Tuesday in the First Week of Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 10:21-24.
When I read today’s readings, it’s hard to contain my sense of expectation for the Kingdom. Isaiah’s poetic language gives sparkling life to the visions God has revealed to him. Luke then shows us an intimate moment outside of his teaching and miracles when Jesus speaks directly to his Father, thanking Him. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus says earlier in this chapter of Luke, and the impact of today’s readings urges us to share Jesus’s gratitude for what God has given us in history.
Much like we saw in Sunday’s reading from Isaiah, chapter 2, today we also find a vision of Christ’s coming into humanity followed immediately by the more eschatological vision of God’s kingdom yet to come. This is Advent! We celebrate and await both of these events simultaneously. The first part of today’s passage describes Jesus in lyrical imagery: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” This naturalistic image of regeneration from something old and thought to be dead is yet another reminder of God’s constancy. The kingdom of Judah to which Jesse belonged fell to the Assyrians during Isaiah’s lifetime. It seemed to be the total destruction of God’s people, as the kingdoms of Israel and Samaria had fallen some years earlier. But God shares a great promise of redemption and regeneration with Isaiah. The “stump” of Jesse is not dead – God still has plans for His people.
Isaiah is shown that the Spirit of God will rest upon His Messiah: “The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A Spirit of counsel and of strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.” The Holy Spirit is key to today’s readings. Isaiah is taught that the Spirit gives specific gifts and, of these, the fear of the Lord is especially prized. What does this teach us? The Book of Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is “the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7), “a fountain of life” (Prov 14:27), and that “To fear the Lord is to hate evil” (Prov 8:13). The gifts of the Spirit find their strength in this greatest gift, the fear of the Lord. By delighting in his God-given fear of the Lord, Jesus devotes himself entirely to God’s will, fighting evil, and establishing the Kingdom as God intends. Can we imagine what having a Spirit of fear of the Lord – and delighting in it – might be like, personally? Could it be a knowledge of our utter dependence, leading to an aching and a joy to do His Will? Could such a sublime giving over of ourselves to the fear of the Lord be the fabric of miracles?
Then Isaiah gives us some shocking images almost humorous in their unbelievability: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” Whaaaa?? I particularly like the image of a lion eating hay and a baby frolicking in a cobra’s den. But let’s not dismiss this as fancy or hyperbole. This is a divine vision of the kingdom! Isaiah makes this clear: “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.” He employs the same prophetic imagery of the holy mountain that signals the meeting of humanity and divinity, and we see that, in addition, all of creation is caught up in God’s will. All of creation is suffused with God in the kingdom; this means that they shun evil like oil avoids mixing with water. Love is simply incompatible with harm, and we receive a remarkable vision of heaven where even the base instincts and hungers that we consider to be “natural” simply fade away in the presence of God. Even a leopard will lie down peaceably with a baby goat. This is a vision of life perfected, of the resurrection, where things still exist bodily and in distinct kind, but their “trueness” is one revealed and perfected by God, according to His plan. We might say it’s like the Garden of Eden, but it’s even greater.
At the end of this passage, Isaiah says something that might be confusing to some readers: “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” What is clear here is that non-Jews will seek out Jesus Christ, who shines in the world as a “signal,” guiding them to his glorious kingdom. What is less clear is the phrase “on that day.” Without a knowledge in prophetic language and faith in how Christ’s reign has revealed itself in history, we can run into problems like fundamentalist Christians who attempt to read every passage in scripture literally. A small digression here: to read scriptures strictly literally is to deny the richness of human culture (poetry, lyricism, allegory, etc.) but also to deny the difficult-to-express but ever-so-important language of mystical revelation. Our faith, from Abraham until now, has as its hallmark the revelation of God in the hearts of humans, too fragile to ever truly contain His Word. Not just a facet of our religion, but it’s hallmark. God speaks to Abraham, Moses, David, Jesse, all the prophets, Jesus … and then to countless saints, famously including St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila who attempted to describe the way all Christians can strive to have a mystical experience of God. Revelation and mystical experiences of God confound language and intellect, as they necessarily must since they have the divine essence at their root. Thus, when we read revelation, we must understand that language itself is struggling to express the glories revealed to us, and must employ allegory, symbols, poetry, and more just to convey a bit of what was revealed.
Back to “on that day.” We must understand that Isaiah is speaking in kairos time, not chronos time. In fact, all of revelation is primarily about kairos time. The Greeks understood kairos as the proper or supreme moment, a time when something is fulfilled. In this passage, the “day” Isaiah is talking about is the “day of the Lord,” or the coming of Christ into humanity. As discussed in Sunday’s reflection, we can properly call this the Christ Event, which is not just the Incarnation or Nativity, but the sum of everything Christ means to us, including the Day of Judgment and final establishment of the kingdom of God. We exist now within a thread of historical time that is superseded by and subsumed within the great Christ Event that is ongoing. So, Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom is rightfully associated with the coming of Jesus Christ as understood in kairos time.
And so, with Isaiah’s words ringing in our ears, Jesus picks up the holy resonance and trumpets his thankfulness for the Spirit of the Lord resting upon him:
Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said,
“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.”
Contextually, this appears in the gospel of Luke right after the 70 disciples return from the mission he sent them upon. This is the very first incarnation of the Church, the followers of Christ who he infuses with his Holy Spirit to work miracles in the world. They return jubilant, saying “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Jesus shares their joy and adds, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk 10:17 and 20). In other words, do not rejoice at the powers you have here on earth, for they belong to God, not you; instead, rejoice that you have been chosen by God to be a part of His plan and will.
Today’s passage occurs immediately after and is a continuation of Jesus’s joyous thankfulness. And he is directly talking about revelation: “you have revealed [these hidden things] to the childlike.” As we consider this, we realize that this is the same revelation shared with Isaiah. Jesus, the blossoming growth from the stump of Jesse, has the Spirit of God upon him and is establishing the kingdom for humanity. And consider the significance of how this played out: Jesus shares the Spirit of God with his disciples so that they can defeat evil in the world and bring about the nearness of the Kingdom. Have you ever heard someone wonder if Jesus could have just snapped his fingers and saved humanity/ended suffering while he was alive? Being God and all… Well, the answer is that he exists exclusively to do the Father’s will. If that was the Father’s will, then, yes, that’s possible. But clearly that wasn’t the Father’s will. Instead, He willed that Jesus establish a Way for us to follow, establish a Church on earth for us to work God’s will ourselves, and establish our justification to belong to Heaven as his brothers and sisters, thanks to his own merit and sacrifice for our sins. Today’s gospel passage occurs as Jesus and the 70 disciples see the middle part of the plan, the establishment of the Church for our own benefit.
Still, it is Christ alone who sees the great revelation being played out and the stunning graciousness of God’s will. This is how we must all feel about God’s will for humanity: joyous thankfulness. Perhaps this is why Advent is not canonically known as a penitential season but instead is treated as “penitential lite” (sic). We celebrate the fruits of revelation occurring in our midst! We must be utterly thankful and joyous over this. As Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.” No matter how much we might be disappointed with humanity, with Catholics, with the ungodliness of our existence, we must never forget this. We must celebrate the great spiritual gifts and divine will that has given us Christ and the Church.