Hopeful Poetry Leading To Christmas

Isaiah Prophet by Peitro Cavallini (1291) / Scroll: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”

Advent starts a new liturgical cycle in the Church each year; and in the daily and Sunday Mass readings of Advent, we are greeted by the verse of one of the greatest ancient poets in the Book of Isaiah.  The Prophet Isaiah’s poetry tells of the coming of a Messiah who will rescue the plighted from sufferings and establish a new kingdom to satisfy all wants.

The poetry and narratives in the Book of Isaiah come from a period of unrest in the history of Israel, seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. It was a time of war and sparring for dominion in the land, and historically a time when Judah was under attack, and even siege; new kings and alliances came and went. Isaiah’s hopes for reforms and a new kingdom were not realized then, but Isaiah maintained visions of a coming Messiah. A new dawning utopia was the subject of his verses, as was the need for the suffering peoples to adhere to ethical principles in the light of His coming.

Of historical interest, it is believed that the Book of Isaiah was composed by at least three different “Isaiah’s”, with Chapters 1-6 composed by the original Isaiah, Chapters 40-55 by a Second Isaiah, and Chapters 56-66 by a Third Isaiah.  The subsequent Isaiah’s wrote in a style and spirit reflective of the original author and thus are bundled together as one in the Book of Isaiah.

The Book of Isaiah is the first of the 18 “prophetic books” of the Old Testament.  It is frequently used in Mass readings, in part because of its expansiveness, but also because of the beautiful poetic imagery used in the writings.  During the Season of Advent several of the readings are used at Mass, and describe a coming kingdom and a spirit of hopefulness to lift the plight of the downtrodden.  This is the perfect message for the Season of Advent as we, too, await the coming of our Savior at Christmas.

This year, Advent starts on Sunday November 29th and the first reading for the Sunday Mass is from Isaiah Chapters 63 and 64.  This is the first of 17 readings from the book of Isaiah that will occur during Advent through Christmas Day.  Each year, we are treated to some of the most special verses from the book – so special in fact, that there are 6 readings which are repeated every Liturgical Year on approximately the same day – usually during the first 10 days, or so, of December.  Even more special are the Isaiah readings for the 4 Christmas Masses which are repeated every year in that particular Mass.

See the list below for 7 of the 10 of the annually repeated readings which include some of Isaiah’s most beautiful poetry.

The book uses refrains that, at that time, resonated with an oppressed people awaiting rescue, and still ring true in Advent of the 21st century.  The book frequently includes themes of nature that would have been readily accessible to the Isaiahs’ constituents including animals (wild and domesticated), land formations (desert, valleys, mountains), and flora (cedars, papyrus, crocus) to bring the message of the coming utopia.  He talks of comfort for the overworked and downhearted, healing of the deaf and blind; and, of good news!…and celebrations!…and of the coming King: Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace!

The poetry of Isaiah was full of hope for those who waited in 700 B.C., and still is for those who wait during Advent in 2020 A.D.  So be watchful for these (and other Isaiah) passages in the Advent Masses this year!

Date of Reading in 2020Book of Isaiah
Chapter: Verse(s)
Excerpts from the Reading
Dec. 1st
Tuesday
11:1-101 But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, / and from his roots a bud shall blossom. / 5 Justice shall be the band around his waist, / and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. / 6 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. / 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, / together their young shall lie down; / the lion shall eat hay like the ox. / 8 The baby shall play by the viper’s den, /and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. / 9 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.
Dec. 2nd
Wed.
25: 6-106 On this mountain the LORD of hosts / will provide for all peoples / A feast of rich food and choice wines, / juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. / 7 On this mountain he will destroy / the veil that veils all peoples, / The web that is woven over all nations.
Dec. 4th
Friday
29:17-2417 Surely, in a very little while, / Lebanon shall be changed into an orchard, / and the orchard be considered a forest! / 18 On that day the deaf shall hear / the words of a scroll; / And out of gloom and darkness, / the eyes of the blind shall see. / 19 The lowly shall again find joy in the LORD, / the poorest rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. / 20 For the tyrant shall be no more, / the scoffer shall cease to be; / All who are ready for evil shall be cut off, / 21 those who condemn with a mere word, / Who ensnare the defender at the gate, / and leave the just with an empty claim.
Dec. 6th
Sunday
40:1-5,9-111 Comfort, give comfort to my people, / says your God. / 2 Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and proclaim to her / that her service has ended, / that her guilt is expiated, / That she has received from the hand of the LORD / double for all her sins. / 3 A voice proclaims: / In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! / Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! / 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, / every mountain and hill made low; / The rugged land shall be a plain, / the rough country, a broad valley. / 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, / and all flesh shall see it together; / for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Dec. 7th
Monday
35:1-101 The wilderness and the parched land will exult; / the Arabah will rejoice and bloom; / 2 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. / 3 Strengthen hands that are feeble, / make firm knees that are weak, / 4 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. / 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall see, / and the ears of the deaf be opened; / 6 Then the lame shall leap like a stag, / and the mute tongue sing for joy. / For waters will burst forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the Arabah. / 7 The burning sands will become pools, / and the thirsty ground, springs of water; / The abode where jackals crouch / will be a marsh for the reed and papyrus. / 8 A highway will be there, / called the holy way; / No one unclean may pass over it, / but it will be for his people; / no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray on it. / 9 No lion shall be there, / nor any beast of prey approach, / nor be found. / But there the redeemed shall walk, / 10 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.
Dec. 13th
Sunday
61:1-2a, 10-111 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, / because the LORD has anointed me; / He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, / to bind up the brokenhearted, / To proclaim liberty to the captives, / release to the prisoners, / 2 To announce a year of favor from the LORD / and a day of vindication by our God;
Dec. 25th Christmas Night9:1-61 The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / Upon those who lived in a land of gloom / a light has shone. / 2 You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing; / They rejoice before you as people rejoice at harvest, / as they exult when dividing the spoils. / 3 For the yoke that burdened them, / the pole on their shoulder, / The rod of their taskmaster, / you have smashed, as on the day of Midian. / 4 For every boot that tramped in battle, / every cloak rolled in blood, / will be burned as fuel for fire. / 5 For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; / upon his shoulder dominion rests. / They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, / Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. / 6 His dominion is vast / and forever peaceful, / Upon David’s throne, and over his kingdom, / which he confirms and sustains / By judgment and justice, / both now and forever. / The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
The most special poetry in the Advent Readings from The Book of Isaiah in December 2020

References:

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops https://bible.usccb.org/bible/isaiah/0

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Photograph: by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English at Augusta University. The photo is a portion of the apse mosaic (1291) at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome.  The photo and description are posted on https://www.christianiconography.info/sicily/isaiahSMTrastevere.html

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