Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Who am “I”? That sounds like a philosophical question, but in the case of Isaiah 61, it is also a literary one.
As contemporary audiences of ancient texts we often overlook the role of the narrator’s voice and how it shapes our own relationship to the text.
The message in Isaiah 61 is clear enough: comfort and joy! In fact, I am singing “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” in my head as I write this. The passage from the book of Isaiah as it appears in the lectionary picks up on the language of comfort found in Isaiah 40 read last week. It expands the images of comfort, reward, and restoration. This week the lectionary conveniently leaves out 61:5-7 which addresses the question of identity and group formation prevalent in the last part of the book, and seen in the reading from Isaiah 64 during the first week of Advent. The omission of these verses here allow the reading to function as a build up to the hope of Christmas.
The first half of the reading connects the fate of the restoration of Judea to God’s glorious manifestation. The language of divine glory reflects Yahweh’s transcendence and power, which is why Isaiah 61:2 describes the restoration as divine vengeance. These first verses paint a picture of the transformation of urban landscapes and their inhabitants. The experience of the return is described as release from captivity (verse 1), while mourners exchange their garb for festal garlands (verse 3).
Who is the person who is speaking in this passage, however, and whom does this speaker address? In the context of the Advent liturgy, the contemporary Christian audience would probably assert that this is Christ, while “we” identify with the “we” of the addressed in the passage. Jesus brings US comfort and turns OUR mourning into joy. The corresponding gospel reading from John depicts Jesus claiming the role of a similar voice in the wilderness, quoting Isaiah 40:3. But is this either text’s only or even primary meaning?
In the second half of the reading in Isaiah 61:8-11, this first person speaker takes on other roles besides that of messenger. Here the speaker becomes an agent for justice. The audience for the speech disappears, and the focus turns to the exaltation of the vocal paragon of righteousness. The target audience in the final verse is no longer the restored community, but the foreign nations, that is outsiders.
While the Advent structure provides the contemporary audience with a secure location vis-à-vis the text, the text on its own does not. Is the speaker, the “I” of the poem, our avatar, or are we “they” whom the “I” addresses? At first glance, it might seem obvious. The speaker cannot be me, because I could not do the things that God commands the speaker to do. I cannot declare release from suffering or change mourning into joy. It is much easier to be “them,” part of the passive recipients of God’s blessings. My life is hard, I want to yell. I am mourning! I am imprisoned by poverty/poor health/addiction/anxiety. God must surely have finally heard my prayer and come to bring me my just reward!
The problem is, the message of the Bible is not always that easy. It rarely casts its audience as the righteous group. Throughout the prophetic texts related to the exile, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the elite deserve divine vengeance for their lack of righteousness. If this poem is directed to this returning group of former elites, perhaps they are the ones who are called to serve the mourners, the captives, the oppressed.
This reading of the poem places the contemporary audience in a different conceptual location with respect to the text. Rather than hearing these words as exaltation of a deity who serves my needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world. Or, to put it in Advent language, we are called to be Christ to others.
The point of the Incarnation is not to distance Jesus from us, but rather the opposite. The Incarnation asks us to see ourselves as the image and likeness of God, to whom has been given the dominion of this world (Genesis 1:26). In that capacity, the image is a charge to act justly within this world of injustice, violence, prejudice, and oppression. We are not Christ’s image when we triumph as much as when we serve.
As an Advent text, Isaiah 61 is not just about the ability and desire of God to heal human wounds. It is a call to be the bodies through whom divine justice becomes a reality, not just within our own small communities, but to the whole world.