Wednesday in the 1st Week of Advent: Isaiah 25:6-10a, Matthew 15:25-37.
Below is a reflection I first wrote on these readings last year (2020). I’ve lightly edited it.
In today’s readings, we encounter a stunning prophecy of the Christ Event from Isaiah and a passage from the gospel that aligns exactly with this prophecy. Isaiah points out three aspects of the Reign of God: He will provide for us rich sustenance, He will remove a “veil that veils all peoples,” and we will recognize and praise Him. Let’s take these in turn. First, while this sustenance might be spiritual, the image used by Isaiah is rich and abundant food: “A feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.” I love the repeated sentence here, with an intentional emphasis pointed out by the adjective “juicy” for the rich food and “pure” for the choice wines. So, not just base sustenance but a feast of the very finest things. Psychologically, for Christians this is a nice counterbalance to the ascetic life that shuns fleshly desires, as insisted upon by St. Paul, the desert Fathers, the saints of the medieval period and so many more of our Doctors and saints in the Church. They would certainly agree with Isaiah and his description here, but would say that restraining ourselves from desires while on the earth is necessary to forge our spirit in Christ’s image; plus, it will make the great heavenly feast of the kingdom all the more richly appreciated. Yet we must admit that the enjoyment of feasting is something not altogether bad, or else God would not be employing this image to describe His Kingdom. One might argue that a Christian might properly enjoy moments of feasting in this lifetime, especially if a person is living morally under God’s law and focused on God’s providence and grace.
The second promise from Isaiah is that God will remove something that ensnares humanity: “he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, The web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.” In a phrase, Isaiah is talking about the fallenness of the world and our natures. He calls this death, and indeed it is, but the ancient, scriptural understanding of death is deeper than we usually consider it in our analytical, scientific age. Yes, death has a technical meaning as the loss of life, measured perhaps in the absence of a heartbeat and the lack of measurable brain activity. But death also has a larger philosophical meaning. When there is nothing ahead of us but death and a hole in the ground, then death reigns in a real psychological and even existential way. As we’ve amply seen with writers from Nietzsche onward, disbelieving in God goes hand-in-hand with the reign of death (one logically flows to the other). The reign of death is more than physical – it is spiritual, the death of the spirit. Any atheist will proclaim that nothing awaits us beyond this world, and the implications of this are diverse, but often include a softening of moral thought (i.e., if there is no larger or eternal repercussion for doing something right vs. something wrong, then why worry about making sure you’re doing things that are right? Even further, in this worldview, moral “right” is completely made up by people rather than emanating from the source of all goodness). When moral thought and action are brought low, we Christians are taught that this is the devil at work in the world. Thus, the devil’s influence and the reign of death are tightly linked. This brings us back to our origin as recounted in Genesis: Satan – the serpent – is the cause of our temptation; and he is cursed as is humanity when cast out of the garden into the world where death reigns. Eons of weeping, blood, and sin ensue. We now live apart from God, unable to be in His presence, unable to see the truth and light clearly. St. Paul tells us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). So, when Isaiah promises that “he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples … he will destroy death forever,” we can understand that this is a full reconciliation with Him, a return to the garden. It is again St. Paul who helps us locate the promise of Isaiah in the Reign of Jesus Christ: “but when one turns to the Lord [Jesus Christ], the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:16-17). The freedom offered by Christ is a freedom from the reign of death, a removal of a veil that has ensnared us, and a reconciliation with God thanks to Christ’s great sacrifice.
Finally, today’s prophecy by Isaiah tells that the world will recognize God as the bringer of the feast and conqueror of death. Humanity shall say, “Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us! This is the LORD for whom we looked; let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!” This recognition is important because God is calling us to a relationship but also gives us the free will to either refuse or answer the call. Isaiah’s prophetic vision reveals those who are present at the feast, who have the veil lifted as death is defeated. These people give God his due credit and rejoice in Him; they have answered his call to a relationship with him. Importantly, they recognize that His action is a saving action – one that saves them from the reign of death.
Now, let’s turn to today’s gospel and see each of these three aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy in this single episode of Jesus feeding the four thousand (plus women and children!). First, the feast: this is the famous miracle of the loaves and fishes. Signaling the abundance, the richness of the feast, is the fact that after all were satisfied, “They picked up the fragments left over – seven baskets full.” Such unheard-of largess appearing without delivery carts and many villages’ worth of bakers and fishermen has only one author: God Himself. More: these people knew the writings of Isaiah, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples…” Here, with them and for them, the Reign of God was beginning – God in the form of the Messiah was here.
Second is the removal of the veil of death. Remember that the crowd had gathered because they had heard Jesus was a great teacher and healer – they came seeking Him. This is the essential ingredient for those who will be present at the eternal feast: that they answer God’s call. “Great crowds came to him, having with them the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute, and many others. They placed them at his feet, and he cured them.” These people are in the grip of death in one form or another, not just physical death but spiritual death. Jesus often shows us that healing physical blindness in fact heals a deeper, underlying spiritual blindness. As mentioned earlier, death reigns not just physically, but spiritually. The Christ Event in history is the beginning of the Reign of Christ – death’s reign is clearly defeated in these miracles and the veil of sin, Satan, and death is lifted from these people.
