The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the Lord, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake 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.
Isaiah 41: 17-18
In today’s gospel, Matthew seems to be struggling with the place of John the Baptist in the coming of the kingdom of God. Is he the forerunner of the Kingdom who announces its coming from the end of the old order, or is he the first member of the new one. To read the passage from Isaiah 41 which is the first reading for today evokes a similar conflict in us.
We recognize readily enough the truth of the opening statement: “The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst.” What seems still so remote to us, however, is what follows: “I, the Lord, will answer them; I, the god of Israel, . . . 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.” As we experience the effects of climate change that the selfishness and greed of human beings has largely created and suffer the global suffering and gratuitous violence born of human resentment and arrogance, the vision and promise of Isaiah seems to be receding rather than approaching. The promised kingdom can seem to be increasingly remote.
There is a painful aspect to our Advent waiting. There is expectation and hope, to be sure, but there is also the lack and the suffering inherent in our present condition, and an ever encroaching sense of discouragement with the deserts we have created and our own inability to alleviate appreciably the suffering we have wrought. We continue to “seek water” but our efforts are largely in vain.
How are the hopes and the faith which we read of in the visions of Isaiah not merely ephemeral projections of our own wishes? How do we wait in such a way that we become enheartened rather than cynical and discouraged? Is it perhaps to heed the call of John the Baptist to repentance? As Christians we believe that the promise of Isaiah has been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. We believe that the Lord not only will answer the afflicted and the needy, but that the Lord is answering us. If this is so, then our Advent waiting is of a very unique kind.
When, as a child, I would be slow to get to work on the task at hand, my mother would say to me, “What are you waiting for?” She knew that I wasn’t really waiting bur rather just avoiding my responsibilities. “What are you waiting for?” meant “Get to work!” There is a waiting that is childish and passive, but there is also a waiting which is deeply active and which looks for the action of the Lord while facilitating it. In this light, the great distance we experience between the promise and the fulfillment of God’s love and mercy in the world is our own doing.
Jesus feeds the crowds when the disciples give the few fish and loaves that they have. Jesus heals the paralyzed man after his friends lower him through the roof. Salvation comes through faith, but that faith is a profound inner disposition that is also an action. In every small act of compassion, generosity, and mercy that we offer, in the drop of water we give to the thirsty, God can draw forth the spring in dry ground of which Isaiah speaks.
Thus, the suffering and discouragement that we can feel as we hear the beauty of the promise of Isaiah is a call to a repentance that is an action. In what small way today can we serve the unfolding of God’s kingdom? As Isaiah puts it: “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.” (Isaiah 41: 20) What are we waiting for?
Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is
to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is
to bless us now.
St. Teresa of Avila