First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

The lectionary’s creators evidently viewed this portion of Isaiah as both eminently appropriate to Christmas and flexible in its boundaries.

January 1, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 61:10—62:3

The lectionary’s creators evidently viewed this portion of Isaiah as both eminently appropriate to Christmas and flexible in its boundaries.

The reading for this first Sunday after Christmas overlaps with the Isaiah reading just three weeks before, on the third Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11). Isaiah 62:1-5 is read during Epiphany in Year C, and 62:6-12 on Christmas Day in all three years.

This passage begins with a hymn of thanksgiving (61:10-11) that concludes one passage, and continues into the first few verses directed to the city of Jerusalem in chapter 62. Indeed, while most see a break as the chapter ends, some commentators in the past have attempted to read 61:10-11, or verse 11 only, as more closely connected to what follows than to the chapter in which they are found.

While chapters 60-62 clearly have much in common, they were probably not originally written as one, or even three, whole compositions, but from a series of closely related exegetical additions over time. Positioned in the center of “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66), these three chapters share some features that distinguish them from their surroundings. From one end to the other, they proclaim salvation and forecast redemption. Thus they differ from the more hortatory and even denouncing speech of parts of chapters 56-59 and 63-66. Of all of these eleven chapters, these three stand closest in theme and vocabulary to Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah), the chapters that anticipated and paved the way for the Judean return to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile.

In fact, these three chapters adopt and adapt so much imagery from Second Isaiah that some have thought them to have been composed by the same poet or poets. Emphasis has shifted, however, in subtle ways, and it is far more likely that prophets living in the rebuilt (or rather rebuilding) city of Jerusalem are freely borrowing from the exilic prophet’s language.

Some shifts in the focus of attention within this passage make it a challenging read. At first a human individual speaks of his or her own renewal — the self is compared to both a bridegroom and a bride — and of God’s expected deeds among the nations. But attention shifts in 62:1 away from the individual and toward the city itself, personified as a woman and called both Zion and Jerusalem, as it is throughout Second Isaiah. In verses 2-3 the feminine singular pronouns describing Zion shift to 2nd person, addressing her directly. Since verses 2 and 3 speak of “the Lord,” in the 3rd person, verse 1 is likewise probably meant to be read as prophetic speech — it is the prophet who won’t sit still till Zion’s restoration is revealed.

But even though this passage is pieced together from two sections focused on two different entities, some continuity in imagery may bind them together enough to make them a preachable passage. Most striking are the adornments found in the first and the last verses. Verse 10 envisions “garments of salvation,” “robe of righteousness,” and a wedding garland and jewels given by God and worn by the poet. Five verses later this imagery returns. Here Zion is not putting on a splendid crown and royal diadem, as earlier mentions of Zion’s clothing might lead us to expect (Lamentations 1:9; Isaiah 52:1), but rather she is the crown in God’s hand.

Even more strikingly, the same word, though in two distinct forms, is used in each of the first four verses. In the first two verses, tsedakah, “righteousness” appears, first paired with “salvation” (or, according to some translations, “triumph” or “victory”), and second paired with “praise.” In verses 1 and 2 the close synonym from the same root, tsedek, is used in relation to Zion. The meanings of tsedakah and tsedek are so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable: one interpreter, for instance, considers tsedek to denote a just order, while tsedakah refers to an act of justice. In any case, in verse 1 Zion’s tsedek is paired (as in verse 10) with salvation, and in verse 2 with glory. Throughout the passage, “righteousness” is by no means a narrow term, as in “self-righteousness,” but an expression of overflowing goodness, originating from God, transforming the world, visible to all, a new order entirely, ushered in along with justice, praise for God, and divine glory.

In fact, what shimmers throughout these five verses is the unavoidable visibility, the unquenchable luminosity, of God’s deeds and their results. They are as festive as celebrative clothing, designed to be admired by all. They are no longer seeds covered by earth, but have sprouted in God’s garden for all nations to see. They shine like the dawn and blaze like a torch in a darkened room, visible across the world. This is no secret, but a redemption that will not be overlooked.

The vector of the gospel narrative is similar, starting with one proclamation to one priest alone in the temple sanctuary, and radiating out as word passes from the angel to Mary and from her to Elizabeth, from Zechariah to neighbors gathered for his son’s circumcision, from a host of angels to some night shepherds. Finally, in today’s gospel, back in the public court of the temple where Zechariah first heard the news, Simeon and Anna proclaim Jesus’ significance for all who will hear. Though this episode begins small and ordinary with the dedication of Jesus, like all Jewish babies, it culminates in a song of celebration by Simeon that has been repeated throughout the ages, throughout the world, proclaiming the “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (verse 32).