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29 December 2020

“Behold, I make all things new”: A biblical insight on transformation

I was asked to meditate with you on this wonderful phrase, “Behold, I make all things new”, taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 43:19. An inspiring passage! 

It is even more inspiring when we know the historical context in which this prophecy was proclaimed. The prophet intervenes at a tragic time. The people of the Covenant have just experienced a great catastrophe. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem: he set the city on fire and destroyed the temple, the symbol of the presence of God. He killed all the king’s sons and deported him to Babylonia along with a large part of the population.

You can imagine that the deportees are completely discouraged. They are in the midst of post-traumatic stress disorder. They have so much grief to process. They all know people who were killed. In addition, several were torn from their families to be
deported. This is reminiscent of the situation of the Acadians in 1755. They also have to mourn their liturgy: they can no longer offer sacrifices to the Lord, since they no longer have a temple. Far from their land, they feel like they are separated from their god and can no longer pray to him. This is expressed very well in Psalm 137: “How would we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” They have to somehow mourn their god. Anyhow, they no longer understand their god YHWH quite so much. If they are his chosen people, how is it that such great misfortunes have happened to them?

It is in the midst of this serious crisis that the prophet makes the word of God resonate. It is already extraordinary news to discover that the voice of God can reach them even in their exile. God did not forsake them. If He speaks to them, it means that God is there with them, at the heart of the crisis, and what God tells them is astounding. “Here I am doing something new.”

We too have experienced a lot of grief because of the coronavirus and the confinement. Many of us have lost loved ones. Many of us have had to mourn certain liturgies, gatherings, activities that were close to our hearts. We are hurt by it all. We have been through a crisis and it is not over yet.

Let us go back to our text from Isaiah: “Behold, I make all things new.” It is worth listening to the whole verse and the one that precedes it (hence, 18 and 19):

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The prophet says that the novelty is already emerging at the very heart of the crisis, at the very core of the grieving situation. The new is here and sprouting. And to speak of sprouting is to speak of something that starts small, but that carries a dynamism of growth.

The prophet therefore invites to an exercise of discernment. He invites us to be attentive to see what God is cultivating, at the very heart of the disaster. God speaks in the present tense. In fact, in Hebrew, there is a present participle: “here I am doing something new.” This is an ongoing action. I would even say that the ruins of the disaster become the fertilizer for what germinates.

The prophet also employs other very inspiring images. He announces that God is going to open a way in the desert. A path is what allows one to move forward, to pass through. God will therefore offer the way out of the crisis. Moreover, he promises an abundance of water in arid places. Water is life! We understand that God will make life spring from situations of death.

In order to perceive the newness of God, welcome it and enter into it, the past must be renounced. The prophet calls us not to be caught up in the past or to desperately cling to it. He asks us to “forget the past.”

Did you notice who the subject of the renewal actions is? “I make all thing new”, “I am going to make a path pass through the desert…” It is He, God, who is active. He doesn’t require us humans to be able to be creative. God will take care of it. What He is asking is to be attentive to what He is bringing up. He invites us to trust Him. Are we ready for this?

The proclamation of the 2nd Isaiah is taken up by John of Patmos, the seer of the Apocalypse, in 21: 5. Once again, this word of God is heard following a terrible drama. This time we are in the Roman Empire, probably in the early 90s. The young Christian community has experienced traumatic events. The great persecution unleashed by Emperor Nero has left deep marks. Many Christians died violently, including Saint Paul and Saint Peter. These persecutions are over, but the Church faces another threat: the assimilation of Christians. The whole Roman propaganda machine seeks to make Christians citizens like the others. Moreover, several Christians, to avoid any problem and any form of persecution, have joined the ranks and abandoned their faith (Rev 12: 4). The Church is experiencing a new crisis. It was then that John made the voice of God resound: “Here I am making all things new.”

According to John, since the present world seems corrupt and as the Roman Empire seems humanly invincible, he announces that God is going to create a new world. And again, God does not require humans to be able to effect this transformation on their own. It is He, God, who will bring about this radical novelty.

Surprisingly, John proclaims in the next verse: “It happened!” (V. 6) How can John announce that the new world has arrived? Why not say: “it will happen, it will come!”? Instead, he talks about it as something already done. Why?

It is because of the paschal mystery. Another crisis, another mourning from which God was able to bring about novelty. Jesus’ death looked like a failure. This death on the cross caused distress and despair (Lk 24:21) among the disciples. However, God had made something new, something unexpected out of it: he raised Jesus from the dead. John is convinced that the new world has started because Jesus has already entered it. And since Jesus is in this new world, we are also there in a certain way since we are grafted onto him by our faith. He is the head and we are his body (Eph 5:23.30). Personally, a woman and mother of five children helped me to understand this when she explained to me that the most difficult part of giving birth is getting the baby’s head out. Once the head has passed, the rest of the body comes out easily, since the passage is open.

The same is true for us. Our head, Christ, has come to new life. He entered this radical novelty. The rest of the body will then follow.

Yes, God is at work bringing about the new world. Let us u not cling to things from before, or to past ways of doing things. Let us open our eyes. Can we not see it?

* Fr. Michel Proulx, member of the CRC Theological Commission, presented this reflection as part of the September 22 and 24, 2020 webinars proposed to the CRC members.

Father Michel Proulx, O Praem, professor and member of the CRC Theological Commission

This text is taken from the Fall 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Hope in Times of the Pandemic”.