The Scripture readings for Advent are my favourite of the whole ecclesial year; that is to say, I find they most easily stir me to prayer. Perhaps that is because they are among the most poetic. By this, I mean that the language works on several levels, of which the literal is not always the most important.
For example, the heart can know a good deal about what a phrase like “For you the Sun of righteousness will arise with healing in its wings” means before the head knows. This knowledge of the heart is all-important.
That quotation is from the very end of the tradition of prophecy – a time of a very low ebb in the fortunes of Judah, which is commented on by the prophet Malachi (and not, as I once heard it attributed by a well-meaning lector at Mass, “A reading from the prophet Malarkey”).
So many Advent and Christmas liturgies will contain similar prophecies about light. Isaiah is, of course, the doyen of Advent prophets. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light … Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, Galilee of the Nations, way of the sea beyond the Jordan … There will be no gloom for her that was in anguish … The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness; on them has the light shined.”
It is important to realise that Isaiah is writing about something that hasn’t literally happened yet. In that sense his words would appear to conform to the simplest notion of what prophecy is: a prediction of some future action. I read in Gerhard von Rad’s majestic Theology of the Old Testament that “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” is an example of a technical, literal device found in the Old Testament called the “prophetic perfect”.
In other words, because of the absolute certainty of God’s action, Isaiah can claim that the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, even though at the time he is writing there is a still a crisis raging. All those geographical details tell us this: “Land beyond the Jordan” meant the marches of land beyond the security limit of the Jordan, a region that was vulnerable and isolated, exposed to attack from the sea and to attack from every marauding invader coming from the north by way of the so-called Fertile Crescent.
In other words, Isaiah’s prophecy is based not on his experience of history, but his faith in God’s promise. The Lord is the God of the Covenant: Isaiah proclaims his justice, the promise of a new dawn as something certain and present even though the night is still dark.
This is the essence of biblical prophecy; it is not spiritual clairvoyance, but a deep immersion in the word of God so as to be able to call the people back to fidelity, to deepen their faith in the saving action of God. It is based not on the ability to read the future, but rather on a lived experience of God’s presence – from which I learn the scale of his love and can extrapolate from this what it must bring because I know him to be the God of the Covenant, the God of justice and healing.
This “prophetic perfect” is the sense in which Advent relates to the future action of God. Whatever deficit of light and love in my life, or the life of the world, is redeemed by the saving power of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Advent echoes with prophecy not merely to tell us that there will come a time when God will heal us, sort out our world and punish evil, but that God’s presence is already healing and salvation. We have seen a great light.
It is an axiom of 12-step recovery programmes that you cannot think your way into acting, you can only act your way into thinking. Advent similarly invites us to proclaim salvation as a present reality, not merely as something promised that we look forward to receiving, but as a present experience on which we act, on which we base our sense of the future.
The Christ who came, who is with us till the end of time and who is to come is the Omega point where the past, the present and the eternal future of God’s presence intersect. And so the heart of the Christian must be touched again by his presence as the joyful Advent cry goes up: Behold, the Bridegroom! Let us go to meet him.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London