In the season of Advent we traditionally pick up the themes of HOPE, on the first Sunday, then PEACE, on the second Sunday, as we hear Isaiah’s powerful words of comfort to those wounded and ravaged by war, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . Isaiah has often been called ‘the fifth gospel’, because New Testament writers drew more heavily from Isaiah than they did from any other text. What is so powerful about Isaiah is that his writing opens up our horizons and encourage us to be bold, to think big, to be expansive. Isaiah’s words are powerful also because they are so poetically beautiful. They are lovely to read and listen to, but far more important is that they carry a vital message for all people. Isaiah reminds us that Christianity is both a personal faith as well as a public faith, and not simply a private religion.
Isaiah is both political and pastoral. He is political, not in a party political or narrow way, because he speaks into the current political arena to challenge injustice and cruelty, but also to help us find meaning in what is happening around us.
The church throughout the ages has always taken the opportunity to speak a prophetic word which can at times be uncomfortable, but also deeply reassuring.
One of the people that I have found inspiring is George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community. He received the Victoria Cross for bravery in the First World War, and had the courage to be a voice for peace during the Second World War. He became a Minister of the Church of Scotland and a member of the House of Lords. Whenever he spoke in Parliament it was often with great passion, eloquence and force on issues of social justice.
As leader of the Iona Community, George MacLeod stood in a long line of impressive church leaders that trace their spiritual heritage to people like Saint Columba. One of the books I am currently reading is a recently published work on Saint Columba where the author draws particularly on the writing of Adomnan, who was Abbot on Iona from 679 to 704. Adomnan was an Irish monk and close relative of Columba and I was deeply impressed to read that he wrote a law, called ‘The Law of Innocents’. You might ask why an Abbot of the Church is writing a ‘secular’ law, and the reason is that he played a significant role in persuading bishops and kings to act with justice. In order to promulgate this law and get it adopted he called a synod and invited kings and bishops to attend. Its main purpose was to place an obligation on the secular elite to protect women, children and members of religious orders from the perils of war. Adomnan felt strongly that such ‘innocents’ should be given immunity not only from marauding soldiery but also from the duties of military service. His law was adopted and served as a precedent for future legislation regarding the role of the military in relation to civilians in times of war.
Here is a Celtic Abbot, deeply concerned for innocent civilians in military conflict, who is inspired by Isaiah’s words, ‘Comfort, comfort my people…’. His response is to act to bring about change, and in doing so teaches us that the church is called to act for peace in each generation, seeking to be a ‘reminder’ to the wider society of the vision of God for this world; a vision of shalom, of wholeness and harmony.
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