O afflicted one, storm-battered and unconsoled,
I lay your pavements in carnelians,
your foundations in sapphires; I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. — Isaiah 54:11-12
The pavement outside my door glitters, not with carnelians, but with black ice and snow that sparkles like diamonds. Like Israel in Isaiah’s time, I am weary. I am exhausted by this winter, battered by more than just the bitter cold winds and icy rains. The crises have been personal — a son sick enough to land in the hospital — and global. Refugees in Syria shiver in the cold, children are threatened by terrorists.
Yet I read this passage and am heartened by what John Kavanaugh, S.J., called “the bright reliance of Isaiah” who holds out hope to Israel, enduring the long Babylonian exile. Like me, they are longing to be consoled, to be warmed again by God’s breath, to be held safe within his walls.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel in his book on the prophets writes of the radiance and joy that Isaiah pours out in these passages. This, he says, is the language of those who seek the Lord, who long for God, who hope for rescue.
Indeed Isaiah’s language burns brightly. The Hebrew brings forth images of jewels that spark fire as if from metal in a forge, of gems that are aflame like the sun. There is strength in these images, too. Sapphires, impossible to scratch, are stones that fit tightly into place to enclose the land and keep the winds from our doors. There is hope.
We are loved, Isaiah tells us, with a love that cannot be shaken, no matter how shaky our lives feel. This is a love that will remain with us, a peace that stretches to the bounds of the earth and beyond.
I am reminded of 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-sear, you shall not be discomforted.’” We are clothed in Christ, she said, enfolded for love. We will not be abandoned.
We hear in this reading, too, the first hints of how God hopes we will respond to his immense and steadfast love. How we might burn brightly, how we might be built into a city whose walls cannot be broken down, how we might give ourselves and our children over to the Lord’s teaching. How we might let ourselves be clothed in Christ. How we might be Christ to our brothers and sisters.
St. Augustine, reflecting on the end of this passage from Isaiah, reminds us that the surest sign that what we have been taught comes from God is how we are drawn to respond, not from the law, nor from fear, but from our hearts, in love. Love, says Augustine, and do what you will.
To read: Isaiah 54:5-14
Almighty ever-living God,
surpass, for the honor of your name,
what you pledged to the patriarchs by reason of their faith,
and through sacred adoption increase the children of your promise,
so that what the saints of old never doubted would come to pass
your Church may now see in great part fulfilled.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
To listen: Psalm 30
During Lent Michelle Francl-Donnay examines each of the readings to be proclaimed at the Easter Vigil Mass — see her columns in our Lent 2015 section. She is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.