Beginning on the first Sunday of Lent, I suggest reading chapters 1-11 of the book of the prophet Isaiah. There are several striking passages here, but the central one for me is the sending of Isaiah in chapter six.
Sending of Isaiah Chapter 6
This passage teaches a lot about how to deal with one’s mission in life and relationship with God. Isaiah goes through a divine pedagogy, God’s way of teaching him, to prepare himself for the mission that will take the rest of his life.
Profound experience of the holiness of God
It is a curious beginning to his vocation. He is not awakened to the need of the world or inspired to do something great. He sees something great in a vision. It enraptures his soul. He is attracted and amazed by it. He gives historical context, tying this experience to the year of the death of a king. It is something he really experienced, and it is almost as if he is convincing himself as he is remembering and sharing the experience.
He sees angels and his description is of something glorious. They cry out “Holy, holy, holy,” reminiscent of an acclamation at a Eucharistic celebration. There is an atmosphere of holiness and other worldliness in the vision.
He also mentions smoke. This reminds us of the smoke on Mt. Sinai during the theophany of Moses. When Moses went up to receive the Ten Commandments, no one could see him because smoke covered the mountain. This was a sign of God’s special presence and communication with Moses. When God reveals himself, there is a shroud of mystery. Isaiah is having a spiritual experience that goes beyond anything he could have expected. Isaiah sees this vision and is evidently moved by the holiness of God. It leaves a great impression on him.
Experience of his own weakness
He is not long to turn his eyes from the marvelous sight and turn his gaze inward. He does not like what he sees. It is hard to compare oneself with the living God. St. Thomas Aquinas, a prolific author from the thirteenth century, stopped writing when he had a strong experience of God and afterwards saw all his work as “straw,” unimportant compared to the marvels of God.
Isaiah describes himself as a “man of unclean lips.” It would have been important to be ritually clean before approaching the Lord of hosts. Isaiah feels himself unworthy of the vision he has received. He feels completely out of place. In a sense, he is right, since no man has a right to come into the presence of the living God. This shows, however, the revelatory nature of God’s relation to us. He chooses to show himself to us, regardless of our unworthiness.
The angel purifies his lips with a burning ember. It could not have been a pleasant experience. Isaiah does not complain at all. His talents have not magically grown but seeing God’s trust in him inspires him to offer himself for the mission. He knows it will be hard and he is determined to do his best. He does not wait for God to call him. He offers himself to do the Lord’s work.
Isaiah shows how God helps a soul grow. Isaiah sees God for what he is and experiences his own weakness. Then, emboldened by God, he offers himself in his service. God does not choose the strong; he chooses the weak and makes them strong.
Song of the Vineyard, Chapter 5:1-7
This parable shows Israel’s relation to God. There has been unfaithfulness and Israel is spiritually far from God. God has done everything he could for Israel, but to no avail. This is a good passage to use to help reflect on one’s own relation to God. There is a poetic beauty that peeks through even in translation. The author repeats the word “waited” in verses 2, 4 and 7. This portrays the desperation of God with Israel. God is pleading with man for his love.
Promise of Salvation, Chapter 8:23-9:6
This is a joyful prophecy. There is hope for the people of Israel. God has not abandoned them. This is a famous prophecy of the Christ-Child.
Ideal Davidic King, Chapter 11:1-9
The traits of the future king are discussed. This is a good passage to take to meditate about Christ. It can help to get to know him.
Lenten themes in Isaiah 1-11
Need for conversion
Chapter 1:2-6. There is an appeal to the heavens to see how Israel’s unfaithfulness is unnatural. Other creatures recognize their masters, but man has forgotten God. There is an accusation of the unfaithfulness of Israel.
Chapter 2:3-4. This is an invitation to go up the Lord’s mountain. There is a relationship that is mentioned. The Lord will be teaching, while the person praying will be learning. There is a promise of peace.
Chapter 1:17. Justice is to be the goal. One is to make up for his own wrongs. Almsgiving is a way to help others in their suffering. It opens up the heart to the needs of others.
Chapter 3:7. “There is neither bread nor clothing in my house!” Israel’s straying away from God has led to an economic crisis. Many larders are bare. Isaiah uses the situation of the people to try to wake them up to the gravity of their actions.
Chapter 5:13. The nobles are starving. If even the high society is suffering, then the crisis must really be dire. Isaiah is communicating how the suffering is universal, because Israel has turned its back on God.
Chapter 8:21. Some have lost hope. Their hunger makes them angry. They gaze up, but see only darkness.
Questions for reflection
- What has been your experience of the holiness of God?
- How are you faithful or unfaithful to God’s Word?
- Will you offer yourself for the mission God wants to give you in life?