The Book of Isaiah spans a good part of the history of Israel in the Old Testament, very roughly from about 750 BC to 500 BC. So obviously the book was not written by a single person with a strictly unified message. Rather, the numerous messages throughout the book were adjusted over time according to the historical context.
In today’s reading, the prophet is addressing the exiles languishing in exile, a broken, defeated people. So the message is one of support, empathy and reassurance—promising a hoped-for liberation. Frequently when Isaiah speaks this way, he invokes desert imagery, how God will miraculously moderate the harsh desert conditions through which they must pass to return home, even make the desert fertile.
Such imagery spoke directly to the tragic victims of the disastrous war with the ancient Babylonian empire. While longing to return to Jerusalem their home, they wrote songs lamenting their fate which are preserved in the psalms, like our responsorial psalm today.
Jesus himself knew well all this history, as did every observant Jew in his day. He surely had memorized many of the most moving and lyrical passages from Isaiah. As we see in today’s gospel, Jesus applied so many of Isaiah’s sentiments to his own ministry. Jesus, too, felt he was speaking to poor and broken people and bringing God’s compassionate mercy to them. Some of Jesus’ most consoling words can ultimately be traced back to the book of Isaiah.
Our second reading repeats many of the themes of the Advent season such as patience, endurance and anxious expectation of the Lord’s coming to save his people. The liturgy invites all of us to enter into that experience of waiting for the coming of the Lord.
—Walter Modrys SJ
This Sunday’s readings can be found on the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.