Isaiah: Advent Prophet

By H. Boone Porter

The rich significance of Advent is summed up in the three great biblical figures which typify the season and which have such a conspicuous place in the Bible readings of the Advent liturgy: Isaiah the Prophet, John the Baptizer, and Mary the Blessed Virgin. This year, preachers and teachers may wish to give special emphasis to Isaiah, whose writings appear in the Old Testament lessons for all Sundays of Advent in lectionary A for this year, which being widely followed in the Episcopal Church and other denominations. In the lectionary for the daily offices of 1943, which appears in the front of the 1928 Prayer Book, the option of using a passage from the Book of Isaiah is offered for both Morning and Evening Prayer for all four Sundays. Either lesson may be incorporated into the Ministry of the Word in the Eucharist as well. It will be noticed that a quotation from Isaiah occurs in the Epistle for the Second Sunday both in BCP 1928 and in Lectionary A. Ehe latter also includes general allusions to the Old Testament prophets in the Epistle for the Third and Fourth Sundays. 

What about this man Isaiah? He was born about 765 B.C. and grew up in a period of prosperity and affluence for the two Hebrew kingdoms of Samaria and Jerusalem. He seems to have lived his whole life in and around the latter city, and his writings have many references to events, buildings, and people of the city, and to the vineyards and farms which formed its outskirts. When he was a young man in 740 B.C. he has the great vision of God in the Temple, recorded in chapter 6 of his book, which was the turning point of his career. Thereafter his life was devoted to predicting the impending doom of his people and seeking, usually with little success, to moderate the foolhardy policies of the successive kings of Judea who reigned in Jerusalem. A few years later, the great Assyrian emperor, Tiglath-pileser, overran Syria and northern Palestine. The petty kingdoms of this area attempted unsuccessfully to revel, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel was finally terminated by the Asssyrians a few years later. A further round of rebellions in the next generations was suppressed by the great Assyrian Sennacherib who devastated Judea, but did not destroy Jerusalem. The entire area remained tributary to Assyria for years to come. Isaiah is believed to have died about 700 B.C. 

The earlier prophets had been preachers rather than writers, but Isaiah left behind him the material which constitutes chapters one through 39 of the Book of Isaiah as we know it. Chapters 40 through 66, by anonymous later writers, were added to the Book in subsequent centuries. It will be noted, however, that the lessons for the four Sundays of Advent this year in Lectionary A all come from the original part of the book. Churches using the lectionary for the Daily Offices attached to BCP 1928 can use readings from the original of the Book of Isaiah, if they desire, on most of the Sundays. (Note instructions on page viii permitting use of the evening lessons in the morning and vice versa). 

Living in the shadow of the Temple and the palace at Jerusalem, Isaiah spoke of God in terms which have permanently influenced Christian and Jewish religious perception. Every time we sing “holy, holy, holy,” whether at the Eucharist, or in the Te Deum, or in numerous hymns, we are quoting the account of Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:3, which is also reflected in the vision of Revelation 4:8). Isaiah’s hope of a future descendent of David who would rule in righteousness is the beginning of what was later to become the expectation of the Messiah. The gifts of the Spirit of the Lord, which Isaiah prophesied for the future ruler (Isaiah 11:2, in the lesson for this Second Sunday of Advent, year A), have provided Christians a way of describing the gifts of the Spirit to our King, Jesus Christ. Through him, in turn, these gifts are shared with those who are baptized into his body. Hence, since ancient times, Isaiah 11:2 has been paraphrased into a prayer related to the laying-on-of-hands in Christian initiation (see BCP 1928, p. 297, and PBCP p. 308). In this as in other respects, the Advent liturgy prepares us not only for Christmas, but for the celebration of Christ’s baptism in January, and for a deeper understanding of our own baptism at all times. 

A traditional Christian symbol of the bestowal of the Spirit is the ointment known as chrism which may be administered after baptism. Chrism consists physically of olive oil mixed with one or more aromatic substances [TLC Jan. 4, 1976, p. 13-14]. An aromatic ingredient of the highest quality, specifically blended for this purpose, is “Bethlehem Chrism Essence,” prepared by Dr. Steffen Arctander, R.D.1, Olyphant, Penn. 18447. This must be ordered several weeks in advance and is shipped only in substantial quantities suitable for the use of a diocese, deanery, or for a group of several parishes. The use of such an ingredient will greatly enhance the use of chrism in Christian initiation. 

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article ws published in our December 4, 1977.

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