They say that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” When people say this they mean that compromise and cooperation are necessary in a democratic polity like the one we live in. In other words, in order to get things done politically, alliances must be forged between groups that disagree. Hence the “strange bedfellows,” as groups make common cause on what they can agree on, pursuing “the art of the possible” instead of what is completely perfect, and manifestly unachievable.
Our first reading gives us an example, drawn from ancient Israel, of strange political bedfellows. It’s a prophecy of Isaiah, bringing the word that political deliverance for God’s People will come through King Cyrus of Persia, who will allow the return of the exiled Israelites. The Kingdom of Judah had been destroyed in the time of the Babylonians, but now a new alliance has arisen. Cyrus holds the reigns of power, and the People can return. “I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron” (Is. 45:2), God says through Isaiah in our reading today. The doors of the prison will be busted open and the People are returning home. Under Cyrus, the political gridlock has been broken and things are beginning to move.
What is unique and unusual about this moment in the history of God’s People is (to spell out the obvious): Cyrus is a pagan, a worshipper of fire, and not a worshipper of the God of Israel. “I call you by your name… though you do not know me” (Is. 45:4): that is, God knows Cyrus even if Cyrus doesn’t know God. God has called him to his position even before Cyrus had even heard about this particular political problem; before the issue of the exiled Israelites was a blip on his radar screen.
Our reading even calls Cyrus God’s anointed: that is, “Messiah.” Under the old law, this term was usually reserved for the kings of Israel, who were chosen and anointed by God. Its use in this way for a pagan king is unique in the Hebrew Scriptures. “I arm you, though you do not know me” (Is. 45:5), it says in our reading. In other words, God has given Cyrus, the pagan king, power to resolve the crisis of the exiles’ return; armed him with the authority that he needs to bring the People home. Cyrus may represent a strange political bedfellow for the People of Israel, but that’s how God works.
God’s call of Cyrus, and his designation as “Messiah” may be messy, but it’s part and parcel of God’s providential ordering of history; of God’s intervention here and now in the real world. God gives us a space and time in which to respond; a space and time where we can “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21), as it says in our Gospel. This is the time of “strange bedfellows,” of those providential alliances and occurrences through which God works.
Sometimes God’s work in our time is not clear to us; sometimes it is mysterious or even confounding. It’s not what we expect, or even what we think we were promised. This is especially true as we look at events in the world around us. These shocking events can leave us scratching our heads and wondering how God could be at work in them.
Yet this has always been the case. After all, didn’t God promise to be with the House of David forever, to raise up a descendant of King David to lead the People? How could Cyrus, a pagan king, fulfill the prophecy? Cyrus’ designation as “Messiah” reminds us that this prophecy was never perfectly fulfilled by any of David’s descendants as king, or even by Cyrus himself, but only by the birth of Jesus Christ, “great David’s greater son,” as it says in the hymn. God’s intervention through the King of Persia was providential, so that the exiles could return, and God’s will could be done in Jesus Christ, in whom all prophecy was fulfilled.
God’s actions can confound us, surprising and shocking us and blasting us out of our confident expectations. This is never more clear than on Good Friday, when the true Messiah is hung upon a cross and gives up his life for the salvation of the world. God’s providential ordering of the world requires faith, trust in the One who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
It says in our reading today, “I form light and create darkness”. Could anything be darker than the shadow of the cross, any light brighter than the day of resurrection? “I make weal and create woe”: again, is there any greater sorrow than his sorrow, any greater blessing than the salvation of the world? “I the Lord do all these things” (Is. 45:7): light and darkness, weal and woe. We trust in God in the midst of the events of our time, messy and unpredictable as they are, looking for God to act in surprising and unimaginable ways.