Third Sunday in Advent – December 11, 2011 – St. John’s
We all know that the Bible was not written in the cool, logical, technical, theoretical language of a scientific, philosophical, or theological treatise, whose primary purpose is to convey information or to pursue a careful argument to an established conclusion. The authors of such works disappear behind their language since their purpose is to describe or explain, not how things are in relationship to us, but how they relate to one another. An objectivity is sought that may mask, even to the scientific or scholarly authority, the subjectivity that achieves it.
The Bible is entirely different. It is written at a common-sense level. Words have the meanings they have in everyday language. It is largely a book of stories–the Book of the Acts [Deeds] of God. Images abound, expressing and evoking feelings. The language is often freighted with the self-commitment of the person speaking, and it often seeks the self-commitment of the person or persons addressed. It is the language by which and in which we shape ourselves, by which and in which are formed the communities of meaning and value, of fellow-feeling and intersubjectivity, that we inhabit.
We have a perfect example in our first reading today, which is taken from the third part of the Book of the prophet Isaiah. It describes a servant of the Lord on whom God’s spirit has come and who has been anointed for a mission. (It is, we should recall, the text that at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus reads to describe himself and his mission.) A set of images spell it out: his mission will mean good news to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for captives and prisoners, “ a year of favor from the Lord,” that is, a Jubilee year, when all debts are to be forgiven. As used in the liturgy, the passage invites us to consider which images might best describe our own spiritual conditions or situations.
Perhaps we don’t reflect enough on what our self-images are. As St. Augustine said, we can be largely hidden from our selves, because we don’t spend much time at the depth-levels where self-images work. Perhaps we are too busy, too scattered, to focus; perhaps we sense that we might not like what we would find if we really knew ourselves. “Return to your hearts,” Augustine used to say when he wanted his people to get to know themselves. Purify and train the heart’s eye; feel the heart’s hunger; listen with an inner ear. He was always using metaphors, images, to help them make their inner lives as sensitive to spiritual reality as the senses of their bodies were to physical reality. The striking images that abound in his sermons were drawn not only from the exceptionally alert attention he gave to natural and human affairs but also from the Scriptural texts he was explaining to them.
Think again of the images offered in the prophetical text we heard today: poverty of mind and heart that the good news of Christ can enrich; heart-break, personal or familial or communal, that Christ can heal; the captivity of various kinds of addiction from which Christ can release us. To which many, many other images of our need could be added: thirst in a desert; hunger; blindness; deafness; lameness; illness; weariness; being lost; exile; aloneness, etc. Is there one in particular that strikes you, startles you, because it so closely describes your experience? When that happens as you hear or read the Scriptures, you should stop and let it work on you. Chew on it. Digest it. Let it get inside you, in your gut, in the marrow of your bones. These were other images St. Augustine used to urge his people to something deeper, truer, than a form of religion that is all on the surface, skin-deep.
That is the point after all, isn’t it? That we follow and live a religion of the heart, that we be present here at Mass with our hearts as well as with our bodies, that our prayers be heart-felt–felt in the heart–and not just rote-words on our lips, that we be present to God, alert to him, sensitive to his word and his touch, so that he can be present to us, alive in us. The biblical images can be a way into such a deeper, richer relationship to God, and we should try to use them for that purpose; but if some other images speak more clearly to you, by all means make use of them. The key is to seek as deep and as authentic a relationship with God as we would like our most important relationships with other human beings to be. One of the reasons for the incarnation, St. Thomas Aquinas once said, was so that our friendship with God would have the familiarity, the intimacy, that marks our best human relationships. Something to keep in mind as we prepare to celebrate that wonderful gift of God to us.