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BY Jim Cosgrove
The wonderful canticle we have just heard, which is included in morning prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, begins like a Magnificat: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul” (Isaiah 61:10). The text is found in the third part of the Book of Isaiah the prophet, in a section scholars attribute to a later period when Israel, having returned from the exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C., had resumed its life as a free nation in the land of its forefathers and was rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. It is no accident, as we shall see, that this canticle centers on the Holy City, whose future is full of light and hope.
A Nation Reborn
The prophet begins his song by portraying a nation that has been reborn and that is clothed in splendid garments, like a couple engaged to be married and ready for the great day of their wedding celebration (see verse 10). Immediately afterward, reference is made to another symbol — the shoot of a plant — that is an expression of life, joy and newness (see verse 11).
The prophets refer in various ways to this imagery of the shoot in order to portray the messianic king (see Isaiah 11:1, 53:2; Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 3:8, 6:12). The Messiah is a shoot that is fruitful and that renews the world, and the prophet makes clear the deep meaning of this vitality: “So will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up …” (Isaiah 61:11). In this way, the Holy City will become like a garden of justice — of faithfulness, truth, law and love. As the prophet said shortly before, “You shall call your walls “salvation” and your gates “praise” (Isaiah 60:18).
The prophet continues to speak out forcefully: His song is unrelenting as he tries to portray the rebirth of Jerusalem, for which a new era is about to begin (see Isaiah 62:1). The city is depicted as a bride who is about to celebrate her wedding.
God's Chosen Bride
The symbolism of the bride and the bridegroom, which appears with force in this passage (see verses 4-5), is one of the most intense images used in the Bible to exalt the bond of intimacy and the covenant of love that exists between the Lord and his chosen people. Her beauty, which consists of “salvation,” “justice” and “glory” (see verses 1-2), will be so wonderful that she will be able to be “a royal diadem held by your God” (see verse 3).
The decisive element is the name change, which also happens in our days when a young woman gets married. Assuming a “new name” (see verse 2) is almost tantamount to assuming a new identity, undertaking a mission and a radical change in lifestyle (see Genesis 32:25-33).
The new name of Jerusalem the bride assumes and that will represent all of God's people is illustrated in a contrast the prophet states very specifically: “No more shall men call you “forsaken” or your land “desolate,” but you shall be called 'my delight,” and your land “espoused.” For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse” (Isaiah 62:4). Names that referred to the city's prior situation of abandonment and desolation — the devastation of the city by the Babylonians and the long drama of the exile — are now replaced with names that denote rebirth and renewal and that are terms of love, endearment, celebration and happiness.
At this point, attention is focused on the bridegroom. Here is the big surprise: The Lord himself gives Zion her new married name. The final sentence is especially amazing since it picks up the theme of the love song the people sang: “As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you” (verse 5).
United in Love
The song no longer exalts the marriage between a king and queen; rather, it celebrates the profound love that unites God and Jerusalem forever. The Lord finds the same happiness in his earthly bride, which is the holy nation, which a husband experiences in his beloved wife. God, who was distant, transcendent and a righteous judge, is now replaced by a God who is nearby and loving. This symbolism of a wedding is used in the New Testament (see Ephesians 5:21-32) and was taken up and developed by the Fathers of the Church. For example, St. Ambrose reminds us that in this perspective, “the bridegroom is Christ and the bride is the Church, spouse because of love, virgin because of intact purity” (Esposizione del Vangelo secondo Luca: Opere esegetiche, X/II, Milan-Rome, 1978, p. 289).
In another of his works he goes on to say: “The Church is beautiful. This is why the Word of God says to her: “You are all beautiful, my beloved, and there is no blemish in you” (Song of Songs 4:7), because the fault was submerged. … That is why the Lord Jesus — moved by the desire of so great a love, by the beauty of her dress and of her grace, given that in those who have been purified there is no more filth of any guilt — says to the Church: “Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm” (Song of Songs 8:6). In other words, you are adorned, my soul, you are all beautiful, nothing is lacking in you! “Set me as a seal on your heart,” so that your faith may shine forth in the fullness of the sacrament. Your works will also shine forth and reveal the image of God, in whose image you were made” (I misteri, nn. 49.41:Opere Dogmatiche, III, Milan- Rome, 1982, p. 156-157).(Register translation)