April 15, 2017
Vigil Readings #4 and #5: Isaiah 54:5-14; 55:1-11
Holy Week can be tough. Meditating on the suffering and death of the One we love the most isn’t exactly for the faint of heart. We Catholics take our faith seriously and we particularly take the challenging parts with their due solemnity. But if we’re not careful, our very somberness can rob us of Easter joy. The transition from Good Friday to Easter Sunday is jarring, but we don’t want to lose out on the climax for which Lent has prepared us.
From a Prayerful Lent to a Worldly Easter?
You might be thinking about how much planning you’ve put into your family’s Easter celebration or how much you enjoy the Easter Vigil liturgy. Yet often I think our Easter joy can take on a secular character, where we experience it as relief from the arduous journey of Lent and as a good excuse to pig out on candy and cake. What feels Christian, spiritual and meaningful in our prayer is the difficult path of meditating on the Passion of Christ. But how much time do we spending meditating on the joyful wonder of the Resurrection?
Is Isaiah All Sad?
This dynamic is reflected on our common Catholic relationship with the Book of Isaiah. We know the passages about the Suffering Servant, who endures hardship and taunting for the sake of others, who redeems others through his suffering. We read these passages from Isaiah 52 and 53 on Good Friday. We sing some of them too. We allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the injustice of the buffets and spitting (Isa 50:6), the sadness of the “man of sorrows” (53:3), the horror of his marred appearance (52:14), and the deep mystery of his bearing our griefs (53:4). The power of the Passion of Christ cannot be underestimated, nor can its sorrow be diminished. Yet in the heart of the Passion, in the center of the sadness, we find an overwhelming abundance of hope. At the very place where the spotless Lamb of God was cruelly and unjustly sacrificed, we are acquitted. His death does not bring the story to a close. It is only the second-to-last chapter.
The Purpose of the Suffering Servant’s Suffering
But two of the readings at the Easter Vigil are from Isaiah 54 and 55. They immediately follow the sorrowful passages of Isaiah 52 and 53. By this point in the liturgy, we might be looking forward to the next outburst of song or just be trying to stay awake, but we don’t want to miss these key passages. The Lectionary throughout the year draws on Isaiah again and again. These twin readings unveil the purpose for which the Man of Sorrows suffered.
Isaiah 54 starts out with a triumphant call to Zion (Jerusalem personified as a woman): “Sing, O barren one who did not bear” (54:1 RSV). The prophet speaks to the people of God, those for whom the Servant suffered, as symbolized by a woman. This woman has also suffered: she is barren, forsaken, deserted, forgotten, widowed. She aches under the shame of her neglect. She is “grieved in spirit” (54:4). She represents the ancient people of God trapped in the shame of exile and us, when we are trapped in the exile of sin. Yet now the Lord promises to return to her, to free her from her shame, to take her back as his beloved wife with everlasting love and compassion (54:8). He makes promise upon promise to her like a young man romancing a woman. He recalls the promise he made to Noah not to flood the world again and says that likewise, he will never forsake or rebuke her gain and never again will he revoke his covenant (54:9-10).
Zion, the city of Jerusalem, will be re-established, but this time it will never be destroyed. Not only will it stand firm forever, its foundation will be made out of precious jewels rather than rough-hewn stones (54:11-12). And within its beautiful new gates, the Lord himself will teach her children. (Talk about the ultimate homeschooling program!) The city will be re-founded in peace, free from oppression and fear. Even weapons designed to attack it will be useless (54:16). The Suffering Servant has brought about the vindication of God’s people and the peaceful and permanent re-establishment of Jerusalem, the city of God.
The Feast of Forgiveness
In the following chapter, Isaiah 55, the prophet invites all who hear him to a wonderful and delicious feast which God prepares for those who have been redeemed. Water, wine, milk and rich food can be had without payment (55:1-2). The Lord provides prosperity to his people, a smorgasbord of delights. He will even renew the everlasting Davidic covenant of kingship (v. 3) and glorify his people who had been stripped of their nationhood (v. 5). He calls everyone from the righteous to the wicked to return in fidelity to the Lord. He offers abundant pardon to all (v. 7), proving that his merciful intentions are far above our vindictive ideas: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:9). The Lord’s word will go forth, causing abundance, pardon, and fertile soil (v. 10). “You shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace” (55:12).
What Are We Redeemed For?
What are we to make of these sweeping metaphors of redemption? I think they remind us to focus not just on the fact of redemption itself, but on what exactly God redeemed us for. When we meditate on the suffering of the Lord, we confront the gloomy yet triumphal moment of our salvation: Jesus’ death on the Cross. But when we turn to Easter morning, we ought not let our vision be filled only with chocolate and jelly beans, but focus in on the Lord’s resurrection victory over death. He died once, but will never die again. He rose from the dead so that we could too. The life for which he redeemed us shows through in Isaiah as a restoration of a broken relationship, the re-establishment of a destroyed city and an abundant feast of food and forgiveness. The tear-filled intensity of Good Friday breaks and gives way to the delirious joy of salvation. Our unworthiness, our forsakenness, our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our infidelity is all wiped away. The power of death is vanquished and we are led forth from the tomb of our own making into the glorious light of the new dawn. Let’s not miss out on the feast!
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on CE on Aug 03, 2015 and is reprinted to provide more reflection on Good Friday. Pray for us, readers, as we enter into contemplation of Our Lord’s Passion.