Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Matins canticles for Advent/2: Isaiah 42:10-16

The second of the third Nocturn canticles set for Advent is from Isaiah 42, and focuses on the proclamation of the Gospel to all nations.

Isaiah 42:10-16
1. Cantate Domino canticum novum, laus ejus ab extremis terræ,
Sing ye to the Lord a new song, his praise is from the ends of the earth
2. Qui descenditis in mare, et plenitudo ejus; insulæ, et habitatores earum
you that go down to the sea, and all that are therein: ye islands, and ye inhabitants of them.
3. Sublevetur desertum et civitates ejus. In domibus habitabit Cedar:
Let the desert and the cities thereof be exalted: Cedar shall dwell in houses
4. Laudate, habitatores petræ; de vertice montium clamabunt. 
ye inhabitants of Petra, give praise, they shall cry from the top of the mountains. 
5. Ponent Domino gloriam, et laudem ejus in insulis nuntiabunt.
They shall give glory to the Lord, and shall declare his praise in the islands. 
6. Dominus sicut fortis egredietur, sicut vir præliator suscitabit zelum;
The Lord shall go forth as a mighty man, as a man of war shall he stir up zeal
7. Vociferabitur, et clamabit: super inimicos suos confortabitur. 
he shall shout and cry: he shall prevail against his enemies. 
8. Tacui semper, silui, patiens fui: sicut parturiens loquar
I have always held my peace, I have I kept silence, I have been patient, I will speak now as a woman in labour
9. Dissipabo, et absorbebo simul. Desertos faciam montes et colles, et omne gramen eorum exsiccabo
I will destroy, and swallow up at once.  I will lay waste the mountains and hills, and will make all their grass to wither:
10.  Et ponam flumina in insulas, et stagna arefaciam.  
and I will turn rivers into islands, and will dry up the standing pools.
11. Et ducam cæcos in viam quam nesciunt, et in semitis quas ignoraverunt ambulare eos faciam;
And I will lead the blind into the way which they know not: and in the paths which they were ignorant of I will make them walk
12. Ponam tenebras coram eis in lucem, et prava in recta;
 I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight

 Pope St John Paul II gave a General Audience on this canticle (in the context of Lauds in the liturgy of the hours) on this canticle on 2 April 2003:

1. In the Book that bears the Prophet Isaiah's name, scholars have identified various voices all of which are placed under the patronage of this great prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C. This is the case with the vigorous hymn of joy and victory that has just been proclaimed as part of the Liturgy of Lauds of the Fourth Week. Exegetes refer to it as the so-called "Second Isaiah", a prophet who lived in the sixth century B.C., at the time of the return of the Hebrews from the Babylonian Exile. The hymn begins with an appeal to "sing to the Lord a new song" (cf. Is 42,10), as in other Psalms (cf. Ps 96,1 [95]: 1 and Ps 98,1 [97]: 1).

The "newness" of the song that the Prophet invites the Hebrews to sing certainly refers to the unfolding horizon of freedom, a radical turning-point in the history of a people which experienced oppression and exile in a foreign land (cf. Ps 137 [136]).

2. In the Bible, "newness" often has the flavour of a perfect and definitive reality. It is almost the sign of the beginning of an era of saving fullness that seals humanity's tormented history. The Canticle of Isaiah has this exalted tone that is well suited to Christian prayer.

The whole world, including the earth, sea, coastlands, deserts and cities, is invited to sing to the Lord a "new song" (cf. Is 42,10-12). All space is involved, even its furthest horizons that also contain the unknown, and its vertical dimension, which rises from the desert plain, the dwelling place of the nomadic tribes of Kedar (cf. Is 21,16-17), and soars to the mountains. High up, in the territory of the Edomites, we can locate the city of Sela which many people have identified with Petra, a city placed between the rocky peaks.

22 All the Earth's inhabitants are invited to become like an immense choir to acclaim the Lord with exultation and to give him glory.

3. After the solemn invitation to sing (cf. Is 42,10-12), the Prophet brings the Lord onto the scene, represented as the God of the Exodus, who has set his people free from slavery in Egypt: "The Lord goes forth like a mighty man, like a warrior" (Is 42,13). He sows terror among his foes, who oppress others and commit injustice.

The Canticle of Moses also portrays the Lord during the Red Sea crossing as a "man of war", ready to stretch out his right hand and destroy the enemy (cf. Ex 15,3-8). With the return of the Hebrews from the deportation to Babylon, a new exodus is about to take place, and the faithful must be assured that history is not at the mercy of destiny, chaos or oppressive powers: the last word rests with God who is just and strong. The Psalmist had already sung: "Grant us help against the foe, for vain is the help of man!" (Ps 60,13 [59]: 13).

