This year, unusually, the Feast of St. Andrew falls four days into the season of Advent. Already then, our celebration of Scotland’s Patronal Feast is surrounded by readings from the Prophet Isaiah. And surely Isaiah has a lot to say to us, and to our country, on its National Day.
Isaiah begins by lamenting his own people’s neglect of their religion; their forgetfulness of God; their habitual breaking of his commandments; their contempt for the words of prophecy. According to Isaiah, this behaviour and attitude of itself is unfaithful, shameful, wicked, immoral, reprehensible. As a matter of fact, it will also have disastrous consequences. For the country, Isaiah warns, the result will be ruin. In typical Hebrew vein, he interprets this as well-merited divine punishment.
Isaiah’s uncompromising attitude can come as quite a shock to us, who are so conditioned to being tolerant, and open-minded, and non-judgmental, and on the defensive about our religion. But Isaiah was the prophet who had a vision of the Lord in the Temple, surrounded by the Seraphim crying Holy holy holy. So the whole book of Isaiah is marked by an intense awareness of God’s holiness; and of the worship that is due to him. Once, by and large, not very long ago, people in this country knew that. Now, by and large, they don’t. Does this matter? Should it bother us? Well, Isaiah certainly suggests that it matters, and should bother us a lot.
The trouble is: when people abandon God, they tend to land up behaving badly, or stupidly. We human beings all have an astonishing capacity for folly, stupidity, self deception, and inconsistency: and all that can lead us into evils of every kind.
As a matter of fact, the first target for Isaiah’s rebuke are those who still cling to the outward forms of religion, but have lost its heart. Outwardly they may seem Godly enough, but they allow themselves to neglect or exploit or oppress the poor without a qualm or second thought. Their sacrifices and prayers are therefore worthless. Then there are those who, having abandoned the true God, turn instead to the worship of false gods, empty idols made of wood and stone. Isaiah does not hesitate to mock behaviour that is self evidently nonsensical. To cook one’s dinner using part of a log, and then to carve another part into a god to worship is just stupid. Yet people in his day did it. We might think of plenty of examples of this sort of thing in our own society. It’s folly, worthy of mockery, to freeze corpses in hopes that one day medical science will find a cure for death. It’s folly to declare by law that two men or two women can be married to one another. It’s folly to construct special toilets for those unwilling to identify themselves as either male or female.
Elsewhere Isaiah stops laughing, and becomes deadly serious: especially in face of those nations like the Assyrians, or Babylonians, or Moabites, or Edomites, who actually worship demons. Their false religion leads them to commit abominable crimes, which eventually will turn on the heads of their perpetrators. Again, we have not too far to look to find parallels in our own broken society. I mention here merely the phenomenon of abortion, where unborn children are killed in our hospitals every day. Other examples in plenty could be mentioned of crimes carried out nowadays on a National scale, which would certainly merit Isaiah’s thunderous rebuke.
Rebuke, condemnation, threat; then consolation, hope, new vision, the offer of a fresh chance. For God will intervene, Isaiah proclaims, to save his beloved people. Jerusalem may be destroyed, but she will be rebuilt. The glory of the nation may be dragged down to the dust, but it will be raised up again, in a way so wonderful as to constitute a new creation. Israel may be unfaithful, but God is always faithful. The wilderness then will blossom, and in the desert refreshing streams will flow. That’s Isaiah, who beyond all other prophets points towards the coming Messiah, the anointed one, whose name is Emmanuel. He is “God with us”, the Prince of peace, the Redeemer of Israel, the Shepherd of his people. Isaiah is also the one who sings of the Servant of the Lord, this mysterious figure who is despised and lowly, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, wounded for our rebellion, crushed because of our guilt, led to the slaughter like a lamb, yet all the time justifying many, and interceding for the rebellious.
One day by the river Jordan St. John the Baptist saw Jesus, and pointed to him, quoting Isaiah. Behold the Lamb of God he said. The holy Apostle Andrew also saw, and the next day he told his brother Simon Peter: We have found the Messiah. And we celebrate Andrew today, because through him we also have encountered the greatest blessing that life could give, that God could give: Jesus Christ our Lord, God incarnate, our Saviour and Redeemer, our hope, our life, our joy.
The question remains: how do we communicate Christ to our modern society? How do we live an authentic Christian life in the midst of an unbelieving world?
In my opinion, for what that’s worth, we need to be very bold about what we believe in, and not in any way attempt to water it down. We are here today to worship God, because that’s a good thing to do, irrespective of any beneficial side effects it may happen to have. We are Christians, because Jesus gives us God; he is our way to God; through him we are able to give true glory to God. We are Catholics also, because we believe the Catholic Church gives us Jesus. We receive him in her sacraments, and we are taught the truth about him, and about how to live, in a way which can never be finally complete, but which we are sure is free from error.
Sometimes even we Christians, Catholics, Benedictine monks, can be tempted to turn our gaze away from the all-holy God. Almost imperceptibly we can find ourselves reducing our religion to morality, or therapy, or philosophy, or politics. All these things are important of course, but in the end they are not what Isaiah preached, or what St. Andrew died for; and of themselves they cannot turn the hearts of secularised modern people back to the Lord. Ultimately of course only God himself can do that. But in the meantime, we, with St. Peter and St. Andrew, must hear and obey, without compromise, the call of Jesus: Come, follow me.