Today’s first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, was arresting. I’m not sure I’d ever read or heard it before. Or if I had, I hadn’t really paid attention:
When peaceful stillness compassed everything and the night in its swift course was half spent,
Your all-powerful word from heaven’s royal throne bounded, a fierce warrior, into the doomed land, bearing the sharp sword of your inexorable decree.
And as he alighted, he filled every place with death; he still reached to heaven, while he stood upon the earth.
For all creation, in its several kinds, was being made over anew, serving its natural laws, that your children might be preserved unharmed.
The cloud overshadowed their camp; and out of what had before been water, dry land was seen emerging:
Out of the Red Sea an unimpeded road, and a grassy plain out of the mighty flood.
Over this crossed the whole nation sheltered by your hand, after they beheld stupendous wonders.
For they ranged about like horses, and bounded about like lambs, praising you, O LORD! their deliverer.
—Book of Wisdom 18:14-16, 19:6-9.
I had such a great discussion of it with Sophie and Bella and I thought I’d just jot down some of my thoughts.
It opens with the world at peace and still but also shrouded in the dark of night. Which reminds me of the imagery in Isaiah: the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. But also the Christmas proclamation of the Nativity of the Lord from the Roman Martyrology: “. . . in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace. . .” And also the imagery in last Sunday’s Gospel of the wise and foolish virgins awaiting the Bridegroom who comes in the night.
I love the verb “bounded”. And the imagery of Christ, the all-powerful Word, as a fierce warrior going into the doomed land to set it free. But how can it be about Jesus, Sophie asks, when it’s the Old Testament and he hasn’t been born yet? Well, I say, all of the Bible is about Jesus. The Old Testament prepares for his coming and so he’s spoken about in a hidden way. And yet all of it is really about Him. He is the Word, the Gospel of John tells us, and so here in the Book of Wisdom, we see the all-powerful word coming from heaven’s royal throne, who else could this be but Jesus, the Son, the Word?
I was a little stumped at “he filled every place with death” because Jesus is the Lord of Life, the God of the living, not the bringer of death. But then I remembered the acclamation of the mystery of our faith that we make after the consecration: “we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come again.” The acclamation of his death fills the whole world, at every Mass, on the tongue of everyone who is baptized. Yes, indeed, we are marked with the sign of his death, the cross, when we are baptized, we are baptized into his death. His death is our life, but before we can live again we must die. We must die to sin and to self-love. And so we see that, paradoxically, by filling every place with death, he brings life to the world.
Also, I love the word “alighted”. Like a bird. Like the Spirit who comes in the form of a dove. It’s such a wonderfully dynamic verb. As are “reached” and “stood”. That’s another fine, strong image: “he still reached to heaven, while he stood upon the earth.” A man standing on the earth reaching to heaven… in my mind he’s almost like Atlas, spanning the distance between earth and heaven. But unlike Atlas, bent under the weight of heaven, the Word reaches up to touch the heavens. While Jesus comes to earth, to be our light, our bridegroom, our fierce warrior, still he is always united with the Father and the Spirit. He reaches to heaven constantly, never separated from his Father but always reaching out to him in prayer.
“For all creation, in its several kinds, was being made over anew,” Compare to the Book of Revelation: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Sophie and Bella and I talked about the various times God makes things new and the various times we see dry land emerging from water. After the Flood. As Israel crosses the Red Sea. As they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. So here the verse is specifically referring to God leading Israel out of Egypt: “out of what had before been water, dry land was seen emerging: Out of the Red Sea an unimpeded road, and a grassy plain out of the mighty flood.” But there are those other echoes too. And these all come together in ritual of baptism in the blessing of the water:
Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power.
In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament.
At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness.
The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness.
Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.
In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit.
Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from his side as he hung upon the cross.
After his resurrection he told his disciples: “Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
I love the tenderness of the image of Israel “sheltered by (God’s) hand” as they cross through the waters. God’s hand, so intimate a gesture. Not just protected by his power, but sheltered by his hand. It puts me in mind of having a learning-to-walk baby and the way I’d put out my hand to keep her from bumping her head on the table when she didn’t realize she didn’t have enough clearance.
Also, the idea of the “ unimpeded road” emerging from the sea makes me think of Jesus as the Way emerging from the waters of the Jordan. He is the road, the path, not just the destination towards which we are headed. Too often I forget that.
And we end with an image of rejoicing: bounding like lambs. The repetition of the verb “bounded” brings us full circle. The Word bounds down from heaven and the response of the people is to likewise bound. But while the Word is a warrior, the people are like horses or lambs. Horses who are tamed by a warrior. Or sheep rejoicing at the presence of the Shepherd.