I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The LORD GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced… (Is 50:6:7)
The farsighted utterances of the prophet Isaiah generally known as the Suffering Servant Prophecies (which include the quotation above) are written in the past tense. This should amaze not only Christians, but every person with an open mind toward religion. This is because if, for instance, we heard a man saying: “I went to the grocery store and picked up some fruits and vegetables”, we must assume that this man already completed the task. Such would also be the case if we overheard the man say, “I gave my back to those who beat me…” In this case we would surmise that the man was captured by an enemy and mistreated in the past. Yet, this same sentence was written by Isaiah some seven centuries before the action ever came true. For some reason, the Spirit of God wished to describe a future event using the past tense. This is not a case of “going back to the future”, but rather of going forward to the past!
Why didn’t Isaiah write instead, “I will give my back to those who will beat me…” like when he wrote, “a virgin will conceive a son and will call him Immanuel? Why is the Incarnation in the future tense for Isaiah, but the Passion in the past tense? One spiritual explanation is that since the future tense of a verb gives the sense of something that still has to be proven, the past tense gives the sense of it being proved. Hence, while the Spirit wanted the Incarnation to require our verification, the Spirit desired that the Passion be already verified. In spiritual terms this means that we are to await the joy, having acknowledged the sacrifice.
To commemorate the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on this Palm or Passion Sunday, we have placed on our bulletin cover another work of James Tissot entitled The Scourging on the Back (1894 – courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum). Here we see the sad but glorious fulfillment of the quotation of Isaiah. We say “here” because even though the Passion is in the past we explore its science and its art in the present during every season of Lent. Whether in the Stations of the Cross or the reading of the Passion or the meditation on the Crucifix or in the present suffering of ourselves or of those we love, we attempt to experience and understand the loving and redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Many other denominations of Christians would desire that Catholics just get over it; that we take Jesus off our crosses and move on to the Resurrection. Well, we do get there eventually, as we will next Sunday. But first we prefer to be faithfully biblical and revel with Isaiah in the past and future tenses. We also revel with the Psalmist in the present tense as when he proclaims of Our Lord’s sacrifice, “My heart is ready O’ God; my heart is ready!” (Ps 108:1)
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services