Thursday of Week 3 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 54:1-10

This is our last reading from the ‘Book of Consolation’.

“Shout for joy, you barren women, who bore no children!” Words addressed to Jerusalem (representing Israel), especially during the exile. The Israelites, in exile, are apparently abandoned by their ‘husband’ God. Humanly speaking, they seem to have no future as a people. In the Near East, barrenness was considered a terrible disgrace. Now, however, they can shout for joy. They are going to be fertile again.

The passage brings a message of comfort to the Israelites in exile with the promise of Jerusalem’s restoration. The people are called on to prepare for great changes, changes for the better. Israel, personified in the feminine figure of its capital, Jerusalem, which had remained desolate and uninhabited during the exile, will soon overflow with a burgeoning population.

The people are called on to enlarge their tents to accommodate greater numbers of God’s people.

You will burst out to right and left. Your race will take possession of the nations and people the abandoned cities.

A promise that they are going to go back to their homeland and fill their cities and towns again with their people. The past can be left behind.

You will forget the shame of your youth and no longer remember the curse of your widowhood.

In describing the sufferings the Israelites have been through, the prophet uses traditional images – the barren wife who becomes fertile, the repudiated wife who is taken back. It is a more positive message than that found in some of the other prophets who often see only more punishments in store.

There is now no need to be afraid. God is a faithful spouse who will not abandon his people for ever. They can now forget the “shame of your youth”, a shame brought on by their exile, they can forget “the curse of their widowhood”, when God seemed to have abandoned them.

Your creator will be your husband, his name, the Lord of hosts.

God will be their new husband and the source of a new fruitfulness. “Like a forsaken wife” they are now being called back. This was no separation, only a brief estrangement.

I did forsake you for a brief moment, but with great love will I take you back. In excess of anger, for a moment I hid my face from you.

Was it God who had abandoned his people, or was it they who had, by their faithlessness, distanced themselves from him? For he has never been far from them.

With everlasting love I have taken compassion on you, says the Lord, your redeemer.

This is God’s unchanging and unchangeable love, the love of a good father for his children or of a loving husband for his wife. A love freely and unconditionally poured out as a free gift.

The promises made after the Flood in the time of Noah are recalled:

When I swore that Noah’s waters should never flood the world again.

Now, God repeats his promises and reminds his people of his unchanging love for them:

…for the mountains may depart, the hills be shaken, but my love you will never leave you and my covenant of peace with you will never be shaken.

The Israelites have attributed their sufferings to the anger of the Lord, but God is never angry. Their sufferings have been brought on themselves by their failure to remain faithful to the covenant God had made with them. In the Exile, they have paid the price, but now is coming a time of reconciliation with their return to the homeland they have so bitterly missed for so many years.

As we approach Christmas, we see the same covenant with our God renewed in the coming of the Incarnate Son of God in our midst. On the one hand, it is an occasion for us to leave behind our self-centred ways. In Jesus, we are given in the clearest possible terms, the Way our lives are to follow if we are to be truly one with our loving Lord and Creator.

Here we have the story of God’s love for us: the total love of God, our infidelity, our sin. The Bible describes the mistakes of men, and then the infidelity of the people loved by God. But the prophets announce the New Jerusalem, Yahweh’s bride which will never again be abandoned. We know that the Church is this new People united to God in an eternal covenant.

It is quite true there are wrinkles on the face of the Church: dull parishes, existing but not really alive; institutions where one would look in vain for the Spirit of Jesus; and leaders of the Church subservient to the powerful [including the powerful in the Church!]. Somehow the New Jerusalem is in the church of Christ, but it is also true that we continue to look for it. Therefore, we are open to hearing and meditating upon this proclamation of the merciful love of God. (Christian Community Bible, loc. cit.)

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