Third is the recognition of God as the Savior. This, too, is pointed out by St. Matthew: “The crowds were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the deformed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind able to see, and they glorified the God of Israel.” But giving thanks to God for being healed is a bit different from looking at the one who healed you and thanking him, personally, as God incarnate. And this is the aspect of Isaiah’s prophecy that is played out throughout the gospels and even to this day. As we investigated yesterday, the fantastic vision of Christ granted to Isaiah 700 years before Jesus was born was truly a glimpse into the time-defying kairos event that is God puncturing human history and coming at the end of time, swirled into one ecstatic vision. If we try to inhabit this vision, we can see that we are living within this prophecy, where the feast is available to us, death’s reign can be lifted from us, and we must strive to recognize God in the person of Christ, just like the people described in the gospels.
The three touchstones Isaiah shares today, the feast, the removal of the veil of death, and the recognition of God as Savior, are at the heart of the Christ Event and all of our symbols and actions that emanate from it. The feast was celebrated throughout his ministry in every miraculous outpouring of sustenance and richness – wedding at Cana, feeding of the four thousand, and most clearly in the Last Supper – and it is this last example that instituted the ongoing feast of the Holy Eucharist that we continue to celebrate day after day in this contemporary moment within the Reign of Christ. The removal of the veil of death, specifically spiritual death, happens in our sacraments, notably in baptism, and integral to each of the other sacraments as we are drawn deeper and deeper into full communion with God. Over the course of our lifetimes as Catholics, we participate in the removal of this veil of death that ensnares and blinds us – it is our journey of faith. So we can see how the first two touchstones happened in Jesus’s life events and also happen our own. But this last one, our participatory acceptance and recognition of God in the form of Christ our Savior, is the one we must step up and bring to God all on our own. We pray that all are able to do this at some point before their physical bodies die. This great drama of recognizing Christ as God was brought to the forefront by Christ Himself: “Who do you say I am?” (Mat 16:15, Mk 8:29, and Lk 9:20). He asks each of us this same question. The Apostles realized that this was their great duty: to evangelize, that is, bring this good news of the Christ Event to people across the globe. Pope Benedict XVI identifies that this evangelical activity is part of the ongoing lifting of the veil of death: “But the preaching of God’s Kingdom is never just words, never just instruction. It is an event, just as Jesus himself is an event, God’s Word in person … Because the world is ruled by the powers of evil, this preaching is at the same time a struggle with those powers” (Jesus of Nazareth, 173).
Don’t let anyone tell you that all major religions are the same; we have a very particular core to our faith, and it is Jesus Christ, the man and God incarnate. Pope Benedict XVI, like Pope Saint John Paul II before him, writes that everything in our faith tradition and practice must be understood through a Christocentric lens. Everything about our salvation as well as the signs, symbols and language of our religion is fundamentally about Christ being God. It’s not about being morally good or doing good deeds or praying a certain way (although those things matter, especially when seen as ways of being united with our Savior). How can the popes insist on this (and not just them – think of so many saints and doctors of the Church, St. Augustine to name just one)? Well, it starts perhaps most plainly with Christ Himself, especially as revealed through the gospel of St. John: “for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jn 8:24). Jesus is adamant that He is the path to the Father, to salvation, to the end of the reign of death. Why might faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior be so important for eternal salvation? I can think of several reasons, but here are two that jump most quickly to mind. First, denying that Christ is the Son of God (when He is one of three Persons of God) is, in fact, denying God (being atheist, that is). Second, the Christ Event – and only the Christ Event – is the exact action of God in the world that ushers in our salvation. This means that only Christ is the vector God provides for us to unite with Him.
And perhaps a third, more human reason that this specific faith in Christ as God is necessary: Jesus reveals aspects of God in a way that no one or nothing else in creation can. Jesus Christ reveals to us ways that we are made in the image of God (we are agents of truth and light as He is) and that humanity is precious to God in a special way. As we dwell on the Word of God, as uttered by the Word of God made incarnate, we learn about Him as well as the great potential within all of us. Jesus Christ becomes our “key” to knowing God and to knowing ourselves.
Today’s gospel reading, for instance, stands out to me not just because of the amazing parallels with Isaiah’s prophecy and these three touchstones of our faith. It stands out because of what Jesus says: “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way.” Matthew takes 5 lines to describe Jesus’s great compassion here, and just 2 to describe the miracle itself. This is where we find the reality of Christ – in His love and compassion. After healing hundreds, if not thousands, of people on the mountain by the Sea of Galilee, surely He would be exhausted by the sheer weight of it all. But, as God, He shows us that God never tires of compassion. He teaches us how to find that compassion in ourselves. Even after delivering them from the grip of death through His healing, His saving acts do not end. He knows their hunger and, more importantly, this hunger moves him to compassion. It never fails to amaze that our God is a God who is moved to compassion for us. This is no distant God! So, He feeds them, as only God can. Here is the same God accomplishing the same act He did for His Chosen People after freeing them from slavery in Egypt and feeding them manna in the desert. Only now our God walks among us, speaks plainly for us, and ultimately sunders the divide between our fallen earth and heaven.
Thank God for His compassion! Because this Advent is about anticipating the culmination of the Christ Event, and we will certainly all need compassion, understanding, and forgiveness on the Day of Judgment.