As we go through the Book of the Prophet Isaiah at Mass, we read of Israel’s painful purifications and also of a coming punishment of the surrounding nations. These ancient stories have something to say to us today.
As Isaiah sets forth, God permitted the nations to persecute Israel in order that she be purified. But the iniquity and sin of the nations and of this world cannot go on forever; wickedness must be ended. The Lord will judge the nations, not merely purify Israel.
In a complex passage, God says (through Isaiah) that although He had used Assyria as a tool to purify Israel, Assyria would not escape punishment for her iniquity. Here is an excerpt:
Woe to Assyria! My rod in anger, my staff in wrath. Against an impious nation [Israel] I send him, and against a people under my wrath I order him to seize plunder, carry off loot …. But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; Rather, it is in his heart to destroy …. [And] he says: “By my own power I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I am shrewd. I have moved the boundaries of peoples ….” Will the axe boast against him who hews with it? Will the saw exalt itself above him who wields it? As if a rod could sway him who lifts it …. Therefore, the Lord, the LORD of hosts, will send among his fat ones leanness, And instead of his glory there will be kindling like the kindling of fire (Isaiah 10:5-16).
Although God wielded Assyria like an axe to prune Israel, that did not make the axe good. And now it is time for the axe also to be refined as in fire.
What do stories like these have to say to us today? A lot, especially if we see Israel as an image for the Church, and the nations around us as akin to Assyria and Babylon.
For indeed, the Church has been going through a great pruning and purification. The once luxuriant vine of Catholicism and Christendom in the West is reduced. Only 25% of Catholics in the U.S. attend Mass; in Europe the numbers are far worse. Indifference to the faith and to God is widespread. Many are Catholic in name only. Yet for those who remain there is an increasingly fervent experience of the faith. On account of doubt and persecution, many of us are actually clearer about what we believe and why than we were in the past. There has been a great blossoming of Catholic apologetics and media. The smaller numbers of Catholics who remain are getting clearer, more devout, and more creative. And thus we see a pruning and purification that is so often necessary in the Church. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform).
This purification is being effected by God, who is permitting an increasingly secular and hostile world to afflict the Church. These afflictions take many forms: simple scoffing at our beliefs, the promulgation of error and lies to lead us away from the faith, the excoriating and even criminalization of long-held beliefs of our faith, and even outright martyring of believers.
For the time being, God seems to be permitting the “Assyria” of modern, decadent culture to afflict us. But things do by opposition grow. Even if God is wielding the axe of modernity now, this does not make the axe holy; soon enough the axe will have to answer for its wickedness.
What are faithful Catholics to do under the current circumstances? The answer to this may vary based our state in life (parent, priest, married, single, young, old, etc.). Many younger families are choosing to “hunker down” and live as isolated from our toxic culture as possible: homeschooling, restricting television viewing, and/or limiting Internet access.
Others have chosen to engage the culture boldly in order to seek its conversion and/or to rescue as many as possible from its grip.
Both approaches are certainly valid. But as we journey further into the darkness, the banners of tolerance under which the revolutionaries marched are increasingly being exposed for what they really are: banners of tyranny. They never really meant what they said about tolerance; it was just a smoke screen. Under the new tyranny, our options for influencing the culture are decreasing; faithful Catholics proclaiming ancient truths are seeing their religious liberty erode. Merely quoting certain Scripture passages or reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is being labeled hate speech. There are increasing efforts to compel faithful Catholics and others to directly cooperate in evils such as contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.
With all this in mind, a text from another part of Isaiah seems appropriate for an increasing number of Catholics:
Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath has passed by. For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain (Is 26:21-22).
In effect, this text advises the faithful to hunker down and preserve the faith by seeking to live as far apart from the prevailing culture as possible. Now that Israel’s purification was bearing fruit, God was preparing to punish the nations that afflicted His faithful in Israel.
A possible modern application of this text is to view the wickedness in current Western culture as a sign of the wrath of God, who is allowing it to collapse under the weight of its own sin. A kind of delusion and lunacy has taken hold that reminds one of a rabid animal madly running around in circles. Rabid animals are not to be engaged; flee from them!
Much as in the days of Noah, our job may well be to hunker down and preserve the faith from the flood of rebellion. Scripture says,
The nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her immorality. The kings of the earth were immoral with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown wealthy through the extravagance of her luxury. Then I heard another voice from heaven say: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven …” (Rev 18:3-5).
I will punish Bel in Babylon and make him spew out what he has swallowed. The nations will no longer stream to him. And the wall of Babylon will fall. Come out of her, my people! Run for your lives! Run from the fierce anger of the Lord. But do not lose heart or be afraid … (Jer 51:44-46).
In the months and years ahead, the priority for many in the Church may shift to a protective stance, a kind of hunkering down while God’s judgment brings an end to the evils in the cultures and nations around us.
This of course is not the usual stance of the Church, which ordinarily is to be zealously evangelical. But even the first evangelists were told by Jesus that in the face of fierce opposition to the Gospel they were to flee: When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another (Matt 10:24). There are times to hole up in the enclosure of the ark in order to preserve the life and light of the Gospel and then emerge again when the storms of destruction have passed by.
What does all of this mean to you? You must decide. Some may be called to isolate their families in order to preserve them from the caustic culture. Others may be called to engage with this world and seek to save as many as possible. But increasingly, the Church is simply not going to be able to make the compromises that the world will require.
Isaiah’s prophecies are not merely locked in the past; they are operative now as well.
In the video below, Bishop Robert Barron does a wonderful job of describing this stance (hunkering down) that the Church must occasionally take. It is a stance that is less one of hiding thank of preserving the faith so that it can be set loose later, with its purity still intact.