December 15, Third Sunday of Advent
I live in a high plains desert. Without constant irrigation, my lawn dies. Without someone planting and caring for it throughout its life, a tree will never grow. Deserts in the Bible symbolize spiritual desolation, suffering under the slavery of sin, and the just punishments that follow in its wake.
During Advent, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and penance can help us enter into the desert-like nature of the season—to remember that before Christ came, we were exiled into the barren wasteland of sin. Only by the coming of the Baby at Bethlehem are we finally brought back from that terrible, dry, interminable cycle of sin. Sin traps us in the desert, but the Christ Child comes to free us from the trap and bring abundant life out of what seemed dead. He causes the parched land to bloom with an abundance of flowers, fruits and trees. That which was dry and dead in sin—our souls—can spring to new life in Christ. The Lord judges sin with the desert, but then “comes with vindication” (Isa 35:4) to save us by his mighty power, so that even the lame will leap and the deaf will hear and the mute will sing of the greatness of his deliverance. He comes to “ransom” us from sin and crown us with “everlasting joy.”
In this Sunday’s first reading, Isaiah presents a hopeful picture of deliverance. This chapter 35 follows a section in which the prophet announces the judgment of God against Judah and Israel, Assyria and Edom, and all the nations (chaps. 28-34). Isaiah 35 looks forward to a time period after the time of judgment, when God will bring his people rejoicing back into the Promised Land.
One of the great promises that the Lord made to Abraham was that he and his descendants would possess a special land (Genesis 12:1). He brought this promise to fulfillment by leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan. However, as a judgment against the infidelity of the people, the Lord allowed them to be carried into exile—the Northern Kingdom conquered by Assyria and the kingdom of Judah in the South exiled by the Babylonians. This exile of the Israelites constituted a significant judgment, since it reversed one of the Lord’s most significant promises: the promise of land. Here in Isaiah 35, the prophet depicts the moment when the exiled people of God will return to the Promised Land and again enjoy its fruits.
A Blossoming Desert
The prophet tells the story of God’s deliverance in terms of the land. When God redeems his people from exile, it will be like a desert wasteland bringing forth beautiful flowers and bursting into song. The driest, rockiest, harshest land will become like a singing botanic garden! This image does not teach us about a physical reality, but a spiritual one. It provides a powerful word picture of the joy of the returning exiles, when coming back to the land of their forefathers. The arid desert symbolizes the time of exile, a time of crushed hopes for God’s people, and a time of spiritual desolation. The blooming of that desert symbolizes a time of redemption, return and gladness.
Glory and Splendor
The prophet expands the idea of a blossoming desert with other geographical metaphors. The dry desert will receive the “glory of Lebanon.” An ancient forest range of cedars thrived along the northern borders of Israel. These “Cedars of Lebanon” were tall and old. They would have made a deep impression on the ancient hiker by their height, their beauty, even their scent. The wood of these cedars was used for the Temple and in other ancient construction projects in Egypt, Assyria, and elsewhere. Some of the cedars still stand today.
Sharon is a plain along the Mediterranean in northwest Israel that was filled with tall oak trees in ancient times. Mount Carmel borders the Sharon plain on the north. Its name “Carmel” means “garden,” and in ancient times it was likely covered with vineyards, trees, and gardens. It is not only a mountain, but a place of abundance. Isaiah’s choice of two forests and a garden-covered mountain strongly contrasts with the arid desert of desolation. The prophet takes the metaphor further in verses 6-7 (verses only partially in the lectionary) where he sees the desert bringing forth streams, pools and springs.
Strength, Fear, Vindication
Isaiah encourages his hearers not to lose heart, not to let their hands or knees go limp with fear. Judgment and suffering are indeed fearsome, but the Lord’s deliverance and saving power trump the fear that these things produce. Rather than succumbing to fear and despair, we are to look to God’s judgment with hope. Notice that the opposite fear is strength. Fear causes us to go weak in will, but true faith in God strengthens us. The prophet announces, “He comes to save you.” God’s vengeance or vindication should inspire hope in us, not fear. It means that he will come with righteous judgment to redeem his people and punish oppressors.
Healing and Gladness
Next the prophet shows how God’s deliverance will look when it comes: the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the mute will speak, and the lame will dance. These serious ailments are originally signs of God’s judgment. The Lord had commissioned Isaiah to preach a judgment, but the people would not listen to him or perceive the warning (Isa 6:9-10). Now, however, the Lord is going to bring them back and heal them. They will be released from deafness and blindness. They will see and hear the powerful deliverance of the Lord. This prophecy is fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus who makes the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk. The Lord’s saving power is made manifest in the powerful works of his Son.
The last verse pictures the redeemed returning to the land of promise with great joy. Instead of their heads covered with dirt, which was a biblical sign of mourning (2 Sam 1:2), now their heads bear crowns. Mourning and sorrow in exile, away from the land, have given way to rejoicing at the time of redemption and return. On one level, this points to the return of God’s people to the Promised Land after the exile, but on another level, it points to our return from the exile of sin to the Promised Land of God’s presence. By the cross, we have been set free from sin and allowed to come into the Lord’s presence, to share in his life. The joy of the returning ones is also our joy, the joy of salvation.
The prophet Isaiah announces the salvation God will bring to his people, to release them from the desert of judgment and exile. His bringing them back to the blossoming land of promise will be a moment of great joy, which points to the joy available to us in Christ. Perhaps there will be hope for my lawn after all!
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a new series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.
image: St Katherine’s Monastery, Egypt/ Shutterstock