The birth of Christ is for us, the pivotal point of history. Western Civilization calibrates time according to whether events happen before or after the birth of Christ. The centuries before Christ count forward or actually backward as it were, to the year 0. The centuries following Christ’s birth count forward from 0 onward.
The designations BC -before Christ and AD anno domini – after Christ have been replaced by the neutral designations BCE and CE referring to either before or during the common era. Yet, despite the attempt to decrease the prominence of a Christo-centric view of time, the neutral designations, nevertheless still paradoxically, affirm the significance of the birth of Christ. In ways most of us are hardly aware of anymore, the birth of Christ remains the defining moment that continues to shape our sense of the flow of history.
Last week I introduced a concept I’ve named the trans-generational vision. This is the central vision that punctuates the passage of time. The trans-generational vision weaves in and out of the flow of history, surfacing before submerging only to resurface again centuries later. The Holy Scriptures are the textual record of this process – a process of tracking the movements of the Spirit of God weaving in and out of human history.
The book of the prophet Isaiah
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah operates like a fractal for the trans-generational vision. Wikipedia defines a fractal as a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. Snowflakes are a common example of fractals with every part of the crystal being a complete mirror image of the whole.
The Book of Isaiah falls into three distinct historical epochs spanning around 350 years. The voice of the prophet we call Isaiah is, therefore, three distinct voices. We divide the book into that of First Isaiah – chapters 1 to 39, Second Isaiah – chapters 40 to 55, and Third Isaiah comprising chapters 56 to 66. Each of these three voices is the articulation of the trans-generational vision surfacing in the midst of three distinct periods of crisis in history of Israel, namely:
- The invasion of the Northern Kingdom and destruction of its capital Samaria with the permanent deportation of the king, nobles and priesthood in 722-21 by Assyrian King, Sennacherib. In this period the First Isaiah foretells of the birth of the messiah in the person of a child, born to a maiden, a child who will usher in a reign of unparalleled peace and prosperity for Israel.
- The destruction of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon in 586 with the deportation of King, priests and nobles into a 50 year exile in Babylon. Second Isaiah gives voice to this calamity in a messianic figure of the Suffering Servant, who announces the coming of the Kingdom of God through his taking upon himself the sin and suffering of the people.
- The freeing of the exiles by Cyrus, King of Persia in 515 and their return to rebuild Jerusalem in the period following 515 forms the period focus for chapter 61 appointed for Advent III. Here the figure of the messiah – promised one, announces himself as the one upon whom the Spirit of God rests in order to announce good news to the people.
The return of the exiles began as a period of hope and rejoicing after the 50 years in exile. The exhilaration of the returning exiles for whom God was forging a road through the desert, leveling the high places low and the terra-forming of the rough places into a plain, was an exhilaration at the prospect of rebuilding the Solomon’s Temple. Yet, the difficulty of the task, the scarcity of resources, the animosity of the surrounding peoples towards the returning exiles engendered a society where the rich diverted the scarce resources away from the reconstruction of the Temple in order to build fine houses for themselves. A culture of oppression of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful quickly reestablished itself. We read of this situation painfully described by the prophets Zechariah, Nehemiah, and Esra. It is in judgment of this situation against which the Third Isaiah raises his prophetic voice.
The first Christians, in the years that followed the death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Christ, looked back and perceived the trans-generational vision of Isaiah resurfacing again in the person of Jesus. For generations of Christians who followed the figures of the child Eman-uel, the Suffering Servant whose visage is so disfigured by his having taken our transgressions upon himself, and the figure of the anointed one who brings good news to the poor are consequently, very familiar. For most of us, we know them so well because they were so powerfully memorialized by Handel in his great oratorio: The Messiah.
In the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, Jesus is the child Eman-uel born to the maiden Mary. In his Passion and Crucifixion, Jesus becomes the embodiment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who dies as a sacrificial expression of God’s great love for the world. Jesus’ offers his first public self-definition when in the synagogue at Nazareth he proclaims his identification with the figure of the anointed one who brings good news to those oppressed, healing to those of us with broken hearts, liberty to we who are held captive, and the arrival for all of the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee.
A word out of place
Another way of thinking about the trans-generational vision is to be reminded that it is the intrusion into temporal time of a word out of place. By this I mean that a word out of place is a dream not simply of the improbable, but of the seemingly impossible. This for me is the chief characteristic of the trans-generational vision. It is always a vision that seems to be fantastical within the context of its emergence.
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, what do we as a culture dream about? We have become increasingly fearful of the future as we see the culture unraveling in the present. A trend I find disturbing is our addiction to short-term thinking and grasping at short-term solutions that satisfy needs today and simply reinforce that the future us something to be afraid of. Our capacity to dream seems now to be limited to the preservation of self-interest, both individual and community self-interest, in the present. In nearly every area of our public life, we are failing to invest today in a future that we won’t live to see. Have we become so self-preoccupied that we no longer care about the world our children and their children are likely to inherit?
Blame obfuscating shame
Republicans blame Democrats and vice versa. Independents blame both parties. Yet all of us keep returning politicians to office on the most spurious, fear mongering, and short term of visions. Surely, the aspirations behind our political allegiances stand for more than this? Is not our location on the political continuum an indication that we yearn for a deeper vision for the future than the one we see being fulfilled in our present? We now prefer the blame game when acknowledging our shame might be a more healthy response.
At the moment, we seem to be capable only of dreaming of a future that is worse than the present. Yet, the message of the trans-generational spiritual vision reminds us that solutions to the problems of today lie in our courage to dream of a better tomorrow. Such dreaming defies our sense of the limitation that pervades our collective mood. Such dreaming should startle us by the extent to which it is a word out of place.
We recognize a faith-driven trans-generational vision by its fantastical nature. What seems fantastical is only the audacity to break away from the projections of a future limited by the present consideration of the sensible, probable or possible.
Proclaiming good news
In the vision in Isaiah 61 of the good news God is offering us more than a political manifesto for social action, although such is badly needed. God is inviting us to dream of moving beyond the poverty of only what can be imagined within imaginations limited by a lack of courage to dream. God is inviting us to bind-up one another’s wounds and cease from wounding one another further. God is longing for us to liberate ourselves from being captive to the short-termism of our current addiction to self-interest and self-protection.
The trans-generational vision resurfaces in times of deep despair and fear. We are living through such a time! Advent is the time to renew our commitment to furthering in the present the dream of the future. Advent is a time of waiting. Over the last two weeks, I have been reminding my hearers and readers that we become that which we long and hope for. We are already those for whom we wait.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s words from his poem East Coker:
to hope is invariably to hope for the wrong thing; to love is to want to love the wrong thing, but there is faith, and faith is the hoping and the longing in the waiting!