The book of Isaiah, whose concluding chapter is proclaimed as today’s first reading, spanned several centuries of Israel’s history. Taking the book as a whole, we see a definite progression, a progression that should be reflected in the development of our own faith.
In broad terms the earliest section of the book was a call to repentance. A sinful Jerusalem that had placed its trust in political power and the acquisition of wealth, that had grown insensitive to the abuse of the poor and needy, was invited to acknowledge its sin.
If our faith is to be renewed we must heed the same call to repentance. Through faith we entrust ourselves to God’s healing love. If this is to be more than empty words, then we too must acknowledge that our faith is frequently compromised by the trust we place in selfishness and narrow pride. Isaiah’s initial call for a new way of life was ignored. The moral chaos that had reigned amongst the people was brought to its inevitable conclusion in the catastrophe of the exile and destruction of Jerusalem.
The central chapters of the book of Isaiah brought a message of hope to a spiritual wilderness that Israel could no longer deny. God himself would be the Comforter, the Suffering Servant who would take the affliction of the people upon himself. He himself would become the New Creation of heart and mind for which they longed.
Our own journey of faith will frequently be experienced as a wilderness, a wilderness that opens our hearts to Christ and the power of his resurrection. Faith grows through a very personal acknowledgment of our own need, and a confident commitment to what Christ will achieve in us.
Isaiah’s concluding chapters turn from introspection to a confident vision for the future. We are invited to make our own the optimism of Isaiah’s vision.
“The Lord says this: I am coming to gather the nations of every language. They shall come to witness my glory.”
This vision reached beyond the narrow boundaries of Israel, embracing the whole world, peoples who had never before called upon the name of the Lord.
During this Year of Faith ours must be the same vision, a faith that reaches beyond our parochial boundaries to embrace whole neighbourhoods and nations. We must find within ourselves the courage to reach beyond the comfortable familiarity of our own congregations. The more that we truly rejoice in the grace that we have experienced within ourselves, the more we will long share that same blessing with a wilder world. This will be the fruit of a faith rejoicing in hope.
While the prophet Isaiah’s vision proclaimed salvation for the whole world, the words of Jesus in the gospel underline the daily fidelity that must precede the inheritance of that promise. Responding to an enquiry concerning the number that would be saved, Jesus replied.
“Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.”
The words of Jesus were a warning that while we rejoice in the promise of salvation, we should never take that promise for granted. It is not enough simply to believe in promised salvation: we must live each day as those whose lives are a daily conformity to Christ’s love and compassion. Jesus warned that there would be many who boasted that they had eaten and drunk in his company, and yet they would be dismissed as those he did not know.
Christ will recognise us as he recognises himself in the daily conduct of our lives.
Faithful to Isaiah’s vision, Jesus warned that there would be many from East and West, beyond the household of the faithful, whose virtuous lives would outshine those whose invocation of his name had been empty words. Let us long for a faith that is both proclaimed and lived.