I receive a monthly email from Sister Patricia Bruno, a Dominican Sister in California. Each email explores biblical stories that are seldom heard in the liturgical lectionary. This month she focuses on Advent and the the prophet Isaiah. She concludes her recent email with these words: “I hope this article will encourage you to spend some time using the daily Mass readings for your own personal reflections and prayer. Perhaps by doing so we will become like the bird who feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark – true Advent people!” Here is the full email for this month. Maybe you would like to get on her mailing list:
Stories Seldom Heard
124th Edition Advent December 2009
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would especially like to welcome the members of St. Joseph, the Husband of Mary, Parish and St. John Neumann Parish in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Since we are entering into the season of Advent, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on the Prophet Isaiah. During the first three weeks of Advent, we will be hearing from Isaiah at daily Mass. Isaiah is a major First Testament prophet. We often tend to lump the prophets together, but actually each prophet is quite different. Each has his or her own personality. Each addresses specific issues in a particular time and place.
Because each prophet comes from a different background, she/he uses images that reflect her/his own experiences and temperament. Isaiah is no exception.
In the opening lines of the Book of Isaiah we learn it is a time of prosperity for the Northern Kingdom of Judah. (740BC) Isaiah’s writings reveal the type of economy on which the Israelites depend. In Chapter
5:8 Isaiah describes the end of summer: the harvesting of crops, the importance of plucking the clusters of grapes and making wine. He describes the great feast of Tabernacles: a feast that celebrates the harvest and God’s generosity. Even today we see modified Jewish observances of this celebration in some of the cities. It is an easy feast for us to imagine since we just celebrated Thanksgiving: a day of gratitude to God.
Isaiah’s description of the celebration is on a grand scale. There is abundant food and drink. Life seems secure and filled with promise. But with the prophet’s observations come words of warning. All is not well.
There is something that the Israelites are overlooking and refusing to acknowledge. God desires all of the people to enjoy the wealth of the land.
The fruits and grains that are harvested are meant for everyone. But that is not what we hear. We hear there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor. People are greedy for profit and are deceitful. (Is. 1:21-23)
The small farmers are being bought out by the larger ones. Many of
Isaiah’s comments are not far from our own experiences.
Speaking with the authority that Yahweh has given him, Isaiah offers a warning to the people of Jerusalem. "Listen, you heavens; earth, attend for
Yahweh is speaking. I reared children, I brought them up, but they have rebelled against me." (Is. 1:2) This "listening" is a major theme of Isaiah and all the prophets. In Isaiah 55:2 it is emphatically repeated. "Listen, listen to me." And then, just in case they/we don’t get it, Isaiah says it again. "Pay attention, come to me; listen, and your soul will live." Isaiah’s warnings and prophecies are meant to rouse the people, then and now, from their sleep and inattentiveness.
The daily Advent readings stand in stark contrast to these heavy warnings, but it is important to keep them in mind because they are not only meant for those living in Jerusalem in 740 BC, they also are meant for us. The time of Advent is here. It is a time to be attentive to the many ways God comes to us. It is a time to be alert and vigilant to the invisible God whose presence we meet everyday in those around us especially the little ones, those who are at the corners and edges of society.
Anyone can offer bad news, but it takes a person of faith to see hope in the midst of the darkness. Hope looms large in the Book of Isaiah, but it dawns slowly. The prophet’s words, however, help us trust that God is being birthed in our lives even though we don’t yet experience the fullness of that presence.
If I were going to illustrate on canvas Isaiah’s sense of hope that we hear in some of the first readings for daily Mass, I would use a large triptych: a three paneled painting. The center panel would be the largest. The side panels would expand and illustrate the truth of the main panel. As you might expect, God and God’s actions are the focus of the center canvas. On it is written, "God’s word does not return empty" (55:10) and in another place scrolled in modern script "Comfort, give comfort to my people. Speak tenderly to the heart of Jerusalem." (Is.40:1-2) "Though the grass whither and the flowers wilt, the Word of our God stands forever." (Is. 40:8)
The background colors for this panel are energetic. The canvas has a sense of movement. Certainly the Spirit of God’s delight, creativity, forgiveness and largess swirls around the words and stirs our imaginations. (1)
The visions of hope that Isaiah offers us are reflected in each of the side panels. Using everyday images Isaiah carefully fills in the story.
Both panels reflect God’s promise to renew and restore the face of the earth and God’s people.
One side panel reminds us of the restorative powers of nature. Life springs forth from the most unexpected places. One of the images Isaiah offers us is similar to that old stubby dried up tree stump in your backyard or a near field. What looks dead, Isaiah says, is often only in a state of dormancy.
If left unimpeded the tree will eventually sprout new shoots. Isaiah reminds us that it is difficult to observe the underground life of trees that continue to struggle beneath the surface of the soil. Even after the tree is cut down the tap root is at work. It slowly digs deep into the soil to seek a water source. Old, dead tree stumps with soft centers are often fertile ground for tender shoots. "A shoot shall sprout from the stump of
Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom." (2) Of course, Isaiah is not just talking about trees and nature. He is also talking to us about our lives. Hope seems to live in the radical return to our roots. God can bring life even out of the sawdust dry areas of our lives.
