The first reading at Tuesday’s daily Mass presents a complex picture, but its fundamental message is clear. Isaiah announces that there will be a period of political stability among the nations and enemies surrounding Israel. It is a time of favor during which Israel can repent of its injustice and infidelity. If they do not, however, Israel will be destroyed within sixty-five years. Here is an excerpt from the reading:
Then the LORD said to Isaiah: Go out to meet Ahaz [King of Judah] … and say to him: Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear; let not your courage fail … Damascus is the capital of Aram, and Rezin is the head of Damascus; Samaria is the capital of Ephraim, and Remaliah’s son the head of Samaria. But within sixty years and five, Ephraim shall be crushed, no longer a nation. Unless your faith is strong you shall not be strong! (Isaiah 7:1-9)
Isaiah is warning Ahaz not to seek protection in foreign alliances and entanglements. He is not to follow the example of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which has done this and already lost the faith to a large degree. Ahaz and Judah are summoned to firm faith in God; this is what will make them strong.
Note the final warning: Unless your faith is not strong you shall not be strong! While this is surely true for an individual, the context here is a nation. If the nation’s faith is not strong it will grow weak and fall to pieces.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already lost faith. Prophet after prophet had summoned her to repent of injustice and infidelity, but great wickedness still abounded. Weak and inwardly divided, it sought foreign alliances with pagan nations. This is what happens when a nation’s faith is no longer strong. As Isaiah predicted, within sixty-five years the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed. The Assyrians delivered the lethal blow in 721 B.C.
What of us today? Our nation receives this same warning today: Unless your faith is strong you will not be strong.
How have we fared in the United States of America (and in the Western World in general)? We have collectively moved God and the faith to the margins. Few Americans attend Mass; agnosticism and atheism are on the rise; public prayer and religious displays are being limited by force of law. Religious liberty seems to be under constant attack. Secularism is surely on the rise, and it is more than a “lazy” secularism that regards God and faith as irrelevant. It is becoming more militant by the day, declaring that faith and God’s teachings are hateful, are dangerous, and in some cases should be criminalized.
To what has this led? Our moral lives are compromised, and our families are disintegrating. Sexual confusion of the deepest sort has proliferated. Addictions of all kinds abound. Divisions among fellow citizens are growing wider. Love for our country and for our fellow citizens are turning to hate. Violence is growing, both by individuals and more recently by mobs. We are also becoming fearful of one another. Gun purchases are skyrocketing. The current COVID-19 situation has made some fear the very presence of others anywhere nearby. The list could go on. All of this weakens us and stabs at the heart of the love and loyalty that must exist for a nation and culture to be strong.
This is not new; Isaiah and the prophets warned the ancient Jews of it. St. Paul also described the condition of a failing culture in several of his writings. Doesn’t this description of the crumbling Roman Empire sound familiar?
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:18-32).
If this doesn’t describe our very times, I don’t know what does! And why does all this happen? St. Paul said it clearly: they suppressed the truth; they refused to perceive God in what He has made; they did not honor Him or give him due thanks. This is a picture of the result when a nation kicks God to the curb, when its faith is not strong. Every sort of disorder and hostility prevails.
In Galatians, St. Paul listed the bad fruits of “the flesh,” which refers to an attitude hostile to the things of the Spirit and of God:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21).
This passage, too, describes our times in the United States and in the West, once the center of Christendom.
I do not contend that past decades or centuries were sinless, but there was a time—not so long ago—when people in our land married and mostly stayed married; when fornication, adultery, and homosexual acts were considered sinful; when there was no controversy about which bathroom to use; when abortion was illegal; when what makes a marriage was agreed upon; when the nuclear family was treasured; when the general ingredients for a healthy society were insisted upon. And though there has always been and will always be political division, our general discourse was more civil, open expression of hatred was less acceptable, and a general love of country prevailed even if differently understood. We had sectarian differences, but a generally biblical perspective drove the moral order, and the importance of faith and religion was recognized.
Much of this has eroded as we have allowed our faith to want and have collectively shown God the door. Are we stronger as a nation? Clearly not. And as our social morbidities increase, we are becoming another illustration of Isaiah’s warning, Unless your faith is strong you shall not be strong.