At the end of the prologue to his opus magnum “Jesus of Nazareth”, which is dedicated to the synoptic childhood stories, Benedict XVI. uses “waiting word” as a key phrase, especially in view of the prophet Isaiah.
He introduces it to show the oneness of the Old and New Testament. Beyond that, as a bridge to illustrate and prove how in the ensuing story Isaiah’s open-ended prophecies unexpectedly became newly concrete. On all four Sundays in Advent the first reading is taken from Isaiah. And in the gospel John has his disciples inquire of Jesus from prison: “Are you the one?” He says neither yes nor no. Instead, with a quote from Isaiah, he invites them to report to John what they can see and hear: the blind regain their sight and the lame walk. Advent: Expecting something great, bringing it to pass and thus updating the “waiting word”, which is no mere word of man. ars
The wilderness and the parched land will exult; the Arabah will rejoice and bloom; Like the crocus it shall bloom abundantly, and rejoice with joyful song. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen hands that are feeble, make firm knees that are weak, Say to the fearful of heart: Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall see, and the ears of the deaf be opened; Then the lame shall leap like a stag, and the mute tongue sing for joy. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning flee away.
For too long the “dear God” was only mentioned in children’s rooms and at dining tables; so it was not surprising when modern man disposed of Him as harmless.
When we hear Isaiah’s powerful language, we realize that Israel’s primordial experience was completely different. It was not a people that invented Him, on the contrary: He conceived Israel. Where a society accepts his commandments – the prophet calls it “fear of God” –, there it can experience healing of the deepest social and individual wounds. Partisanship, injustice, poverty, competition and all-devouring jealousy become powerless. Some undertook this experiment. The prophets described it in images and fables: Wolf and lamb. Lion and calf. Snake and child. It is simultaneously a vision and an experience of reality, always on the brink of failure. However, as His name is not “dear God”, but “justice” and “loyalty”, a people grew. His effects endure. acb
But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,
and from his roots a bud shall blossom. 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.
Not by appearance shall he judge,
nor by hearsay shall he decide,
But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord,
as water covers the sea.
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the peoples—
Him the nations will seek out;
his dwelling shall be glorious.
In the books of two prophets, Isaiah and Micah, a great vision is passed on. The peoples will set out for Zion because they want to get to know the paths of Israel’s God. But how does this stream of peoples start?
There is no mention of appeals to Assur or Syria. Because at first it is not the peoples who must do something. Rather the time of the plowshares and pruning hooks begins with a few people from the house of Jacob. They decide to set out and take the first step themselves: Right away they start to walk their paths together according to God’s teaching: “come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” hak
This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and set terms for many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. House of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
The crowning moment of life
Even the Presocratics knew of the allegation against religion: Humans visualize the divine in ways that mirror them: If dogs had gods, then they would have the form of dogs. The biblical enlightenment also exposes this weakness of the religious and takes a different path.
Therefore the image of Christ as king should not be seen as a religious reflection of human perception. Unlike a worldly king Jesus does not sit on a throne and does not govern a state. It is the crowning moment of his life to walk the lower path. That is why to this day he is depicted on the cross. Through the contrariness of cross and throne the bible shows an image of the invisible in this world. It can be imitated by all who look at it. ruk
Give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross, whether those on earth or those in heaven.
Living in the between
The church year is drawing to a close. The liturgical texts embrace this atmosphere, but quite unlike current end-time preachers.
“See that you not be deceived, do not be terrified”, it says in the gospel. Back then the destruction of the temple was deeply unsettling; doomsday scenarios like earthquakes, plagues, famines and wars walk alongside history to this day. The predicted climate catastrophe adds a nuance to this list. But all that is not the end. We are living in the between. What are steady coordinates? For the prophet: the “day” the Lord comes and the sun of justice rises over Israel. For us: the “day of the Lord”, when we welcome His arrival in the assembly of the Church. For Paul: working, also manually, to earn a living. And at the same time gathering as many Jews and pagans, men and women as possible. “See that you not be deceived” – “it will not immediately be the end”. Those who endure shall not lose a single hair, despite oppression and hostility. ars
For the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, the sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings.
For you know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, he said, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Then they asked him, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” He answered, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky. “Before all this happens, however, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony. Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.
Powerless and yet indestructible
Is it possible to see martyrdom as something other than religious fanaticism? “There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is more than mere physical survival”, Pope emeritus Benedict wrote.
