by Father Mike Stubbs
Traditionally, certain literary devices characterize English poetry.
For example, the last syllables of the verses often rhyme, creating a pattern: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” The verses also usually follow a regular rhythm, with a set number of beats.
Similarly, Hebrew poetry also draws upon an assortment of literary devices. One of the most common among these is parallelism. The lines appear in pairs, with the second line sometimes echoing the preceding line, sometimes presenting a contrast. In any case, the two lines are linked to each other. They are parallel. Sunday’s first reading, Is 49:14-15, offers us good examples of parallelism: “My Lord has forgotten me” echoes the preceding line, “The Lord has forsaken me.” The two lines express similar concepts. In that way, they are parallel.
The next two lines also show parallelism: “be without tenderness for the child of her womb” repeats the idea delineated in the line before it, “Can a mother forget her infant?”
The presence of parallelism in this passage identifies it as poetry, not prose. It reminds us that the prophets ordinarily spoke in a poetic style. That is why it can be inappropriate to impose a literal interpretation on their writings.
Besides parallelism, they drew upon other poetic devices in formulating their message. Vivid images, metaphor, simile — all characterize Hebrew poetry, much like the poetry of other cultures.
In this reading from Isaiah, one image pops out at us — that of a mother with her baby. It shows us an enduring and powerful love.
Then, the prophet makes his point: God’s love is even stronger. Once again, this point arrives in the form of two parallel lines, a classic parallelism. But this time, instead of the second line echoing the preceding line, it makes a strong contrast with it: “Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”
We can extend the striking image of the mother with her child to apply
to our own situation as a recipient of the prophetic message. Just as a mother comforts her child, so also these words of God comfort us.
This image in Isaiah of the mother with her baby anticipates the Christian image of the Madonna and Child, Mary with the Child Jesus.
That is appropriate, since the Blessed Mother brings us the incarnate Word. What could be more comforting than that?