Friday, December 16, 2016

Letting God In: The 4th Sunday of Advent


As Christians, we tend to assume that the idea of God coming into ones’ life is always an attractive concept.  However, that’s a bit naïve.  Having the almighty creator of the universe come into one’s reality could also be an upsetting prospect.  When doing evangelism, I have encountered people who understood the concept of “letting Jesus into your life” very well, but didn’t want that to happen, because it might upset the apple cart, so to speak.  A God living within you might want to change things.  He might want to take over.  Are we ready for that?

In this Sunday’s Readings, we encounter situations in which people found the “invasion” of God into their lives a little bit distressing.  The Readings remind us that Jesus is not a passive presence within us.  He is a meek and humble babe, yes: but also a challenging Lord.

1.  The First Reading is from Is 7:10-14:

The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying:
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God;
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered,
“I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Then Isaiah said:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary people,
must you also weary my God?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,
and shall name him Emmanuel.

This famous prophecy of the virgin birth is a favorite text for secularized religion professors in the colleges and universities, who like to use it to disabuse their Christian students of their “naïve” notions of Scripture.

They like to point out that the Hebrew word translated “virgin” in English “doesn’t really” mean virgin, and that the prophecy is really about some royal heir born in the 700’s BC, and has nothing to do with Jesus. 

So what’s the real story here?

It takes some time to explain.

When we read all of Isaiah 7, we realized that this interaction between Isaiah and King Ahaz of Judah has a lot of backstory.  We remember that David united all the tribes of Israel under his kingship around 1000 BC, and this united Kingdom of Israel flourish under his rule and that of his heir Solomon into the late 900’s BC.  After Solomon’s death, however, the kingdom split into northern Israel (comprised of about ten tribes) and southern Judah (comprised of about two tribes).  Judah continued to be ruled by the descendants of David. 

In the succeeding centuries, the northern Kingdom of Israel was generally larger and wealthier, if politically more unstable.  By the mid-700s BC, the king of Israel decided to enlist the Syrians as allies in an attempt to conquer the southern Kingdom of Judah.  The king of Judah at this time was a descendant of David named Ahaz—a weak-willed and spiritually lukewarm and unfaithful ruler.  During his reign, God raised up the prophet Isaiah to urge the people of Judah to return to fidelity to the Lord God of Israel.  Isaiah frequently rebuked Ahaz for dabbling in idolatry and paganism, and allowing the populace to do likewise. 

Nonetheless, Ahaz was the son of David, and God was not willing at this time to let the Kingdom of David be destroyed by the Israelites and Syrians.  So God sent Isaiah to bolster Ahaz’s courage.  This leads us to the incident recorded in our First Reading.  Isaiah accosted Ahaz at one of the main intersections on the road leading out of Jerusalem.  He urged the king to stand strong in the face of the foreign threat, and even offered to give the king a miraculous sign to strengthen his faith, as God did for Gideon and others in ancient times. 
 Seal of King Ahaz: "Of Ahaz son of Jotham, King of Judah"

To this offer, Ahaz responds with false piety: “I will not put the Lord to the test!” Ahaz says, quoting from the Law of Moses (Deut 6:16).  This is a bit much coming from a person like Ahaz, who has never been too concerned about following God’s law before.  It’s like a politician with a track record of scandals and immoral legislation suddenly quoting Scripture and talking about what a devout Catholic he is. 

Neither Isaiah nor the LORD can stomach the hypocrisy of Ahaz’s response.  “Oh, spare me, please!” is essentially Isaiah’s reaction: “Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary people, must you also weary my God?”  In other words, you’re not just trying my patience, you are trying God’s patience!

Then, Isaiah announces that God will choose a sign to give to Ahaz: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin (‘almah) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

The Hebrew word translated “virgin” is ‘almah, which is not the technical term for virgin in Hebrew (betheulah), but corresponds closely to the old English term maiden, which used to denote an unmarried young woman who was presumed to be a virgin.  In fact, maidenhood or maidenhead was at one time meant “virginity.”

The Hebrew word ‘almah is rare, occuring only seven times in the Hebrew Bible.  In every case, it refers to an unmarried young woman (or women).  In Song 6:8, in fact, the ‘almoth (plural of ‘almah) are explicitly distinguished from other classes of women (queens and concubines, i.e. primary and secondary wives) who are already in a physical relationship with the king.

Thus, the Hebrew ‘almah is so close in meaning and semantic range with the Greek word parthenos (think “Parthenon,” the Temple to the ‘virgin’ goddess Athena), usually translated “virgin,” that the Jewish scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek in the 200’s BC (the Septuagint translation or LXX) used parthenos to render ‘almah when they came to Isaiah 7:14.  Matthew’s Gospel, or at least the Greek version of it which the Church has preserved, quotes from this Septuagint translation in the Gospel Reading for this Sunday.

