The Desert Flowers: The Gospel and Isaiah

We are in the season of Advent and the readings recently, as you may have noticed, are frequently taken from the Book of Isaiah. This is a tradition that goes back centuries to the early Church.

One might have thought that Book of Isaiah would have been associated with Easter, since it contains the so-called “Suffering Servant Songs,” with its verses about the “man of sorrows,” “acquainted with grief,” “despised and rejected by men,” who has “carried our sorrows.”

Pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

And yet by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the association of the Book of Isaiah with Advent and the Incarnation was simply taken for granted as commonplace among medieval theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure.

In many of these texts, we find a theme attested to by many of the ancient rabbis and prophets: God’s presence transforms the order of nature. He makes the dry ground fertile and the barren land bring forth new life. So, for example, we recently heard this passage from Isaiah 41:

When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them;
I, will open up rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the broad valleys;
I will turn the desert into a marshland,
and the dry ground into springs of water.
I will plant in the desert the cedar,
acacia, myrtle, and olive;
I will set in the wasteland the cypress,
together with the plane tree and the pine,
That all may see and know,
observe and understand,
That the hand of the LORD has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.

And several days previous, we enjoyed these two passages from Isaiah 35:

The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water;
The abode where jackals lurk
will be a marsh for the reed and papyrus.

Note that in the passage from Isaiah 41, we are the ones who are called upon to “see” and “know,” “observe” and “understand” – rather tame English translations of what are especially powerful words in the original Hebrew, which suggests a “seeing” that we do not only with our eyes, but with our hearts, and the sort of “understanding” which provides a sure foundation.

In Isaiah 35, however, it is the desert itself that will “see” the glory of the LORD. In Isaiah 41, it is the poor and needy who thirst and who will exult; in Isaiah 35, it is the land that is thirsty and cries out for God and the land that will exult with God’s presence.

The poor and needy, desert and the dry barren land – these describe us. Can God find a dwelling place in our vast barren souls, we sometimes wonder. Isaiah tells us not only that God can enter that barren desert, but that He will transform it, causing it to bear abundant fruit beyond its natural limits.

“Grace does not violate nature, but perfects it,” medieval doctors such as Thomas and Bonaventure used to say. This is important, but not enough. For God’s transformation often comes in entirely unanticipated ways and in the least expected places. We do not generally look at a dry, barren desert and say with confidence, “I will plant my garden here.” What kind of fool would do that? The kind of fool who would sacrifice His beloved Son to ransom slaves.

Can God find a dwelling place anywhere on this angry planet, people ask? He did, in the womb of a simple young woman who said “yes” to His love. Isaiah tells us about her as well.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” which means “the Lord is with us.”

But how can the Lord be with us if we have so often been against Him? Isaiah tells us:

Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;

And again:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.

I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.

The Incarnation is the first step of our Redemption, a path that leads to the Cross and beyond. The child the virgin conceives who is Immanuel becomes the Suffering Servant by whom our sins are forgiven and our slavery redeemed.

What do we need to do to be recipients of this great gift? We find one answer in Isaiah, echoed in the words of John the Baptist:

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!

The other answer is the one given by Mary. Just say yes.


Image: John the Baptist Preaching by Mattia Preti, c. 1665 [Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.