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 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,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Is. 61: 1-3.
In many respects, this passage from the book of Isaiah provides the perfect Advent reflection. It gathers up many of the emotions of the people of Israel after the Babylonian exile. King Nebuchadnezzar and his army had destroyed the Temple, the place where God and man intersected. Many had been sold into bondage; families were scattered and broken. The Jews had been humiliated and these were “the worst hard times”. And Isaiah rose to tell them God remained with them, somehow, in all this mess.
Isaiah refers back to the book of Leviticus, to proclaim the year of jubilee. (In the year of jubilee, which occurred every fifty years, the prisoners were released, and all debts were forgiven. ) We see this theme running throughout Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments): God comes to shower his blessings on those whose spirits have been crushed and whose hearts have been broken. God’s focus doesn’t rest on the superpowers, the wealthy, the priests or the religious elite. Isaiah thus proclaimed that God was at work; the days of sorrow were over and the days of joy had begun.
This passage from Isaiah should sound very familiar to Christian readers. This is the exact passage Jesus reads from in the synagogue when he returns to his hometown, Nazareth. When Jesus read from this scroll, he announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:20. I think this reveals two important messages. First, it tells us a good deal about Jesus’ understanding of his mission. He came to bind up the brokenhearted, to release the prisoners and set the captives free, and to bring sight to the blind.
If we take the Incarnation seriously and believe that we really are the body of Christ the second message of this Scripture becomes clear: if we follow Jesus, this is our mission as well. Because of the Incarnation, our task is clear: we are to tend to the brokenhearted, the blind, those who mourn, and those who are enslaved. Sometimes, those conditions may be literal, and sometimes they may be spiritual. Either way, that’s the purpose and the proper function of the Body of Christ.
Thus, Advent announces something deeply joyous, a joy that reaches far beyond our understanding. As Rabbi Heschel once wrote:
There is not enough grandeur in our souls
To be able to unravel in words
The knot of time and eternity.
One should like to sing for all men,
For all generations…
There is a song in the wind
And joy in the trees.
Our joy approaches, and the whole earth quickens as the Word nears.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis