December 19, 2013
Recent polls about the direction of our country are not very encouraging. According to
Real Clear Politics, only 24.5% of all Americans expressed satisfaction that the country is on the right track. 67% feel that the country is going in the wrong direction. The reasons for this pervasive malaise are manifold.
The rapidly shrinking middle class is widening the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of society. Forty-six million people in the United States are living at or below the poverty line. The government has not been able, despite its promethean effort, to properly launch its affordable health care program. Faced with many challenges, political leaders, entrenched in partisan ideologies, do not work well together to tackle our problems. All these factors diminish confidence in our leaders and optimism about the future.
However, this loss of optimism among many has not just happened overnight. Ever since the 17
th and 18
th centuries, as reason replaced faith, science promised great human progress. But the promise failed. Regimes without faith bequeathed the world a legacy of inhuman oppression in the French and Russian revolutions. Countries, such as Portugal, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and France, followed a policy of colonialism. They extended their power in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. But, colonialism failed to foster a universal respect for equal rights and fundamental freedoms. Even today, the great hope of capitalism with its promise of economic growth from a free market has not been realized.
In recent years, there has been a breakdown in the acceptance of a common morality based on natural law. Our moral compass as a nation has gone awry. Our religious, political and business leaders are often found wanting in good character. Their scandals take center stage in the media. Even sports figures and Hollywood icons no longer hold out a wholesome image to their fans. Many individuals are losing confidence in the very possibility of goodness. (cf. Michael Meacher, “An Age of Worthless Values,”
The Independent, January 2, 1994)
Furthermore, the staunch insistence on individualism, inherited from the Enlightenment, carries within it the seeds of depression and despair. On the one hand, exalting the individual to the point of severing a vital connection with community removes the individual from a wider wisdom and guidance that comes from tradition. On the other, it opens the individual to a futile search for self-gratification and leads to a general mistrust of others.
In the midst of society’s increased loss of optimism, a Christian can and should stand apart. All of us “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We know that, despite our best intentions, we sin. Last August, in his interview with the editor-in-chief of
La Civiltà Cattolica, Pope Francis remarked, “I am a sinner.” And, then he added, “I am a sinner
whom the Lord has looked upon.” Here is the reason for every follower of Jesus to take heart. We do not trust in ourselves alone. The Lord looks upon us with love. We can face the situations that challenge us, repeating in our hearts the words of St. Paul have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13).
No matter how serious and threatening the challenges are that we face as Christians, God is not absent. In the fleshing of the Eternal Word, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, God who is always present to his creation, has become present in a way far beyond human expectation. In Jesus, the Son of God born of Mary, God is with us at every step of our life’s journey. As Isaiah prophesied, He is truly Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Isaiah lived in the 8
th century before Christ. In his day, Judah was far from what God intended her to be. The rich dominated the poor. The strong overpowered the weak. Pagan practices found their place among God’s chosen people. There was idolatry and injustice, its natural child. The morals of the nation had sunk to a new low. And the nation faced the power of Assyria, threatening to destroy her. To this age losing confidence about its present situation and with little optimism for the future, Isaiah preached.
Isaiah’s command of the Hebrew language, his rich vocabulary and his poetic skill has won him the honor of being called the “Shakespeare of the Bible.” He begins his book, the longest book of prophecy in the Old Testament, with the vision of “the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne” (6:1). It is the vision of God who is transcendent and all powerful, yet who is concerned about his world, concerned enough to send Isaiah to bear his message.
Isaiah’s message is unmistakable, sounded again and again throughout his prophecies: God is in ultimate control of his world. Isaiah’s own name means “the Lord is salvation.” Here is the hope that he holds out to a nation sinking into despair. Here is the message that he holds out to us, especially during Advent.
Psychologists tell us that a positive outlook on life engenders the resilience needed to rise above adversity. And, there can be no more positive outlook than the Christian vision that God, who is in control of the world, is present to us at every moment in Christ. We never need lose confidence or give in to discouragement. In Christ, we are given the strength to share in God’s work of ushering in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1).
Even in those moments when we face the reality of evil in others and become faint-hearted, we have hope. All does not depend on us. We can still say with the Psalmist “The Lord is my strength and my shield, in whom my heart trusts. I am helped, so my heart rejoices… (Ps 28:7). Buoyed up by hope, we are “preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity”(
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1818).