One of my personal Advent and Christmas traditions each year has been to attend (or at least listen to) Handel’s Messiah. My “Messiah night” took place this past week, not in a concert hall or church but in my residence. The choral section from the Nativity cycle of Handel’s work never ceases to move me each time I listen to Isaiah’s prophecy set glorious music: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) Those marvelous words of the prophet Isaiah form the first reading that we hear proclaimed each year at the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Immediately preceding chapter nine, Isaiah's testimony has built up a frightening picture of the darkness and distress about to descend upon both Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. But that darkness and distress were not the prophet’s final words. Precisely upon this land has shined a great light. The opening line of chapter nine forms a transition from the darkness of the previous chapter. “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined” (9:1-2).
The great light that comes decisively into this profound darkness tears people away from their confusion and emptiness, from the violence and tyranny of the oppressor. On the inhabitants of a country in the shadow dark as death, light has blazed forth! The symbols of the Assyrian oppression: the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, shall be broken. The garments of war shall feed the flames. The destruction of war-like equipment heralds an age of peace.
The royal child whose birth is so poetically announced will possess the wisdom of Solomon, the valor and piety of David, the great virtue of Moses and the patriarchs. Presumably the child spoken of would be King Hezekiah. Contemporary kings of Judah had been disastrously advised and were powerless in warfare.
By the title "Wonderful Counselor" the new king will have no need for advisers such as those who led King Ahaz astray. "Everlasting Father" describes the quality of his rule. The virtues of judgment, justice, and righteousness that sustain the Davidic throne are summed up in the word "Shalom" whose Hebrew root means wholeness, harmony, fulfillment and completion.
As a result of this new king's reign, people will live in harmony with God, each other and nature. It is no wonder, then, that the Church has appropriated Isaiah's exultation of this brilliant light and royal birth for our celebration of the birth of Jesus.
During the past months, who has not felt deeply the darkness and gloom of our world? Consider the tragic and violent situations of the lands we call “holy”. Lands that were once touched by God, the patriarchs and prophets and the Messiah, himself, are killing fields. Think of the uncertainty and despair that has set in because of the collapse of economic structures. Such strong feelings of darkness and gloom usually stem from our attempts to act as isolated beings or islands, instead of communities of people genuinely concerned about one another and about the suffering of so many people in our world.
During this festival season, Jews continue to long for the Messiah’s coming and Christians celebrate his birth in human history. But Jews and Christians are also invited to go beyond the outward symbols and ask the deeper questions: how do we continue to long for and actualize the salvation that the Messiah will bring? The prophetic texts read during the Hanukkah, Advent and Christmas feasts are a new summons to the Synagogue and to the Church to reach out to one another, to recommit ourselves to bearing God’s light to the nations, and to recognize each other as partners in building up the kingdom of God.
Both Christianity and Judaism seal their worship with a common hope: "Thy Kingdom come!" And we must utter this prayer more loudly and clearly in these days of shadows and darkness for so many in the world, especially for the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Holy Land which is torn apart by warfare, hatred, oppression and sadness, as well as for those living in other regions suffering through war, poverty, injustice.
Our common longing for the fruits of the Messianic kingdom invites us-- Christians and Jews--into a knowledge of our communion with one another and, a recognition of the terrible brokenness of the world. As Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI have taught us through word, gesture and deed, nothing and no one can ever wrench us away any longer from that deep communion that unites us together. The tikkun ha’olam, the healing of the world, its repair, restoration and redemption- including the redemption of Israel, incarnate in the person of Jesus, now depends upon us.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Television Network