Our memories are often linked to significant events. Will people in the future say, I wonder, that for most of us 2020 was the year that COVID began? Sometimes it is personal recollections that mark the passing of time. Four years ago my father-in-law died on Boxing Day and my mother on New Year’s Eve. It brought to an end a year we shall never forget. For both its global significance and no doubt the sense of personal loss, 2021 will probably live with 2020 as a watershed in our collective perception of time.
It surprises some people that the demise of a King is the theme for a Christmas carol. Michael Nicholas’s composition ‘Twas in the Year that King Uzziah Died’, featured in an afternoon concert on Radio 3 recently and lies in a long tradition of settings for this text (including Dr Francis Jackson CBE, onetime Director of Music at York Minster). The words from Isaiah feel an incongruous and unpromising start to a carol, and perhaps explain why it doesn’t sit in the canon of popular nativity anthems. Equally, it is clear why this moment would remain with the prophet throughout his life. In that year, Isaiah had an astounding vision of the Lord. It was awesome and overwhelming, spectacular and sobering. At that moment, Isaiah sees himself in the presence of God and feels his unworthiness. The text in Isaiah builds the sense of scale and magnificence. The celestial speech of seraphs, and the music and cries of acclamation are so great that the pivots on the threshold shake.
And at their cry the lintels moved apace,
And clouds of incense filled the holy place.
From overpowering beauty Isaiah is asked to undertake a thankless task. He is called to prophecy the destruction of the people; the laying waste of the land; the failure of the crops. After Uzziah’s long reign, during which much of the security and fabric of Jerusalem was restored, the people are to face the loss of everything they possess. Isaiah’s task is to tell prophetic truth – as Alison Phipps puts it:
The beautifully excessive, poetic, edgy speech of the prophet who is experiencing a ‘surfeit of aliveness’ (Scarry 2001: 89) as conferred by the beauty of God’s right relationships marks out what Brueggemann terms a ‘counterscript’ (Brueggemann 2007). This ‘counterscript’ is a steady, careful truth-telling about the wrongness and wrongedness of present relationships between God and God’s (ex-) people; between people and people; between the more-than-human-world (creation) and human beingsPhipps, A. (2010). 7th February: 5th after Epiphany. The expository times, 121(4), 187-188
The message given to Isaiah was that after the terrible time to come, a stump would survive the desolation. Out of this unpromising remnant the life of the people would continue. The role of the prophet is to tell the reality of what is unfolding and foretell the hope that is to come. In this way the prophets steer Israel through times when a better future would have seemed impossible – the accuracy of their carefully narrated truth enabling the people to have confidence in the description of a better world that lies beyond their present troubles. Realistic about current woes, prophecy is capable of stirring people to work towards enduring change.
Last week we lamented the loss of a contemporary prophet – Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was certainly someone who epitomised this ‘surfeit of aliveness’ and the relentless truth-telling that offered a counter-narrative to both the evils of apartheid and the temptation for retribution. Tutu did not hold his friends to a lesser standard than he held those who had operated and enabled segregation. He wanted to save the nation of South African for everyone and offer the world a different model of community.
As we embark on 2022 we need voices that expose the injustices of our world and challenge short-sighted self interest. The pandemic will not end until we have much better levels of vaccination across the world. Narrow self-interest must rise above the narrative of ‘me and mine’ to recognise and act on our responsibilities to humanity. What is true for COVID-19 is no less true for climate change. We cannot cut ourselves off and live lives disconnected from the poorer nations of our planet. The truth is that we are all in these defining issues together, and we shall prosper, live or die, together. Long may the prophets continue to trouble us – and hold out the hope of our salvation.