithful. He encouraged them to be at peace in the midst of the uncertainty of their times. He proclaimed the words of God who wanted them to know He was aware of their faithful trust in Him and that He had a place on His holy mountain for them even if everything did come to ruin in this life. Isaiah eloquently braced their faith by sharing the beauty of the coming of the Messiah so that they would know that God keeps all promises. In short, they would be safe.
Through Isaiah, God told His people that His is the highest mountain and that He will continue to instruct them in His ways. He said He would judge between the nations, which basically means that He was aware of who were the faithful ones and who were the ones who had grown far from Him. But then comes the most beautiful part of His message: “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.” (Is 2:4) While this refers to what Heaven will be, the highest mountain insofar as it is where God dwells in beauty and perfect love, Isaiah was telling us that the holy mountain also needs to be present within our hearts so that we might turn the sword within us into a plowshare and the spear with which we can lash out at others into a pruning hook, something which encourages the growth of peace within ourselves and that we can then spread to others. In other words, these words are not just about the world to come after Jesus Christ returns to save us. These words are about the here and now because they invite us to allow the holy mountain to be found within our own hearts. When we can find the holy mountain within, then we can guide others to it, too.
To climb the mountain of the Lord within our own hearts is to take the road to holiness, and to grow in holiness is the height of our response to Him. Another way to say this is that the effect of God’s word enables a response of peace, which is the fruit of holiness. God’s word, the ultimate Word, is Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must prepare a place of peace within our own hearts to invite the Word to come and dwell within. If we want to climb the mountain of the Lord and walk in His light, we need to allow the Word to make His home in us so that He can accompany us on the arduous journey toward holiness. Advent is the perfect time to begin this process anew by doing exactly what Isaiah has told us, and that is to repent. Unfortunately many of us hear the word ‘repent’ and it conjures up images of fasting on bread and water while wearing sackcloth and ashes, but this is not truly necessary. Repentance means being moved enough to come to terms with what needs to change; that is, acknowledging that we have some areas in which we are off target and are in need of growth, asking for the grace to make the changes, and then trying our best to act upon that grace. This is what Isaiah is inviting us to do this Advent.
If we were to put together the passages from Isaiah read on all four Sundays this Advent, the weeks unfold something like this: Isaiah 2:1-5, prepare and be ready to change; Isaiah 11:1-10, repent, make the changes; Isaiah 35:1-6a,10, open your eyes to see and your hearts in mercy in order to invite others; and Isaiah 7:10-14, welcome Him whether you think you adequately prepared a place or not and trust that Jesus comes anew. This is an incredibly consoling message because God wants us to know that whether or not we were successful in fulfilling our desire to prepare and change, Jesus will come anyhow. God knows we may fall short of our plans because He knows that we have many distractions and that all sorts of temptations surround us. He knows our energy will flag and our good intentions will falter. We will trip on the stony mountain as we attempt the ascent. But because of His mercy and love, He will come and accompany us nonetheless. What we will discover is that because we cannot ascend as we hoped, He will descend to us! The Son of God already did this: He left Heaven and descended to our ‘level’ by being born into our humanity so that we might be raised up with Him on the last day. He knows we cannot ascend to the top of God’s holy mountain without Him, so He comes to light the way for us that we might walk in His light.
God’s holy mountain is not elusive, nor is it in some distant land. Rather, God’s holy mountain is present within our hearts. Perhaps we can reflect upon the writings of Isaiah that are heard almost daily throughout this beautiful and pregnant Advent season. I suggest following the daily readings whether you can attend Mass or not. If you do not have a Missal, you can find them on the internet.* Either way the writings of Isaiah are a portal into understanding that the mountain of the Lord is not merely a metaphor, but that it is a reality in which we are invited to reside. We are reminded that if we let the Lord help, we can beat our swords into plowshares such that no matter what others do to us and no matter what the condition of the world, we can respond with peace and mercy. Our response is to accept the invitation to holiness which will then become a beacon of light to invite others into the love and mercy of God, too. The invitation is for everyone: all are welcomed. Therefore to open our hearts to Jesus means to open our hearts to everyone, just as He has. It means to discern His presence and to trust in His word. It means to allow our rough edges to be smoothed and to accept His descent into our world as a means to help us ascend the mountain together. Let us allow Him to write His word in our hearts so that we may shine with His light and therefore help others to walk in the light of the Lord, too.
