If you were in peril of your life, with your last hope slipping away, and you had to choose a Bible verse to help jolly you up, you’d probably reach for the Book of Isaiah. At least you would if you were a character in a 1940s war movie – and the results wouldn’t disappoint you.
In Northwest Passage, Spencer Tracy recites Isaiah 40:3 — “A voice cries in the wilderness…” — and is almost immediately answered by the sound of “Lilliburlero,” played by a relief column of redcoats. In Battleground, Marshall Thompson recites Isaiah 40:31 — “…they will soar as with eagles’ wings…” His mood is less pious than bitterly ironical, but nevertheless, within a few scenes, the prophecy is fulfilled by a squadron of C-47s belonging to the Eighth Air Force. In both cases, the help arrives in enough time to ensure that the good guys come out well on top.
It’s not by accident that the middle chapters of Isaiah convey hope of a rescue both imminent and literal. Composed during the Babylonian captivity, they promise deliverance at the hands of a living ruler – the Achaemenid Persian King Cyrus the Great. Cyrus, who inherited the throne of Anshan in 559 BC, quickly defeated his Median overlords. By 542, his armies had conquered most of Asia Minor along with Phoenicia. In Isaiah 41:25, when God promises that Cyrus “shall trample rulers down like red earth,” he’s offering less a prophecy than a commonsensical analysis of current events. Sure enough, in 540, Cyrus invaded Babylon and seized its capital. Two years later, he encouraged the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple.
If God made a habit of playing the kingmaker, prayer might enjoy a better name than it does. As everyone now knows, the San Bernardino shootings saw a sudden rash of “prayer shaming” – angry tweets from Democratic politicians and their media supporters mocking Republicans for calling on the Almighty rather the than imposing new anti-gun policies. A New York Daily News headline summarized their case in four words: “God Isn’t Fixing This.”
Fixing things, in an imperial, Cyrus-like, manner, is starting to look like the new national passion. As David Harsanyi observes in The Federalist, folks on the left are demonstrating an “ugly authoritarian turn,” that shows itself in a re-envisioning of freedom as “s a risk-free existence where the state will keep you forever “safe’.”
The Democrats may be unusually bold in pointing out God’s shortcomings, but they’re not the only ones demanding a Cyrus-deliverance from earthly worries. To his supporters, Donald Trump looks like a very righteous gentile indeed. As Victor Davis Hanson puts it, Trump’s brashness, expressed most recently in his call for a blanket ban on Muslim entry into the US, resonates with voters convinced that their lives are increasingly governed by institutions – like the academy, the judiciary, and federal bureaucracies – insulated from their will.
Hanson writes: “The world that we are told about by our government bears no resemblance to what we see and hear every day… if there were not a demagogic Donald Trump ranting and raving on the scene, the country would probably have to invent something like him.”
Inventing redeemers has always been a mug’s game – one that Christianity, in all its prayerful placidity, tends to bear witness against. In his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Talmud scholar Brant Pitre disputes the long-held view that the Jews living under Roman occupation were expecting a circumcised Cyrus the Great. Instead, he argues, they envisioned a Messiah more on the order of a “second Moses.” In either case, most were confused and disappointed by what they actually got: Jesus, whose redemptive mission carried him to Calvary.
Advent in particular tends to inspire reflection on the complexity of a Messiah who took his time to enter the world, only to leave it – after a fairly short stay – more or less as he found it, with a promise to return on some unspecified date. One especially incisive reflection was scribbled on a purloined scrap of paper by Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J. when he was imprisoned in Tegel prison courtesy of Hitler:
Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent…
If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.
First, that life is both powerless and futile in so far as by itself it has neither purpose or fulfillment…Life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. Secondly it must be recognized that it is God’s alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility…
It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment…All we have to rely on is the fact that these promises have been given and that they will be kept. We are bound to depend on them – ‘the truth shall set you free.’ That is the ultimate theme of life. All else is mere explanation, compromise, application, continuation, proof, practice.
Delp was no character in a World War Two-era movie. He was a real man caught in the middle of the war itself. And he understood that the intervention of a Cyrus the Great, whose contemporary analog was Marshal Zhukov, would have only a limited impact in the long run. In its fallen state, mankind would go on imposing new captivities upon itself.
The waiting involved in Advent is no argument for political quietism, but it should stand as a rebuke to those who would go off half-cocked in a full moral panic and inflict sweeping solutions on ill-defined problems.