Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Advent Week 3 Wednesday

Readings: Isaiah 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25; Psalm 85; Luke 7:18b-23

Today's reading from Isaiah provides the words for one of the most beautiful chants of Advent. 'Rorate', we sing, 'caeli desuper, et nubes pluant iustum'. 'Drop down O heavens from above and let the clouds rain down the just one', to be found here. It is a beautiful piece of poetry which speaks of the powerful presence of God that is gentle like the dewfall but penetrating like the rain which seeps into the earth to water fields and plants and trees, to sustain life in abundance and variety.

It is a text in which we see the 'metaphysics of creation' developed by this prophet, the Second Isaiah. He speaks of God as creator and lord of all things. It means he is not only Israel's God, but the God of all that has been created. He is not just 'top God' but is the only God, the creator of everything and the only fitting object for the worship of human beings. There is a rudimentary 'transcendence and immanence' here, God who is not to be counted among the things of the world, who is totally transcendent of them as their creator, and yet precisely because he is beyond everything in that way, God can be present in all things in a unique way, as the giver of their being and the sustainer of their life.

Second Isaiah would not, of course, have imagined the way in which his prayer would be answered, with the birth of the Just One which we celebrate at Christmastime. John the Baptist is a first instalment of that response and we do not normally think of him as coming like dewfall or gentle rain: there is something more muscular about the appearance of John the Baptist, a figure more in the line of earlier prophets like Elijah and Elisha rather than the poetic predictions of Second Isaiah.

And yet the Baptist is a poignant figure. There is something sad and ominous in the reponse of Jesus to the question that comes to him from the imprisoned Baptist, 'are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?' Jesus responds by pointing to the many wonderful things he is doing, the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and so on. All the signs of the Messianic era are present and so the answer to John is clear enough: Jesus is the one who is to come.

Except that Jesus omits from the list of messianic wonders the one that is of greatest personal interest to John: prisoners will be free again. Perhaps the strange concluding phrase refers to this: 'blessed is the one who takes no offence at me'. The greatest scandal, or offence, will be the cross on which the Saviour will die and the Baptist, whether realising it or not, is already bearing witness also to this aspect of Jesus' mission. The salvation that is won for the world is won through the love and obedience of the Son of God that carry him to his passion and to his death on the cross.

Just as at Christmas we celebrate the first martyr, Stephen, on the day after we celebrate Christ's birth, so here already the shadow of the cross darkens the picture. It lies ahead, and Jesus will have tough times trying to convince and hold people when he comes to speak about it. For the moment it is present in the situation of the Baptist, imprisoned for his defence of integrity and truth. The work of renewal, of transformation, of re-creation, always passes by way of the Cross. All things must be lost if they are to be re-established on completely new foundations. All things must die like the seed, into the ground, if they are to be made new and bear fruit in new ways.

Much of this is yet to be taught, much of it yet to be understood. But today's readings remind us that the work of liberation, setting us free from the things that imprison us, requires not just a worldly battle, not just a spiritual journey - it requires a new creation by the Lord who creates light and forms darkness, whose power is the glory and vindication of all the descendants of Israel.

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