May we accept the invitation of to ascend the mountain of the Lord and to walk in His light! May we allow the light of the Lord to shine brightly within that we might become beacons for others to also find the way! May we reflect upon the words of Isaiah so that we might become inspired to grow in peace, mercy, and holiness! May we persevere in our Advent journey without being discouraged when we become distracted, returning to the path if we do! And may we have the grace to prepare room in our hearts for Jesus anew! Marana tha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: The next entry will be on December 19.
* For the daily readings here is an excellent link which is found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site (USSCB) http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120416.cfm
I have posted for the Second Sunday in Advent, but the readings change daily. Here is the home page: http://www.usccb.org. You can get to the daily readings by clicking on the Bible tab.
First: I chose this Advent wreath which is lit for the Second Week of Advent because it was a rather bright image. It seemed to be in keeping with the theme of light in the passage from Isaiah that I quoted.
Second: This is one of my own photos taken in the Judean hills of southern Israel. I chose it because it seemed representative of the land of Israel and also of the people who were being alerted by Isaiah to make changes lest they lose everything. Something I noticed while traveling in Israel is that there are no terribly high mountains there. What they call mounts or mountains seem like hills in comparison to the great mountains of the world. This is why telling the people that God's holy mountain was greater than any mountain they had seen makes so much sense. If these were the 'mountains' they saw, and God's mountain was higher and greater, then His mountain must be something extra special and definitely fitting for God to reside upon.
Third: This icon is called Mother of God Stone Broke Loose From the Mountain, by Fr. William Hart McNichols. In the book Mother of God Similar to Fire, reflections by Mirabai Starr and icons by Fr. William Hart McNichols, the reflection on this icon beautifully speaks of God's protective presence (Shekhina) on the mountain. She writes: "Indwelling Spirit of the Divine, may your sacred power roll down from the mountain and transform the landscape into a place of peace. As Shekhina, the mist that guided our people in the wilderness, show us the way to freedom...." The Spirit of God is within but moves us to action so that we might spread peace in the barren landscape, so to speak. It was this reflection that inspired me to use this icon here. To purchase a copy of this icon in any medium from plaque to cards, go to http://fineartamerica.com/featured/mother-of-god-stone-broke-loose-from-the-mountain-160-william-hart-mcnichols.html
To see the rest of Mirabai's reflection or to obtain this very beautiful, moving book, go to https://www.amazon.com/Mother-Similar-Fire-William-McNichols/dp/1626981876/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1480781947&sr=1-6&keywords=mirabai+starr. It also makes a great gift!
Fourth: This is a photo I took while visiting the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Anuktuvuk Pass, Alaska, which is above the Arctic Circle. I chose this unusual selection because this mountain was absolutely captivating. It would be arduous to climb such a mountain, and maybe it seems impossible, but the waters of the river already flow down to us, just as Jesus will 'leave the mountain where God dwells' to descend to the earth.
Fifth: This is an inset from a painting by Duccio di Buoninsegna called Nativity Between the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. (1308-11) I chose this because I really liked the image of Isaiah with the scroll of his writing in one hand and the other pointing toward heaven, or quite possibly, toward God's holy mountain! The original painting is housed in the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC. To see the entire work you can go to http://www.ducciodibuoninsegna.org/Nativity-between-Prophets-Isaiah-and-Ezekiel-1308-11-large.html
Sixth: This is a depiction of the magi, or wise men, who have begun their journey to find the king who was to be born in Bethlehem. I loved this image because it shows the Star of Bethlehem is incredibly radiant, dominating the picture. We are invited into the light of God, just as they seem to be doing. It is indeed a journey, but God will guide us.
Heart Speaks to Heart