Wednesday of Week 3 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 45:6-8,18,21-26

We return again today to the Book of Consolation of Second Isaiah (chaps 40-55). The reading is part of a statement made by Yahweh to King Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus, by his defeat of Babylon where the Israelites were being kept in exile, is seen as an instrument of God to liberate his people. In fact, he is the only non-Israelite who is called the ‘anointed one of God’, titles normally confined to Israelite kings like David. It is the title given also to Jesus (Hebrew: Messiah, Greek: Christos meaning “Anointed”). It is an indication of the way in which the exiles saw Cyrus as their saviour. History tells us that Cyrus was seen as a “father” to his people, and from the Bible, we see that the first thing he did after the conquest of Babylon, was to restore freedom to all those living there in exile (see Ezra 1:1).

Apart from me all is nothing, I am the Lord, unrivalled.

Cyrus – and the people of Israel – are being reminded that the ultimate power comes not from a conquering king, even one seen by some as a god, but from the One God. This power extends from the rising of the sun to its setting in the west, in other words, embraces the whole earth (words we use in the Third Eucharistic Prayer).

I form the light and create darkness

Everything ultimately comes from God, whether it is seen by us at the time as good or bad. The history of Israel is a story of light and darkness, as is the history of mankind throughout the centuries.

Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness…

These Words form one of the beautiful hymns we sing during the Advent season (Rorate, coeli desuper… “Drop down dew, you heavens, from above…”). It is an expression of abundance, and is a poetic way of describing the liberation and ‘saving justice’ that is to come to the exiled Israelites through Cyrus, but ultimately from God himself. By inserting the words ‘Upright One’ and ‘Saviour’, St Jerome has the prophecy point directly to Christ – as we do at this Advent time.

Let the earth open that salvation may spring up

This is a direct reference to what the Persian king, as the agent of Yahweh, is going to bring about – delivery for God’s people and a situation where peace and justice prevail. God’s work, and humanity’s cooperation, are joined in a unique endeavour of bringing us to the goal of all we do for the world.

Cyrus is only a forerunner of the real Saviour who will break into our world, a Jew born of Jews, truly one of us and yet sharing the very being of God. And, as Cyrus carried out the work of God, so we too are called to do the work that Jesus initiated. Justice and Salvation still need to be brought to huge numbers of people in our world. This is the building of the Kingdom, and among its chief agents are those who form the Body of the Risen Christ.

To put the work of Cyrus in context, the passage ends by speaking of the uniqueness of our God.

There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour

And the call goes out to the whole world:

Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth!…To me, every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear.

These last words will be repeated by Paul in his Letter to the Romans (14:11) and in his Letter to the Philippians (2:10) where he applies it to the Lordship of Jesus.

Taking this beautiful passage as a whole, we are asked to see in Cyrus the work of God being fulfilled in the world by people who do not even know him. This has always been the case, and Christ continues to act through people who do not believe in him and may even reject him. The Church is not by any means the whole of the Kingdom’s reality, but its sacrament and visible sign.

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