The seven sons of the Maccabean mother defend the word of God, which represents the highest value, but is powerless in their situation in front of the king. They sacrifice their life for this. The sons’ impressive courage does not stem from religious fanaticism, but from their identification with the laws of their fathers, which indestructibly unites them with the creator of life. tac
It also happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said: “What do you expect to learn by questioning us? We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” After the first brother had died in this manner, they brought the second to be made sport of. With his last breath he said: “You accursed fiend, you are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to live again forever, because we are dying for his laws.” After him the third suffered their cruel sport. He put forth his tongue at once when told to do so, and bravely stretched out his hands, as he spoke these noble words: “It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disregard them; from him I hope to receive them again.” Even the king and his attendants marveled at the young man’s spirit, because he regarded his sufferings as nothing. After he had died, they tortured and maltreated the fourth brother in the same way. When he was near death, he said, “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”
The unmistakable hand
Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Apparently he was a little on the short side and, what’s more, someone who could not gain sympathies from his fellow countrymen as a tax collector for the detested Romans. Luke relates how the story continues for Zacchaeus, and for Jesus too:
Jesus finds someone who receives him gladly – Jericho, where Zacchaeus’ house is, is the last stop before he will enter Jerusalem. There he will be rejected. Zacchaeus proves himself to be a true son of Abraham. What would someone have to be on the lookout for today, if they wanted to “see Jesus”? He wanted to look for lost people like Zacchaeus and win them over for the joy in God’s story since Abraham. Although one has to expect that the ones not lost will not understand that he is drawn more towards the last ones. ars
He came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
Sören Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, said of himself: If he ever came to faith then he would only ever ride through Copenhagen four-in-hand.
Paul – at least in the tradition of the author’s second letter to Timothy – sees his faith journey in a similar light. Nothing can be taken for granted; faith is not something you are just born with, it is a fight, a conflict, a struggle. Two athletic paroles stick out: compete and race – both pictures from the Greek arenas Paul knew, ball games, foot races, horse and chariot races, qualifying contests. There are also defeats and disappointments. This is how the early Church sees Christianity. Only: The opponent doesn’t stand on the other side of the field or the court. He lives in one’s own heart, where the decision for God and His people has to be made; he stands in the midst of Jesus’ disciples. acb
For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance. At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The creature that cannot be helped – that is what the philosopher Volker Gerhardt calls the human being in his new book. Humans constantly become their own problem and fail themselves. Can they ask for help? Whom?
The biblical experiences point to one direction: not gods, not stars, not nature, but God. But how does help come? One person is not enough to pass it on. Humans are able to cooperate and also challenged to do so. Through cooperation, including necessary tools, even if it is a heavy block of stone to sit on, He can act of whom the psalm says: Our help is in his name. hak
Then Amalek came and waged war against Israel in Rephidim.So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us, and tomorrow go out and engage Amalek in battle. I will be standing on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” Joshua did as Moses told him: he engaged Amalek in battle while Moses, Aaron, and Hur climbed to the top of the hill. As long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight. Moses’ hands, however, grew tired; so they took a rock and put it under him and he sat on it. Meanwhile Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady until sunset. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.
The salutary plunge
Imagine a Syrian general today would say “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel”, out loud. He would risk his neck for that.
It cannot have been much different during biblical times. The Syrian general is sick. Because of a short comment by his Jewish maid he travels a long way that takes him to the Jordan. In spite of disappointed expectations he trusts the prophet and plunges into this river – and with that far into the history of Israel. It is exactly this trust that puts him on firm ground. That is what the earth he takes home with him stands for. Plunging into the history of Israel is salutary. ruk
Naaman, the army commander of the king of Aram, was highly esteemed and respected by his master, for through him the LORD had brought victory to Aram. But valiant as he was, the man was a leper. Now the Arameans had captured from the land of Israel in a raid a little girl, who became the servant of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would present himself to the prophet in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Naaman went and told his master, “This is what the girl from the land of Israel said.” The king of Aram said, “Go. I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman set out, taking along ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments.
He brought the king of Israel the letter, which read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone for me to cure him of leprosy? Take note! You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!” When Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his garments, he sent word to the king: “Why have you torn your garments? Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Naaman came with his horses and chariot and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent him the message: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.” But Naaman went away angry, saying, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand there to call on the name of the LORD his God, and would move his hand over the place, and thus cure the leprous spot. Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” With this, he turned about in anger and left.
But his servants came up and reasoned with him: “My father, if the prophet told you to do something extraordinary, would you not do it? All the more since he told you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times, according to the word of the man of God. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.