December 27, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Isaiah 61:10-62:3 (NRSV)
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my whole being shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a beautiful crown in the hand of the Lord
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
What in the world are these anniversaries of martyrdom doing during the holy days after Christmas Day?
It’s the fourth day of Christmas, if you’re counting. (Are you ready yet for four calling birds?) If you feel like I was just talking to you about garlands in Isaiah, you’re right; I was. An earlier portion of Isaiah 61 was recommended in the lectionary for the third Sunday of Advent. Now, here comes the rest of Isaiah 61 for the upcoming first Sunday after Christmas Day (if I’d shared the whole reading for Advent III with you, the overlap would be even more noticeable, because that full reading actually goes all the way through to Isaiah 61:11).
Isaiah 60-62, especially in this passage, is, for my money, one of the most beautiful promises in all of Scripture. I spoke several weeks ago about the way I had applied these promises to my own individual spiritual journey. While I don’t think I was wrong to do so, in their original context they were promises made to a people.
Like many of the prophets, Isaiah—who prophesied in the kingdom of Judah during the reigns of four different kings, only two of whom were unambiguously good (Isaiah 1:1)—spoke extensively of judgment coming for his nation if it failed to follow God. But he also spoke extensively of a restoration that would follow, a restoration during which the promises made to “Zion” would not be for the good of the Hebrew people and the nation of Judah alone, but for the good of the whole world (Isaiah 61:11).
Yet, set against this beautiful picture of restoration assigned for this coming Sunday, another picture rises in my mind. Today, Thursday, when you are actually reading this, is the feast of the Holy Innocents. Historically, the church has celebrated a number of feasts on the days right after Christmas—St. Stephen on December 26, St. John on December 27, and the Holy Innocents who were murdered by Herod (Matthew 2:13-18) today.
Now, John is traditionally thought to have lived into old age and died naturally, but Stephen and the Holy Innocents were martyrs who died brutal and senseless deaths. What in the world are these anniversaries of martyrdom doing during the holy days after Christmas Day? Since we don’t even conclusively know when they died (saints are traditionally celebrated on their death dates), why did the church think it was a good idea to remind us of them now? Why, we haven’t even cleared away our four calling birds yet!
I’m not going to give you an easy way to resolve that tension. I’m only going to remind you that it was into this world, this war-torn world where innocents are murdered, that Christ came to fulfill the promises Isaiah proclaimed, to be a crown of beauty and a royal diadem. If that thought is painful and difficult, it is supposed to be. It should make us ask ourselves hard questions. And, when we learn the answers, it should make us do hard things on the road to righteousness and praise springing up before all the nations.
Where do you hear promise?
Where do you hear pain?
What are you going to do about it?
The traditional carol for the feast of the Holy Innocents since the 16th century has been the Coventry Carol, which tells the story of Matthew 2:13-18 from the perspective of the mothers of the martyred babies. Listen, ponder, and pray. (Lyrics, and more information about the song, are here.)
O sisters [and brothers] too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay?”
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Work’s Ultimate Meaning (Isaiah 60ff.).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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