So what did Isaiah’s prophecy mean?  If we read further along in Isaiah 7, beyond the parameters of the liturgical reading, we can see clearly that Isaiah was anticipating an immediate fulfillment of his prophecy.  He says that before the child “Emmanuel” reaches the age of reason, the Israelite and Syrian nations will be reduced to powerlessness, and Judah will be free of the threat. 

It seems likely that Isaiah was predicting the birth of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son and heir.  The ‘almah or maiden-mother of this young “Emmanuel” heir was Abijah, who may have been betrothed to Ahaz at this time.  Abijah seems to have been the daughter of a high-ranking priestly family (2 Chr 29:1, cf. Luke 1:5!).  Her influence on her royal son may be the reason Hezekiah turned out to be such a devout king, unlike his father Ahaz.

Hezekiah developed into a great reformer who lead Judah to one of the
Seal of Hezekiah: "Of Hezekiah son of Ahaz, King of Judah"
high points of it’s political and spiritual history.  He stamped out idolatry in his realm and successfully faced down the super-power of his day, the Assyrian empire, to a stalemate.  Although Assyria succeeded in conquering most of Judah, they could not capture Jerusalem in 701 BC and were forced to withdraw.  Hezekiah is the great hero of the Book of Isaiah, and the last few chapters of the first half of the book (Isaiah 36-39) are devoted to the high points of his reign.  Hezekiah was probably the “Emmanuel” of whom Isaiah spoke.

The “name” in Hebrew literature is frequently not the term by which someone will actually be referred to in conversation.  The “name” in Hebrew is frequently a way of referring to the essence, meaning, or description of someone or something.  So when Isaiah says, “she shall call his name ‘Emmanuel,’” it means “his essence shall be, ‘God-is-with-us’.”  This applies to Hezekiah in the sense that he was a sign and confirmation that God was still with the people of Judah, and had not abandoned them.

However, Hezekiah was also a type or image of Jesus Christ.  At his best, Hezekiah looked like and resembled Jesus, but ultimately he fell short of being the perfect Son of David who is also the Son of God.  Hezekiah only imperfectly lived up to the title “Emmanuel”, so after his death the people of God continued to look for a more perfect fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise of a Son of David, born of a maiden, who would mediate God’s presence to them.  The “shoes” of Isaiah’s prophecy were ultimately too big for Hezekiah to fill, and there remained “room” for further fulfillment in the future.

That’s how typology works.  And in that sense, Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of Christ.  

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6:

R. (7c and 10b) Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
The LORD’s are the earth and its fullness;
the world and those who dwell in it.
For he founded it upon the seas
and established it upon the rivers.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD?
or who may stand in his holy place?
One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
who desires not what is vain.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.
He shall receive a blessing from the LORD,
a reward from God his savior.
Such is the race that seeks for him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
R. Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.

Psalm 24 is probably a Psalm of procession, sung or chanted when a liturgical procession (perhaps bearing the Ark of the Covenant) would enter Jerusalem and/or the Temple.  We sing it at this Mass as we witness the approach of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Great God, into human history in the form of a baby.  The conception of Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin is the great “entrance” of God into the “temple” of the body of the Virgin.  The Blessed Mother is also iconically the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ and the new and final Temple made not of stone but of “living stones,” of human beings.  Indeed, “let the LORD enter” human history; let him enter the body of the Blessed Virgin; let him enter into our bodies.  He is the king of glory!

2. Our Second Reading is Rom 1:1-7:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus,
called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
the gospel about his Son, descended from David according to the flesh,
but established as Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through him we have received the grace of apostleship,
to bring about the obedience of faith,
for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles,
among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ;
to all the beloved of God in Rome, called to be holy.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This Second Reading from Paul’s greatest epistle is rather poignant in the context of this Mass.  Paul does not deal with the Davidic descent of Jesus or Jesus’ fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in much explicit detail in the Epistle to the Romans.  However, at the outset of the Epistle he does situation the Good News of Jesus in the context of the prophetic expectation of a Son of David, of which our First Reading was a good example (and there are many others).  Our First Reading emphasizes that the Good News of Jesus was “promised previously through is prophets,” and our Gospel will emphasize that Jesus was “descended of David according to the flesh.” But Paul also points us to the purpose of all this fulfillment: it is to “bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles,” especially those “in Rome.”

As we sit in Mass listening to this Reading, we are, in a sense, the fulfillment of Paul’s mission.  We are the representatives of the “Gentiles”—Germans, Africans, Chinese, Italians, English, etc.—who are now “in Rome,” that is, in the Roman Church.  We are called to the “obedience of faith,” which does not mean, as some Protestants believe, and obedience which consists only in faith or believing but does not actually change behavior.  Rather, the obedience of faith is a true change of behavior and disposition made possible by the exercise of faith, through which we receive the Holy Spirit.  Faith alone does not save us, but faith is the disposition by which we receive the Holy Spirit, which does “save” us.  In the Gospel, we will find that Jesus is named “y’shua”, the Hebrew word for “salvation,” because “he will save his people from their sins.”  Remember that Jesus came to save us from our sins, not just from the consequences of our sins.  So if we continue in sin, we have not “been saved”!  We need to return to Jesus and ask him to save us once more.