4. Having entered on the scene, the Lord speaks and his vehement words (cf. Is 42,14-16) combine judgement and salvation. He begins by recalling that "for a long time" he has "held [his] peace": in other words, he has not intervened. The divine silence is often a cause of perplexity to the just, and even scandalous, as Job's long lamentation attests (cf. Jb 3,1-26). However, it is not a silence that suggests absence as if history had been left in the hands of the perverse, or the Lord were indifferent and impassive. In fact, that silence gives vent to a reaction similar to a woman in labour who gasps and pants and screams with pain. It is the divine judgement on evil, presented with images of aridity, destruction, desert (cf. Is 42,15), which has a living and fruitful result as its goal.

In fact, the Lord brings forth a new world, an age of freedom and salvation. The eyes of the blind will be opened so that they may enjoy the brilliant light. The path will be levelled and hope will blossom (cf. Is 42,16), making it possible to continue to trust in God and in his future of peace and happiness.

5. Every day the believer must be able to discern the signs of divine action even when they are hidden by the apparently monotonous, aimless flow of time. As a highly-esteemed modern Christian author has written: "The earth is pervaded by a cosmic ecstasy: in it is an eternal reality and presence which, however, usually sleeps under the veil of habit. Eternal reality must now be revealed, as in an epiphany of God, through all that exists" (R. Guardini, Sapienza dei Salmi, Brescia, 1976, p. 52).

Discovering this divine presence, with the eyes of faith, in space and time but also within ourselves, is a source of hope and confidence, even when our hearts are agitated and shaken "as the trees of the forest shake before the wind" (Is 7,2). Indeed, the Lord enters the scene to govern and to judge "the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth" (Ps 96,13 [95]: 13).

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Matins Canticles for Advent: Isaiah 40:10-17

All three of the Sunday third nocturn canticles set for Advent come from Isaiah, the first of them being from Isaiah 40.

Isaiah 40:10-17
Ecce Dominus Deus in fortitudine veniet, et brachium ejus dominabitur:
Behold the Lord God shall come with strength, and his arm shall rule:
Ecce merces ejus cum eo, et opus illius coram illo. 
Behold his reward is with him and his work is before him.
Sicut pastor gregem suum pascet,in brachio suo congregabit agnos,
et in sinu suo levabit; fœtas ipse portabit.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather together the lambs with his arm, and shall take them up in his bosom, and he himself shall carry them that are with young. 
Quis mensus est pugillo aquas, et cælos palmo ponderavit?
Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and weighed the heavens with his palm?
quis appendit tribus digitis molem terræ, et liberavit in pondere montes, et colles in statera?
who hath poised with three fingers the bulk of the earth, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? 
Quis adjuvit spiritum Domini? aut quis consiliarius ejus fuit, et ostendit illi? 
Who hath forwarded the spirit of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor, and hath taught him? 
Cum quo iniit consilium, et instruxit eum, et docuit eum semitam justitiæ, et erudivit eum scientiam, et viam prudentiæ ostendit illi?  
With whom hath he consulted, and who hath instructed him, and taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and shewed him the way of understanding?  
Ecce gentes quasi stilla situlæ, et quasi momentum stateræ reputatæ sunt;
Behold the Gentiles are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the smallest grain of a balance:
Ecce insulæ quasi pulvis exiguus. Et Libanus non sufficiet ad succendendum,
et animalia ejus non sufficient ad holocaustum.
behold the islands are as a little dust. And Libanus shall not be enough to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. 
Omnes gentes quasi non sint, sic sunt coram eo, et quasi nihilum et inane reputatæ sunt ei. 
All nations are before him as if they had no being at all, and are counted to him as nothing, and vanity

Much of Isaiah chapter 40 is very well known indeed to most English speakers, courtesy of Handel's Messiah: indeed the chapter's opening verses are the text for its first three numbers (Comfort ye/Ev'ry valley/And the glory), and many of its other verses also get a guernsey.  This reflects the 
fact that the chapter opens the second part of Isaiah, a section which is centred on prophesies of the coming of Christ.

The opening verses of the canticle (vv1-3) announce that Christ will come with a bang and not a whimper: he comes with power and strength, bringing the gift of salvation to his people, those he guards as a shepherd.

This is the coming, the canticle reminds us, of the creator of the universe, the one who holds heaven and earth in his hands (v4-5); the source of all, both physical, intellectual and spiritual (v6-7).

In the face of God, we and all the nations are nothing: mere grass and ashes, our claims to greatness mere vanity (vv8-10).