I have been feeling down. In my country there is Trump, in the Church there is Cardinal Burke. In both cases, I am distressed at the opinions being voiced, but I am even more distressed at the bitter conflict, the inability for people to see eye to eye. Jesus prayed that they may be one, but the world is full of such bitter division.
I feel the darkness of December. But Christ comes in the bleak midwinter, a little child, a tiny flame in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness is our reminder to look for the dawn from on high.
Our first reading this Sunday is a long one from Isaiah. We might know it best for the animal imagery: “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,” etc. There is an image of peace.
The tradition knows the reading better for its first part: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding,” etc. Here are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (The ancient Greek translation finds different shades of meaning in the two lines about “fear of the Lord,” and thus the Latin tradition discovers a gift of “pietas,” or reverence for the Father.)
The key is in the union of these two themes: the wisdom on high is the way – the only way – to peace.
After it tells of the gifts that will rest on the Messiah – and on all of us who are in Christ – it tells of what kind of ruler he will be: “Not by appearance shall he judge . . . but he shall judge the poor with justice . . . . He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth. . . . Justice shall be the band around his waist.”
Christ the King, the king of kings and the only one who can make kings good, will bring peace because he will see rightly. Only the wisdom from on high can make peace.
The animal imagery that follows gives symbols of nations. We need not have particular nations in mind. The point is, “the root of Jesse” – that is, Jesus, who is not only the son of David, but the source of David – will be “set up as a signal for the nations.” All nations shall come streaming to Jerusalem, to be ruled by the one Good King.
Nations which could never be at peace – wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and young lion, cow and bear – will be at peace, will be one, when Christ is King, when all are ruled by the wisdom from on high.
The reading from Romans teaches the same thing in a different way. “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction,” it says, and, “Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness.” The New Testament is confirming the Old Testament, and thus making a deeper point about the Bible as a whole: “by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
By faith we will live – faith in God’s word, faith in the wisdom of Jesus. And when we live by God’s word, we will, “Welcome one another, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In his wisdom is our peace.
The Gospel pushes us deeper into the heart of that wisdom. As we prepare the way for Christmas, we have John the Baptist preparing the way by crying out, “Prepare the way!”
Again, the New Testament quotes the Old (“a voice of one crying out the desert” is Matthew quoting Isaiah), and the Old points to the new: “It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken.”
God speaks. He is not silent. In Scripture we can hear his voice, and it transforms us.
There are two parts of the message. First is John’s call to repentance. It is a hard call: he calls those who think they are righteous “you brood of vipers,” and warns that we cannot rest on our merits, calling ourselves children of Abraham as if that excuses our failure to repent.
But second, John points to the source of that repentance. To be baptized by John is only to embrace his message that we must change. But he tells of one coming after him, who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Jesus is coming. He speaks to us, and his word transforms us. Through the sacraments, he acts on us, and gives us natural hearts, loving hearts, in place of his stony heart.
In the darkness of this December, this bleak midwinter of our world, we look to the dawn from on high, to the wisdom who alone can be our peace.
Come, Lord Jesus!
Do you feel the despair of human wisdom? How do you look to Christ as our only Savior?