Isaiah 45, 1.4-6
Many decades back, I remember hearing a woman remark that after many centuries the Jewish people had finally come to realise that there was only one God. I self-righteously explained to her that that could not be, since Genesis tells us that the Chosen people were worshipping one God from the very beginning. Little then did I know of the history of biblical writing, that in fact Genesis was one of the last books in the Old Testament to be compiled.
There is only one Lord, one God. What has that got to do with the first reading today? Why waste time about something we take for granted? Most people will accept that there is only one God. However, can we just imagine a time when the concept of only one God was not so clear? Can we even imagine the long ages during which the holy people of Israel, sensitive to the promptings of the Lord, meditated on this most profound of mysteries? How did they finally arrive at this conclusion? In my opinion this revelation is a wonderful example of the Lord gently leading his people step by step to ultimate Truth.
Dare we resume the process thus? Briefly, from time immemorial, people always had the concept of being accountable to some form of idol or god, but this being was localised, limited to a specific people or tribe. In addition, it was considered wrong for a race or a people to switch around to the god or gods of another nation. The people of Israel worshipped Yahweh and his temple was in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile to Babylon of the defeated race, constituted a traumatic experience, a huge blow to the political and religious beliefs of the Chosen People. Profound questions arose. Were the Babylonian gods more powerful than Yahweh since Babylon had won all the wars? Could Yahweh be worshipped outside Jerusalem where the Temple had been situated? Retaining their belief in Yahweh would prove quite a challenge. Jewish people were a very small minority and would have to struggle to retain their identity in the midst of an alien culture and the worship of gods foreign to them. Yet there was hope. The prophet Ezekiel was inspired to write that Yahweh who was worshipped in Jerusalem could also be worshipped in Babylon. Their God, Yahweh was not confined to Jerusalem but had followed them, had accompanied them and was with them through all the harrowing ache and pain of banishment. Later, through prayerful pondering and meditation on events, the prophet Deutero-Isaiah was able to declare – as we hear again in today’s reading – that there could be only one God over the entire world, a God who had the welfare of all his people at heart. An outstanding concrete sign of this was when Cyrus, the Persian ruler who had become King of Babylon, issued an edict allowing the Israelite people to return to their homeland. Cyrus is thus the one used by the Lord to carry out his design of bringing back the Jewish people to their own land of origin. In fact, the prophet goes so far as to say that Cyrus is the anointed of God, the only non-Israelite to be given this title. Pondering on the fact that Yahweh could use even a pagan ruler to bring his own designs to fruition leads the prophet and the people gradually to an understanding that the Lord is one. When we contemplate this series of events with the resulting insights long enough, we ourselves can grasp that here is a quantum leap in the human race’s conception of itself and its relation to existence.
Today, there may be very few of us tempted to veer from the worship of the one true God, but is it not sometimes forgotten? Are we able to give this wonderful God time, time to thank him for the understanding of his existence that was revealed to our spiritual ancestors so many centuries ago? This is so true, that there is only one God for all peoples. In addition, many years after the Exile, God spoke to His Chosen People through His Son Jesus Christ. It is this incarnate One, manifestation of the One True God that we proclaim on Mission Sunday. It may be difficult for us in our increasingly pluralistic society to perceive and understand that the Lord of love continues to speak to our hearts today, and we attempt to listen. It is in this listening to the Word that we too are caught up together in the uniqueness of the One who whispers His love to us and fulfils His promises just as He did all those centuries ago, to our forerunners in the faith – the Jewish exiles in Babylon.
Sr. Mary O’ Byrne