Immediately preceding Chapter 9, Isaiah's testimony has built up a frightening picture of the darkness and distress about to descend upon both Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. But that darkness and distress were not the prophet's final words. Precisely upon this land has shined a great light. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined."
During the past months, who has not felt deeply the darkness and gloom of our world? Consider the tragic and violent situations of the lands we call "holy." Lands that were once touched by God, the patriarchs and prophets, and the messiah himself, are places of bloodshed, injustice, tyranny, oppression and occupation. Think of the reign of fear and terror caused by a group claiming to represent Islam, but in reality one that has grossly distorted one of the world's great religions and become an evil force that luridly attracts young people from around the world to join the forces of evil.
Think of the wars being waged in the name of religion and the intolerance that flows from such battles. Think of the millions of refugees wandering the face of the Earth right now, and the inflammatory rhetoric from presidential hopefuls and other political leaders -- some claiming to act in the name of Christianity -- who spread fear, ignorance, enmity and inhospitality, all in the name of national security.
While no one wishes to ignore the importance of national security within our borders, it is essential to recall Pope Francis' prophetic words spoken to the special joint session on Capitol Hill on September 24, 2015:
"The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject."
While such strong feelings of darkness, gloom and fear are the consequences of the forces of evil in the world, they also usually stem from our attempts to act as isolated beings or islands, instead of communities of people genuinely concerned about one another and about the suffering of so many people in our world. Believers in the one God -- Jews, Christians and Muslims and people of good will of other religions -- are united in their common front against violence carried out in the name of God and in the name of religion.
Thomas Merton, the American Catholic writer, mystic and Trappist monk, whose efforts to foster dialogue and sow seeds of peace were held up by Pope Francis in the U.S. congressional address, once preached a powerful Christmas homily about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. Merton's words need to be heard once again today:
"Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. ... It is in these that he hides himself, for whom there is no room."
The drama of Jesus' birth in Palestine, taking place under occupation in an outpost of the Roman Empire over 2000 years ago, reminds us that the elite and powerful, those who benefited most from keeping the status quo, were the least open to the coming of the Kingdom, to new insights, to solutions to the injustices and the heartbreaks of this world.
Who caught on to the whole thing in the beginning? Some shepherds from fields outside Bethlehem, a young, poor Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph, a few wise men from the east, two old, pious Jewish persons -- Simeon and Anna, who longed for Israel's salvation, day and night in the Temple. And now, maybe even us.