The Advent season always brings with it a renewal of hope and this Sunday we hear from the great prophet of hope—Isaiah, who happens to be the prophet most often heard in Advent liturgies. One of the most famous passages of Isaiah’s prophecy is read today in which we hear him make an early anticipation (some 700 years before Christ) of the coming of the messiah:
On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord (Isa 11:1-3).
The first part of this reading reminds us that the promise of redemption would be realized not through human might but through God’s gracious gift. We best understand this when we look to the preceding chapter of Isaiah (see Isa 10:5-34), where the prophet describes the way in which the mighty nation of Assyria, a traditional enemy of Israel, would serve as the instrument of God’s justice in chastising Israel. After their punishment God promised that a new shoot would rise up by his blessing from the house of Jesse, one who would lead the people to the righteousness that had escaped them when sought through their own efforts.
This was a tough lesson for the people of Israel to learn, given their constant efforts to liberate themselves from the pressure of enemies all around, and from the presence of corruption within. It is a hard lesson for us to digest as well; we live in a society where the very notion of sin has lost its meaning and yet regret and a sense of deep personal yearning are commonly seen among many people. We wrestle with ourselves to make sense of life, to try to liberate ourselves in a sense, but we cannot do so without acknowledging our need for help.
In the Gospel John the Baptist tries to teach the same lesson to the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him from Jerusalem. He speaks harshly to underline the critical nature of his message: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Matt 3:7-8). John in effect teaches his listeners—including the Pharisees and Sadducees—that while they must “produce good fruit” to show their sincerity, ultimately they cannot engineer their own salvation by even the most perfect observance of the Mosaic Law; they must rely, rather, on the One who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
How then do we welcome as a free gift from the Lord that salvation we cannot attain on our own? This requires the disposition that Isaiah the prophet said would be characteristic of the messiah. Returning to where this reflection began, we look again at the beautiful attributes of “wisdom and understanding … counsel and strength … knowledge and fear of the Lord.” These qualities, which the Church traditionally calls “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” not only describe the messiah, what is more, they are given to us in our baptism and deepened within us each time we receive the sacraments.
Stewarding well the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been given to us, let us “prepare the way of the Lord” this Advent season so we can welcome Him at his coming with the hope that Isaiah forecast and only the messiah can bring.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Jordan Hainsey, stump sprout, ‘Succisa Virescit’, “Having Been Cut Down, It Now Flourishes” from the motto of Saint Benedict’s Monastery of Montecassino, Italy.