Water also plays a big part in this mural of nature. The Israelites live in a desert area. Without rain, rivers and natural springs there can be no life. All these good things come from God and become a symbol of God’s desire to renew the Israelites’ spirit as well as their land. As the rain gives life to the seeds and soaks the soil into fertility, God’s people experience God’s graciousness and forgiveness. When the full streams of water flow from the lofty hills and mountains, greening the parched earth, the people know God has heard their prayers of repentance. (3) These words of Isaiah overflow w
ith hope. God’s forgiveness is visible and palpable. It is felt so deeply that it is as apparent as the greening hills and softened soil.
Isaiah’s descriptions are so bountiful that we too are filled with a sense of wonder, expectation and joy. It is as though we are standing in the Garden of Eden again. Nothing is lacking. Everything is full of color, greened with energy and plump with flavor. The knees of the weak become firm. The frightened of heart overcome their fear. "God comes with vindication" and even the "steppe will rejoice and bloom." "Streams will break forth in the desert and rivers in the steppe.." (4) But that is not the end of our story.
There is a third panel of the triptych that is a vivid reminder that restoration and right relationships are not meant just for the universe and the world. Isaiah’s vision includes all humanity. When people follow
God’s laws there are no shadow figures huddling in the corners or begging at the city gates. Instead God provides enough food for all peoples. People of every nation feast on "rich food and choice wines." (5) Even though everyone is invited to the table, there is enough for all because the food is shared. There is no ranking, no privileged or underprivileged. God "humbles those in high places." (6) All are welcome and included. Because of that the celebration not only fills hungry stomachs, but also satisfies
the deep longings of our hearts.
Isaiah continues describing what restoration would look like if we humans listened and paid attention. "The deaf shall hear the words of the book; and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see." The next line seems to be the result of listening to "the book" and seeing with new vision. "Tyrants will be no more and the arrogant will be gone." "Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding and those who find fault shall receive instruction." (7) Fullness of understanding is followed by fullness of health. Everything is included in this restorative process.
God "gives strength to the fainting and the weary ones will soar like the eagles!"
Whether it is to be fed when we are hungry, to be emotionally nourished when we have felt excluded or to be brought to full health and strength when we have felt weary, it is part of the vision of full restoration not just for a few, but for everyone! When people refocus their attention on God, when they lift their "eyes on high and see who has created" everything, life begins to change. (8) Life changes for us and all those with whom we come in contact. And Isaiah goes even farther. When we are in right relationship with ourselves and others the earth flourishes. When we are out of sync with one another through violence and war our earth suffers too.
When the water becomes polluted so does the food we eat. When the land is without water, food is limited and only a few receive the meagre awards of the harvest. When the sky is filled with toxic gases we too feel the effects of the loss of oxygen and clean air. When nature is cut back and fields ploughed to make room for malls and highways the balance of nature is off set. And we with the fields and the flocks of the air grieve the losses.
It is true that the health of humanity and the health of nature go hand in hand. It is true that the healing and restoration of right relationships among humans affect the healing of the whole universe in which we are housed. It is a lesson that is becoming more obvious to us each day.
Isaiah might be an ancient prophet, but in our world his words take on a new energy and focus. His visions deepen our hope and strengthen our convictions while we wait for God’s promises to be fully realized.
This waiting time we call Advent gives us pause to reflect on our lives and what is happening around us. It gives us a chance to make some new choices about how we can birth hope in our lives and the lives of others. Our actions and attitudes have important repercussions. When we give bread to another it feeds real hungers. When we choose the path of reconciliation and attentively listen to another person it feeds the soul. When we work on issues of justice, we help bring about right relationship with the earth and with one another. Hope rests in trusting and actively believing that
God can do great things even in the unfinished parts of our lives.
Advent is more than just waiting. It is waiting knowing that the future is here. There is a wonderful true story of Archbishop Tutu when Nelson
Mandela was still in prison and apartheid was still a law. One day when
Archbishop Tutu was in Washington D.C. he stood outside the South
African Embassy raised his arm in protest and shouted. "Those of you inside, are you listening? Can you hear me? You have already been defeated. Do you understand? You have already lost and we on the outside have won. It’s not ‘We shall win. No. We have already won. God is on our side. And we know the future. We are the future.’"
Even though many of us can’t attend Mass every day, I hope this article will encourage you to spend some time using the daily Mass readings for your own personal reflections and prayer. Perhaps by doing so we will become like the bird who feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark – true
Advent people! (9)
Footnotes: the first 8 footnotes refer to the daily Mass readings during
1. Tuesday, First Reading: second week of Advent
2. Tuesday, First Reading- first week of Advent
3. Saturday, First Reading – first week of Advent
4. Monday, First Reading – second week of Advent
5. Wednesday, First Reading – first week of Advent
6. Thursday, First Reading – first week of Advent
7. Friday, First Reading – first week of Advent
8. Wednesday, First Reading -second week of Advent
9. A quote from Tagor who is the greatest writer in modern Indian Literature. He was a poet, novelist, and educator, and was a reformer and critic of colonialism. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1913.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green, Maria Hetherton and Jeanne Keating who have helped edit this month’s SSH.
Stories Seldom Heard is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia
Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like Stories Seldom Heard sent to a friend, please send a note to
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