Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
Isa 60:1-5; from Isa 60:1-7, lectionary for Sunday, Jan 5, 2020
This has been a burdened season — not without its moments of connection, even joy — but overall heavy. Nor did the turn of old year into new do much to lift the weight of it. Our daughter re-capped the past few days: Jan. 1 ‘Happy New Year!’; Jan. 2 ‘Australia’s burning’; Jan. 3 ‘World War III’s begun.’ The specter of international conflict seems to be solidifying as we watch. National news reports more racial and anti-Semitic violence. Nor let us forget presidential impeachment voted but not yet (if ever?) tried.
I spend New Year’s Day in the Isaiah text. I just read it, first. Read it with my eyes. Form the words with my lips. Try to hear them in my mind. The first line sings to me in choral crescendo — I can see the singers increasing their volume, lifting voices and shoulders and faces in joy. The first line sings to me celebration. And maybe, I think, that is right. All those singers rejoicing in the season, in the Christ Child born, in the Magi coming, in the gifts presented. ‘Arise, shine!’ the singers sing with heady energy — already risen, already aglow — as if what they sing is the lyric of their own shining delight. As if they sing to share their gladness, to invite others — me — into it: you, too, may know; you, too, may rise as we do! But that is not the prophet’s lyric. The song is not of joy-attained, the chorus of the already-glad inviting me to listen, even perhaps to sing along. The song is of joy-promised.
‘Arise, shine,’ the prophet urges a woman. The imperatives are singular, feminine. The ‘you’ throughout the text (‘the LORD has risen upon you’; ‘your light’; ‘your eyes’; ‘your sons’) is grammatically the same: singular, feminine. The woman addressed is not yet risen, nor yet shining — else she would not have to be summoned to it. The woman addressed is aware of the darkness. She needs news of the light.
‘Lift up your eyes and look around’ the prophet urges. Now my mental picture changes. No longer the choir triumphant (perhaps a bit smug in its own gladness?) but a woman weighted with grief. Her shoulders are slumped. Her head is bowed. What she sees is the ground. Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground that’s been trampled by war. Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground to which some survivors have returned but found that the dear-claimed earth did not bring forth for them new and abundant life but remained a patch of briars from which hard-scrabble living had to be wrested. Within the book of Isaiah, it is ground over which the community itself squabbles, hacks itself into divisions, re-opens injuries already suffered, revives the cut of the expected future lost. This is the one to whom the lyric is addressed. This woman with her burden so heavy that her body is bowed under it. Within the book of Isaiah, she is Zion, the holy city, the daughter-people. Outside of it, she is any of us weighted and aching, all of us waiting in the dark.
‘Arise, shine. … Lift up your eyes and look around.’ The lost future grieved is returning to you — not in the same form as before (the sons and daughters, so grown they are!) — but a future sprung new.
‘Arise, shine’ — it is possible, not of your own light, but of the LORD’s. God’s glory risen (60:1). God’s glory soon to appear (60:2). There’s a tension between the tenses — has the LORD’s glory already come or is it yet to be? Yes, the text says. The tension recurs in v.4: ‘they all gather together’ is already to be seen; even as the coming and being carried is yet to be. Maybe that paradox of disparate tenses is what draws the woman in and on towards the possibility of joy: ‘you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (v.5) — the action couched as yet incomplete, but promised sure. And because of that promise, of the interplay of already and not-yet, the woman to whom the whole is sung can see and hear and know the pattern well enough to anticipate and live its next turn. Rounding back to the beginning of the text, she can get up and she can shine because shining already is, because now she can see the dawn even before the sun has risen above the horizon.
‘Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ (v.5) promises the NRSV. The literal Hebrew says your heart — her heart, my heart — will tremble and be opened wide. Grief curls us inward. There is risk to opening an already-aching heart. Hence the trembling perhaps. It comes of hope, of amazement: that this wonder should be! But the text proclaims it is. And I want to see it come. Not to wait until it taps me on my shoulder and bids me rise, but to straighten as I can at the sound of the news, to lift my head and look to the horizon for the light that is coming and the light that has come and the glory appearing, even now.