The late Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., one of our great Passionists and a professor Old Testament at Catholic Theological Union, wrote his doctoral dissertation in Rome on the biblical text from Isaiah that forms our first reading for today’s liturgy. He entitled his work, that was later published as a book, Creative Redemption in Deutero-Isaiah. (The term “Deutero-Isaiah” refers to the fact that the later chapters of Isaiah may have been written by a disciple of the original prophet.)
Fr. Carroll used this beautiful passage from the prophet to show that God’s creative activity was not confined to the very beginnings of our world’s history but was, in fact, an ongoing action of God. This is clear from the striking words of the reading we hear today: “Thus says the Lord: Lo, I am about to create new heavens and new earth.” There is an exuberant tone here: ”The things of the past shall not be remembered or come to mind. Instead, there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create.”
The passage goes on to speak of the transformation that this new creative divine impulse will effect: “No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, nor the sound of crying; No longer shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not round out his full lifetime. He dies a mere youth who reaches but a hundred years…They shall live in the houses they build, and eat the fruit of the vineyards they plant.”
Every day we see images on the news of people weeping over loss through violence or acts of nature. We are brokenhearted to see images of children starving or orphaned by war. We hear reports of people who lost their homes or have their lands and their livelihoods taken away. Despite the differences in time and circumstance between our world and that of the ancient prophet, we share in human suffering.
Lent and readings like this prophecy from Isaiah remind us that God desires life for us, despite the scourge of sin and violence that threaten us. The gospel passage today is the account from John’s Gospel of Jesus’ healing of the son of a royal official. “Your son will live,” Jesus tells the distraught father.
Paul the apostle spoke of his fellow Christians as a “new creation”–through baptism and the power of God’s grace able to overcome the threats of evil and meaninglessness. We, as humans, are not able to solve or explain away the mystery of suffering or calculate the human inclination for evil. But our faith affirms for us that God is also at work in our world and will ultimately lead us home to be embraced by the source of all life. That fundamental dynamic of moving from death to life, from an unfinished and imperfect world to a new creation, is at the heart of our Lenten experience.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.