Of course, we know how this part of the story ends, with the birth of the Saviour. But at least part of the purpose of celebrating the liturgical year is to remind us of the various chapters along the way, as we participate in the narrative cycle of creation, fall, and redemption. Advent is a particularly difficult one to wrap our minds around, as it is overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Christmas purchases, preparations, and parties. Often forgotten in this frenzy is that Advent is a season of penance. And the context of Israel’s predicament in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah can draw us into an appreciation of our own exile from God and alienation from one another.
The purpose of celebrating the liturgical year is to remind us of the various chapters along the way, as we participate in the narrative cycle of creation, fall, and redemption.
Quoting Isaiah 40:1, Messiah librettist Charles Jennens is drawing on the familiar analogy of the hope of Israel’s return from exile to the Christian expectation of the Messiah. The consensus of biblical scholarship has concluded that chapters 40-55 comprise “deutero-Isaiah,” a text that was written considerably later than, and by a different author from, the first thirty-nine chapters. The setting of deutero-Isaiah is the latter period of the Judah’s exile in Babylon, after having suffered military defeat, attributed to Judah’s unfaithfulness to God.
Of course, the optimistic turn that begins in chapter 40 is one of the noteworthy contrasts to the pessimism of much of the first 39 chapters. But in order to understand the hopefulness of Judah’s expected restoration, we do well to consider the predicament that made that restoration necessary. I was jolted into thinking about it this way on the first Sunday of Advent, when I reflexively began to recite the Gloria after the rite of contrition. It occurred to me that there is no Gloria in the Advent liturgy because there is no glory in exile.
Judah’s defeat to Babylon and expulsion from the comfort of its own land are a reminder that we have fallen from God’s favour and separated from the joy of his presence through our own disobedience and rebellion. Judah falls not simply because the Babylonians are more powerful, but also because Judah has betrayed its covenant with God. Just a few verses before the opening stanza of Messiah, the prophet warns, “The time is coming when all that is in your house, everything that your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried off to Babylon; nothing shall be left” (Isaiah 39:6).
How can we fully comprehend the awesome exchange by which God became man to redeem us if we fail to consider the rebellion that caused our exile?
Before Judah can properly celebrate the good news of its return from exile—and in order to fully to appreciate the superabundant richness of the mercy of Him who effects that restoration—the nation must be made aware of why it has been exiled in the first place. That is, Judah’s gratitude for being restored to its homeland is proportionate to its contrition for the causes of its exile. This necessarily entails remorse, repentance and resolution. Conversely, the coming of the Messiah is cheapened to the extent that Judah does not contemplate its unfaithfulness and rebellion.
So, too, we who enter into this “holiday season.” How can we fully comprehend the awesome exchange by which God became man to redeem us if we fail to consider the rebellion that caused our exile? How can we fully appreciate the broad valley if we have not recognised the rough country? How can we show authentic gratitude for every valley that’s lifted up if we have not considered the depth and despair of those valleys? How can we understand the costliness of grace if we have not considered our debts that make it necessary?
We can embrace the comfort of the Messiah only to the extent we have faced the discomfort of our own sins. Advent is the season of contrition, leading toward the season of rejoicing. The glory of the latter is proportionate to the bleakness of the former.
Ken Craycraft is a Chapter House columnist.
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