2004—Third Sunday of Advent—A
In today's first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of Israel while they are in exile in Babylon. They have been driven from their homes to a foreign land. As we might expect, they are deeply sad, even depressed. Isaiah describes their spiritual state as like a parched desert where no living thing will grow. People can barely survive there. Think of the African people from the Darfur region of Sudan today, driven by war into the desert and just barely surviving in refugee camps. Or think of the people who used to live in the Iraqi city of Falluja. Their city has been destroyed and they are asking if there is a way to put their lives back together. Isaiah describes the state of the people like this-in his day and ours-as marked by sorrow and mourning. We know from some of the Psalms that the people of Israel were tempted just to give up. They complained bitterly to God: "will you abandon us forever?"
It is in the context of feelings like this that Isaiah proclaims that his people will once again come to see the glory of the Lord. What does this mean? We don't use the word "glory" very much in our ordinary talk. When we hear it in church it can seem a bit quaint-one of those religious words that probably don't have much relevance to our daily lives. We do hear it a lot in church. We pray each Sunday: "Glory to God in the highest," like the angels at Jesus birth. In the Holy, Holy, Holy at mass we sing, "heaven and earth are full of your glory." After the Our Father we proclaim: "the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours." What does it mean to speak of the glory of God in these prayers? Do these words really have some meaning in our lives?
The bible uses "Glory" to refer to what happens when God somehow becomes visible in our world. Of course, God is invisible. The infinite holiness of God is so great that our eyes are too weak to it; our senses are too frail to perceive God. But when we get some hints in our experience of this great, transcendent, awesome God, the Bible calls those hints a perception of God's glory. God's glory is what we see or feel when the great invisible God becomes somehow visible to us. This can be a scary thing. So the Bible describes God's glory with images like fire, like the lightening and thunder of a huge storm, like an earthquake that turns whole cities upside down. The greatness of God is very dangerous. It is awesome-literally, it inspires awe in those who see even hints of it.
Moses saw the glory of God on the top of Mount Sinai. When this happened, his face became so radiant that he had to put a veil over it to keep from burning the eyes of those who looked at him. To see God's glory in its full force could burn us this way too-the brightness and heat would be just too much for us. So maybe it would be better not to have anything to do with it.
But Isaiah tells us that God's glory is not only something more powerful than any earthquake. The really extraordinary glory is God's compassionate love. This love is truly glorious in the way it goes beyond anything we could imagine or realistically hope for from God. Isaiah describes God's glory to the exiles in Babylon this way: "the eyes of the blind will be opened and the lame will walk." The people close to despair in Babylon will be ransomed by the Lord and "will return to Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy." They will know God's glory when they experience God's compassionate love and hear God's word to their frightened hearts: "fear not! I come to save you." This joy, freedom from fear, and salvation is what Jesus brings us at Christmas. No wonder the angels sang "Glory!"
So we see God's glory whenever we have an intimation of the awesome greatness of God. Even more, we know God's glory when we see the depth of God's compassionate love. We experience God's when we know how much God wants us to have the fullness of joy. Singing "heaven and earth are full of your glory" is a way of thanking God for this immense love. It also promises that we will try to - make this love more visible in our world, by bringing peace in our personal relationships and to Sudan and Iraq. So let's pray together now both in thanks for this glory and in commitment to help make it more visible.
David Hollenbach, S.J. St. Ignatius Church December 12, 2004
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A (Gaudete Sunday)
Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11.