In his more than five years as pope, Benedict XVI has pulled no punches about the state of the Church. He has been gracious and appreciative of all the good that is being done. But he has also been forthright in facing what he calls “evil in the Church.”
In his recent book-length interview, Light of the World, Pope Benedict said the clerical sex abuse crisis has left him “stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ.”
The pope is keenly aware that the state of the Church is measured not by the apparent vitality, efficiency and magnitude of its pastoral programs, but rather by the holiness of its members.
Pope Benedict is a man of erudition, charm and gentleness. He is also a prophet who uses the language of exile. This exile is one of moral wretchedness, a wretchedness that can only be conquered through holiness.
The Old Testament readings for the Second Week of Advent are drawn from the prophet Isaiah. The Gospel readings near the end of the week bring into view another prophet — John the Baptist.
The prophet is typically the one who names the evil of the time and offers a vision of a new reality.
In Tuesday’s Reading, Isaiah receives his prophetic commissioning from the Lord: “’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40.1-2).
This is Isaiah’s job description, to be a prophet of comfort amidst the painful exile. The exile is real. Israel was defeated militarily as a punishment for her iniquity. Jeremiah had been unflinching in proclaiming that message (see Jeremiah 25.9; 27.6).
Isaiah is to sing a different song. The long darkness is ending. A newer, brighter tomorrow will dawn. God will make a straight highway through the desert for his royal procession. Valleys will be lifted up, mountains and hills laid low. “Then the glory of the
The Church reads this on two levels. It is a promise of the end of Israel’s physical exile. It is also a harbinger of the messianic age. In that age, Christ will destroy the power of sin and death and give us his Holy Spirit.
But do not forget that Isaiah speaks in the midst of exile. Sin is real; its existence cannot be tidily brushed aside as though it never existed. The new day that Isaiah proclaims can come only after Isaiah has paid “double for all her sins.” Israel receives grace, but it is not cheap grace.
Moreover, the Messiah that Isaiah proclaims in later chapters — and of whom we will hear during Holy Week — is not a powerful worldly ruler, ensconced in wealth and majesty. “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; . . . we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53.3).
The messianic glory that Isaiah proclaims is to be found, not in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness. The “comfort” that he offers is sometimes strange. In Thursday’s Reading, the Lord says through the prophet, “Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel! I will help you” (41.14).
To know God as king is to know oneself as nothing. In that light, people will not be enthralled with the Messiah. They will turn away from the help and comfort of the one who calls them insect and worm. He will be despised, rejected and held of no account.
oasis of forgiveness
But accept one’s nothingness before the Lord and the wilderness will become a pool of water (41.18) and one will have success “like the waves of the sea” (48.18).
There is hope. There is great hope. But it is not a hope of shallow worldly success and comforts. It is hope that comes from standing alongside the Messiah outside the superficial tripe. The exile may be ending. But the call to righteousness, a righteousness that is sometimes despised, grows ever more urgent.