More than any other, Isaiah is the prophet of Christmas.
Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.
For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us, and the government is upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace.
Those are Isaiah’s words and they have become as much a part and parcel of the Christmas story as the three kings of Orient, the inn with no room, and the herald angels singing. Isaiah’s prominence is reflected in the liturgies for Christmas. There are four liturgies for Christmas: the vigil, the night, the dawn, and the day Masses, and Isaiah is the Old Testament reading for all of them. (The Mass readings are listed here.)
Readings from Isaiah will continue to dominate this Christmas season. Isaiah is also very much a prophet of Advent. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness—the memorable epithet of John the Baptist—is taken from Isaiah.
Writing hundreds of years beforehand, just what was it that Isaiah saw? A fleeting glimpse of the truth? A few details from an otherwise impenetrable story?
To the contrary, Isaiah seems to have grasped not only the whole story of Christ—remember that he is also very much the prophet of the Passion—but also its theological and spiritual depths. Among the many texts of Isaiah read during the Advent and Christmas seasons, a number of particular themes about the truth of the Incarnation stand out.
Something wholly new. See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? So Isaiah 43:19 declares. Isaiah trembles with excitement at this sense of something wholly new and unexpected. The end of Isaiah 52, which is read for the Christmas day Mass, speaks of nations startled and kings standing speechless. They shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never have heard (Jewish Study Bible translation). A whole new world will come into being—one far removed from the trials, strife, and suffering of ours. It will be a world where swords will be beaten into plows and the lion will lay down with the lamb.
Longing of the world. While Isaiah foresaw the coming salvation as something wholly new, it was also something for which the world had been longing. This is especially suggested by recurring images of fresh water being poured out upon or bubbling up from dry desert lands. For example, Isaiah 44:3 prophesies that I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, streams upon the dry land. Likewise, Isaiah 35:1 declares that the desert and the parched land will be glad. And then there’s this in Isaiah 25:9: And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited.
Abundant life. Along with images of flooding deserts there are also those that indicate a newness and abundance of life. The virgin will conceive and the barren woman with no children will rejoice at suddenly finding herself to have many. God will make the wilderness rejoice and blossom such that it will become even like a second Eden. Do not these motifs of abundant life call to mind the words of Jesus Himself in John 10:10? I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The light of the world. Isaiah is filled with images of light breaking in on the darkness. At the midnight Mass we read the beginning of Isaiah 9, The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. In Isaiah 42:9, this image is combined with the motif of prisoners who are being freed to suggest light that liberates. In order to convey the completely unexpected and miraculous newness of such light, Isaiah 42:16 then discusses this motif in terms of the healing of the blind: I will lead the blind on a way they do not know; by paths they do not know I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them.
From the gospels we know that the light that dispels the darkness of evil and leads us to God is Jesus. He is the light that frees us from our sins and heals our spiritual blindness. Indeed, even Christ describes Himself in John 8:12 as ‘the light of the world.’
Overwhelming joy. In Isaiah 52:8, Your sentinels raise a cry, together they shout for joy. For they see directly, before their eyes, the Lord’s return to Zion. According to Isaiah 25:9, We shall rejoice and be joyful in his salvation. This sense of overwhelming joy pervades Isaiah. The very heavens and earth will break out in joyful song. Even the wilderness, the barren woman, and the ruins of Jerusalem will rejoice.