If the small number of history classes I took in high school and college taught me anything, they trained my eyes to see monuments. Sometimes those monuments are stone like Egypt’s pyramids, and sometimes they’re literary, like the dialogues of Plato or the Analects of Confucius. But to spot the really great cities, one must keep one’s eyes open for the monuments.
Isaiah, of course, imagines something quite different: when he speaks to us in his oracle at Advent, Isaiah points not to a structure or even an epic that will endure through the ages as the sign that the new Israel will be truly blessed. Certainly the oracles calls for the old ruins to be bound up, but they stand not as ends themselves but means to a greater end as Isaiah imagines things. What will mark the new Israel is neither a great wall nor an enduring intellectual legacy but righteousness.
Such a promise should not strike us Christians as odd; after all, our own legacy on the earth is always the next generation of the faithful, those who seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. While we may leave and have left great feats of painting and architecture and literature and music in our wake, our main legacy always must be the next band of disciples, those who go forth and make disciples in turn, and as long as the times endure, those who come after us in this grand tradition of proclamation and love for neighbors can and should judge our time on the earth as Church in terms of what kinds of disciples follow us.
The great sadness in a nation marked off by righteousness is that, within a generation, that grand and shining light could diminish greatly, and within a few generations, it could be extinguished entirely. Without a continued dedication to a God who is God’s self always dedicated, the pursuit of righteousness as the mark of a great nation fades and far too quickly disappears. Such is why Isaiah’s oracle is so bold: in this Advent reading, Isaiah imagines a time coming when, because of the unshakeable favor of God, there will be no need for grand pyramids or immortal tragic drama, because God will sustain from generation to generation. The promise of righteousness, perpetual righteousness, is perhaps the grandest assertion of confidence in God that any prophet could utter, and the faithful, both in old Israel and in the Church, would do well to behold the inspired trust that Isaiah invests in God, and we would do even better to proclaim likewise.
As Christmas approaches, let us remember for what we are saved and for what we shout our joy.