A poignant case in point is my encounter with today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. My sermon preparations are a combination of study and of devotion in the spirit of lectio divina, sacred reading, that ancient monastic way of engaging the scriptures that I talk and write about so much.
The first thing I do is read through all of the readings appointed in the lectionary for a given Sunday. Such reading is something of an initial search for a good word, a gospel word, driven not just by professional or intellectual need, but by existential desire, too, since I am a sinner in need of forgiveness and redemption like everyone else.
To help to reveal the profundity of the encounter with today’s passage from Isaiah, I want to reiterate just how frustrating it was to endure Sunday after Sunday the hard readings from Matthew earlier this fall, when searching for a good, gospel word seemed like looking for food and water in a desert. The gospel word was always there, but more often than not, it took a good deal of spiritual and intellectual effort to find it.
Very much in contrast to my engagement with so many of the passages from Matthew, my first reading of today’s passage from Isaiah was like a torrent of good news that flooded over me without stopping. I didn’t need to go on a search at all. The good news flooded over me, cleansed me, refreshed me, and washed me into the loving embrace of our gracious God.
How was this so? Virtually every verse of today’s reading from Isaiah is set to music by the baroque composer, George Frederick Handel, in his great work, Messiah.
Handel’s Messiah was a major feature of my Christian formation as a youth. My mother, an alto, sang solo versions arias from the Messiah in church and at home. Choirs I sang in as a youth sang choruses from Messiah. We’d go to Messiah sings as a family, or listen to local college choirs sing the whole thing in sacred concerts. In high school, I acquired LP’s of Handel’s Messiah, and listened to it constantly. In short, Handel’s Messiah was an ever-present dimension of my youthful spiritual life.
So, just reading these familiar verses that are featured in Handel’s Messiah served to bring back a flood of memories, connecting me to my childhood, and my earliest Christian formation. So intense was this experience, that I not only recalled the memories, but shared in the reality, the deep kind of memory that brings the past into the present in directly experiential ways, in a manner akin to how the Eucharist offers us Christ’s real presence today in the memorializing of the Last Supper from centuries ago.
The great scholar of monasticism, Jean Leclerq, refers to this connection-making between passages of scripture and our own experiences, reminiscence. Not reminiscence in terms of nostalgia, but a connection-making that brings the scriptures alive for us.
The result of my reading the passage from Isaiah was a flood of tears, an awakening of the grief I’ve been holding for decades, but also quite poignantly a sense of loss in relation to the pandemic which causes us to miss out on so much of our usual routines.
This catharsis was healing for me, as God’s word broke through the defenses of my emotional numbness in life-giving ways. This was the experience of pure gospel.
Lutherans are called to preach both law and gospel, where normally the naming of the law’s demands will lead to the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of forgiveness.
But where’s the law amidst the flood of good news of this passage from Isaiah? In response to this query, here’s a bit of an exploration of what I might call spiritual psychology. There are times when we are so burdened by the law that we defend against the awareness of it. We are sometimes numbed, going through the motions of our days. Sometimes only the good news of the gospel can break through our defended numbness to make us aware of the law and its rigors.
That’s what happened to me in reading the good news of the passage from Isaiah. Only upon experiencing the flood of good news was I able to become affectively aware of my law-induced burdens in the form of the many griefs I carry and disappointments in life and my many failings.
This delay of affect is not unlike a child who falls and skins the knee and remains stoic until a parent comes along to embrace the child – then in that loving embrace, a flood of healing tears is released.
So it is with the gospel – sometimes the proclamation of good news comes first and then we are opened to remorse for our shortcomings in relation to the law. Or in my case, I became aware of the many burdens I carry only when I experienced the embrace of God’s gracious word in the passage from Isaiah and in connection with memories of Handel’s Messiah.
So much for this lesson in spiritual psychology. What does all of this serve? It’s not the case that monastic reminiscence keeps us wallowing in our own feelings and subjective experiences. No, not at all. These experiences serve to point us to and connect us with Christ who comes to us in the word and who meets us there in our deepest places in healing and saving ways.
Just as Handel employed the prophetic writings of the Hebrew scriptures in his compositions to point to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, so too our affect and our experiences are employed by the Holy Spirit to point us beyond ourselves also to Christ.
In these ways, both Handel’s music and our life experiences serve in a manner not unlike John the Baptizer, who relentlessly lifted up and feature in greatest prominence the coming one, the Messiah, the Christ. John proclaims in Mark’s gospel: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8) Elsewhere, John concludes in relation to Christ: “For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:29b-30)
Perhaps my recounting these experiences with the sacred word may play some part in your deepening engagement with the scriptures such that you may know more fully and poignantly the healing and saving power of God’s word. I pray that you will have such holy encounters in these days of Advent waiting and longing. Amen.
And now for your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Recall some of your most memorable and powerful encounters with God’s sacred word of scripture.
- Who or what functions in your life in the spirit of John the Baptizer who points you to Christ Jesus?