What’s old is new. The prophetic words and visions of antiquity form key Advent themes in the story of John the Baptist, in the gospels of both Mark and John. A still-relevant voice cries out in the wilderness—the wilderness of biblical exiles and of the “other America” beaten anew by storm and recession. The time has come to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
On this cosmic highway, prophets and poets can proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2) and the alternate rule of God’s justice. It is a sovereignty rooted in the Davidic kingdom, but born anew with the birth of the Prince of Peace. As God takes human form to dwell among us, humanity and all of creation prepare to sing of the beauty of “the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” brings good news, and announces salvation (Isaiah 52:7).
Although Isaiah first spoke to the vagaries of a particular community in exile, the flower of this prophetic tradition blossoms in these Advent and Christmas gospel lections. What, then, is new? The fullest revelation of God arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, the prophetic and the incarnational meet, in the beauty of justice and the very songs of redemption.
What’s new? “[T]he Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Isaiah’s words will regain more power than ever, so let’s prepare the way!
Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.
Building the Highway
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8
It is little help to see the prophet as a prognosticator or a soothsayer. The prophet’s standard declaration falls more along these lines: “If you do A, B will happen. I am calling you to do C, so that D will happen instead.” The prophet doesn’t say a highway will show up, but, rather, cries out, “prepare the way of the Lord” and make straight “a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
Bob Dylan’s Highway 61is forever revisited, and folks still get their kicks on Bobby Troup’s Route 66 because layers of memory and tradition have evolved from these well-worn thoroughfares. The righteous route proclaimed in Isaiah and echoed in Mark’s gospel is cosmological in scope and must be rebuilt in each new era of salvation history. It is constructed by, and among, peoples who offer confession and accept forgiveness, who realize atrocities and call for a realignment with God’s justice.
Sometimes prophetic utterance comes as a divine oracle offering assurance of God’s blessing, as in the case of our psalm. Even here, there is a choice. God “will speak peace to his people” if they turn to him (Psalm 85:8). In those blessed times, “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” This is why John the Baptizer offers a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:1-8). We must repent, then accept forgiveness.
Following John’s highway project, Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” A baptized people, we are called to flesh out Christ’s redeeming promise by becoming prophetic voices. Where can our prophetic call be sounded? Consider the recent words of Jan Egeland, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator: “We need to wake up world leaders and decision-makers to the humanitarian crises of our day. From Niger to New Orleans to North Korea—we need a consistent response.”
Proclaiming “the Year”
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Consider these two quotes: “Across the [African] continent, fewer than 10 percent of working people have health insurance, pension coverage, or other forms of social security, according to the International Labor Organization, the United Nations’ oldest specialized agency” (The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2005).
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me…to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
Are you and I, along with the psalmist, responsible for proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor? That is, is it up to us to tell our friends and churches here in the wealthy nations that the poor and oppressed of Africa (for starters) have suffered long enough and God wants us to move into sustained-action mode, starting today?
Nogaye Sow, a street vendor in Dakar, Senegal, carries with her a makeshift health insurance card with photos pasted into it of herself, her seven children, her granddaughter, and two other relatives. She and her neighbors have started an informal health insurance co-op. This is the year of the Lord’s favor. Day one.
This week, Isaiah’s words of a wilderness voice making straight the way emerge again in the story of “the Baptizer.” This time, in the mystical gospel of John, the forerunner testifies to “the light.” Does that light shine for Nogaye Sow? For all of Dakar?
The tension between the values of “the year of the Lord’s favor” and the values of the world fires a sense of expectancy in Psalm 126 and 1 Thessalonians. The psalmist prays that God would “restore our fortunes,” that tears might become “shouts of joy.” Paul asks us to “rejoice always” and “pray without ceasing.” Gracious God, thank you that Nogaye Sow has the rudimentary beginning of a health-care program.
Lifting the Lowly
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:47-55; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
This week’s readings contain neither an Isaiah passage nor an Isaiah-quoting gospel. Mary’s Magnificat, replete with visions of biblical justice and radical hope, more than fills the gap.
In Luke 1:26-38, the angel tells the perplexed teenager that she has formed such favor with God that her baby will receive “the throne of his ancestor David” and “of his kingdom there will be no end.” In the Magnificat, Mary reveals good news for the poor and marginalized to rival Isaiah: In the coming of Christ, the Mighty One has “lifted the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things.”
This is not simply charity, but a leveling of the social playing field. Mary says God has “scattered the proud,” “brought down the powerful,” and “sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53). With the help of the angel and of the Davidic tradition, Mary can see that God incarnate will bring deep justice and systemic transformation.
Luke also reminds us that Joseph is from the house of David. Romans 16 focuses on the obedience in faith that was the hallmark of the prophet Isaiah. Affirming the diversity of the early church, Paul says that obedience is born of the mystery of faith, which “through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles” (Romans 16:26).
The prophetic voice heard in the Magnificat can be heard today when Kenyan Wahu Kaara speaks. Kaara’s Christian faith has drawn her into many years of anti-poverty and social justice activism. Kaara, the ecumenical program coordinator for the Millennium Development Goals at the All Africa Council of Churches, addressed the 58th annual NGO conference at the United Nations in September concerning the obligation of rich nations to do far more to end extreme poverty. This 2005 Nobel Peace Prize nominee spoke with clarity and power: “Don’t tell us you don’t have enough money. You found more money overnight for the war in Iraq than is needed for world poverty.”
Painting and Singing
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14
Peace, salvation, and the reign of God arrive with beauty (Isaiah 52) and song (Psalm 98). God judges the world with righteousness and equity; humanity is to make a “joyful noise to the Lord” of “song and sung praises.” Though violence is woven throughout the Hebrew Testament, the prophets’ truths and prophecies continue to inform our lives as Christian peacemakers.
However, the beauty and music only expand when something truly new happens. That new thing is incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
“Glory” (or doxa) and its synonym “beauty” color and enlighten the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. The glory/beauty of revelation carries on in this new covenant, but the violence gives way to the nonviolence of Christ’s love. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors…by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:1,3).
John 1 describes this glory as light, a standard expression for glory in the New Testament along with power and splendor. In Jesus, this “true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:9).
Remembering the prophetic continuity but recognizing the new incarnational reality, we begin to see why Jesus rejected violence in all of its forms. Yet let’s not rush the story. Perhaps Christmas week is a time to step from words to paintings, from books to beauty. The glorious luminosity of a painting like Rembrandt’s “The Holy Family” can reawaken us to the power of glory-doxa-beauty. Mary has nursed the baby. Jesus sleeps. Joseph watches and wonders. We do, too.