The second candle on the Advent Wreath is the candle of peace. It is also known as the Bethlehem Candle reminding us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We remember in particular the prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus.
For Christians the prophet Isaiah is clearly associated with the season of Advent and the feasts of Christmas.
On each Sunday of Advent in Year A the first reading at Mass is from Isaiah. The weekday first readings at Mass for the first part of Advent are always taken from Isaiah. The first readings for the Masses of Christmas Day and the Epiphany are from Isaiah. These readings have been associated with the coming of Christ in the prayer of the Church for many centuries, and are taken from this massive book of sixty-six chapters, a book which originates from several prophets and from several historical settings. As we welcome the Messiah, we welcome the word of God delivered to God’s prophets.
The Isaiah phenomenon begins with the young temple servant called Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who around 740 BC received a vision of God in the temple. The vision is recounted in chapter 6 of the book. It disturbed him profoundly, yet his response was ‘Here I am, send me!’ (6:9) He was willing to welcome God’s word, and to preach it, whatever the outcome. The life of the prophet is dominated by speaking God’s word, the word he must first receive in his heart and then proclaim. It is impressed upon him that the word he preaches will not be welcomed (6:10). He is to remain steadfast and faithful even if the word is rejected.
Justice (Hebrew mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah) are major themes, while peace (shalom) is the final goal of his preaching, the final gift of God. ‘Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war.’ (2:5) When he speaks of the coming of God’s Messiah he is well aware that justice is urgently needed for the poor and the oppressed. The child to be born for us will establish the throne of David in justice and righteousness (9:6). ‘He judges the wretched with integrity, and with equity gives a verdict for the poor of the land.’ (11:4).
But for justice to be established the people must change, welcoming the word of God and working with it. Isaiah’s contemporaries must change their ways. The word of God has continued to challenge the people of God 11 through the centuries. Yet the response both then and now has often been weak. Isaiah speaks of God who cultivates a vineyard with great care and attention, waiting for it to give a harvest of fine grapes. Yet sour grapes are all it gives (5:2). God awaits justice but there is nothing but turmoil, righteousness but only cries of distress are heard (5:7).
The fundamental insights of the prophet Isaiah form the basis for a developing tradition. In a later chapter we hear of a ‘delightful vineyard’ (27:2). God’s care and protection are guaranteed. ‘Every moment I water the vineyard, for fear its leaves should fall.’ (27:3) Peace is once again the ultimate goal.
From chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah it is clear that we are in a different historical setting. The words of a new prophet, inspired to comfort a people now in exile, are collected and added to the Isaiah tradition. ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low.’ (40:3-4) After deportation and the destruction of Jerusalem the people of God have spent decades in exile in Babylon. But this new prophet announces a new start. God will lead the people home. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God remains for ever.’ (40:8) This call to prepare for God’s coming assumes new meaning with the preaching of John the Baptist. The New Testament writers see this prophetic text as fulfilled when the Messiah comes.
Further chapters of the Book of Isaiah reflect the preparation for the return home and the early years back in the land of Israel. God, now revealed as creator and lord of history, is both willing and able to bring about a restoration As the tide of history turns, Persian rulers adopt a more benign policy towards conquered nations than that of their Babylonian predecessors. The Persian king Cyrus is even dignified with the title of God’s ‘anointed’ (45:1).
God inspires prophets and kings to work for the good of their people. In particular, in this part of the Book of Isaiah, there emerges the figure of the ‘servant’. The servant, upheld by God, brings true justice to the nations (42:4). The servant, called from his mother’s womb, will become a light for the nations (49:6). The servant, whose preaching leads to persecution, insults and spittle, trusts in God’s vindication (50:8). The servant, who forfeits his life, will justify many, taking their faults on himself (53:12). This servant is never identified by the prophet, but Christians with the help of these texts identify Jesus of Nazareth as the true servant of the Lord.
Throughout the centuries the prophets urge people to welcome the word of God, which always achieves its purpose: ‘Yes, as the rain and the snow come down from the heavens and do not return without watering the earth, making it yield and giving growth to provide seed for the sower and bread for the eating, so the word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty, without carrying out my will and succeeding in what it was sent to do.’ (55:10-11)
A vision of a restored Jerusalem dominates the final chapters of the book. The light of the Lord shines for the peoples of the earth. A rebuilt Jerusalem attracts people to come and to discover the true God of all nations. The city of God, whose people have suffered trauma and destruction, will be given a new name: ‘No longer are you to be named ‘forsaken’, nor your land ‘abandoned’, but you shall be called ‘my delight’ and your land ‘the wedded’; for the Lord takes delight in you and your land will have its wedding.’ (62:4)
A mighty prophetic tradition, built up over centuries, continues to inspire both Jew and Christian to welcome the word of God and to live by it.
Fr Adrian Graffy, Chair, Scripture Working Group Member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent
God of all ages,
As we welcome you this Christmas,
we welcome you with joyful hearts.
We belong to you, and trust in you;
may we serve you in the welcome we give to others,
and in the love we share in your name. Amen.