G. Our Gospel is “the Annunciation to Joseph,” Matt 1:18-24:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.

This is a rich passage which we cannot fully explore.  We will focus on the themes suggested by the previous readings.

The name “Jesus” comes from the Hebrew “y’shua,” meaning “salvation.”  It’s usually rendered “Joshua,” but the Gospels were written in Greek, and Greek has no “sh” sound.  Further, men’s names in Greek generally end in “s”, so the transliteration ends up as Iesus, pronounced yay-soos.  “You are to name him Salvation, because he will save his people from their sins.”

As we mentioned above, to “save from sin” is not the same as “save from the consequences of sin.”  Jesus did not come merely to save us from hell, but to save us from sinning.  He came to enable us to live holy lives.  A life of sin is miserable; in fact, it is a kind of hell on earth.  But sin is addictive, and we need a “Higher Power”—really, a Higher Person—to become free.

Like the Old Testament Joseph, son of Jacob, who was a great dreamer, so God communicates with this New Testament Joseph, son of Jacob (Mt. 1:16) through dreams.

But the angel calls him not “Son of Jacob,” but “Son of David,” emphasizing Joseph’s connection to promises and covenant attached to the House of David, including Isaiah’s promise of an “Emmanuel” to be born of a “maiden” of this dynasty.  Joseph, in fact, was the heir of the throne of David himself.  Had the Davidic dynasty been in control of the throne in the first century BC, Joseph would have been reigning in Jerusalem.  As it was, we was doing manual labor out in Nazareth, a tiny hamlet in the “back hills” of Israel.

Why a descendant of royalty in such a remote place?  Probably the Davidic clan settled in Nazareth to be far away from politically volatile places like Jerusalem.  Having royal blood was a political liability unless you controlled the throne.  Herod the Great was currently in control of the throne, and he was an imposter without royal blood, a half-Jew whose father was an Edomite (Idumean).  When the wise men show up in Jerusalem looking for the Davidic heir, it ends up with Herod killing the baby boys of Bethlehem.  It was to avoid incidents like that, that the clan of David was hanging out in the back hills of Nazareth. 

Although Matthew only gives the genealogy of Joseph (Matt 1:2-16), we can have moral confidence that Mary, too, was from the line of David.  That is the constant tradition of the Church; moreover, it makes sense, as villages were settled by clans in those days, and so all the villagers were typically members of the same extended family from an illustrious ancestor.  All the townspeople of Nazareth probably had Davidic blood.  My personal conviction is that Luke 3 gives the biological line of Jesus through Mary (really through her father, Heli, short for Eliakim [=Jehoakim, cf. 2 Kgs 23:34]).

Through Mary will come one who will “fill up” the prophecy originally directed toward Hezekiah.  Hezekiah disappointed, but Jesus will be “Emmanuel” in a much more profound sense: not merely a sign of God’s presence, but God’s presence in the flesh. Hezekiah’s mother Abijah was only a “maiden” before she went in to Ahaz, but Jesus’ mother Mary (Heb. Miriam) was a maiden before, during, and after his birth.  Jesus fully “fills the shoes” of the ancient prophecy directed at the House of David.

When we step back an meditate on these Readings, we see a common theme is the invasion of God’s presence into the lives of people.  God offers to intervene in the life of Ahaz, and his response is “thanks, but no thanks.”  God processes liturgically into Jerusalem, and the people greet him with acclamation in Psalm 24.  In the Gospel, God “invades” the lives of Mary and Joseph with his presence.  Perhaps their aspirations were nothing more than to lead quiet and peaceful lives, trying to raise a family in Nazareth while awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises to their ancestors through the prophets.  Little did they know that God would use their lives to fulfill all those promises they had read or heard.

But the presence of God in their lives means an end to “business as normal” and the typical comfort of ordinary life.  Joseph is disturbed to find his fiance pregnant, and fears to marry her; either because he suspects wrongdoing on her part (a more modern view) or because he is hesitant to espouse a woman so holy as to be set apart for the conception of divinity (a classic traditional view).  Mary and Joseph’s hopes to be just an average middle-class couple living the “Israelite dream” are dashed.  Their lives are not going to be normal and typical.  The angel guides Joseph to his next step—completing his marriage to Mary.  We know that the coming months will involve more strain and stress—a long journey to Bethlehem in the late stages of pregnancy, followed by a midnight flight from Bethlehem to Egypt to get away from persecution. 

Mary and Joseph’s lives would never again be “average” and “comfortable,” because when God “invades” our lives, he incorporates us into his plan of salvation for the world, and we have to partake of the suffering of the man named “Salvation” (see Romans 8:17). 

At Mass, we prepare to receive the “divine invasion” of the Eucharist, when God again will enter into our lives and our bodies, “body and blood, soul and divinity.”  Are we ready for that?  Are we ready to let our lives go off course, off into a new direction, perhaps even an uncomfortable direction, because God is now living in us? 


Thomas Renz said...

The chronology of eighth-century BC Judah is difficult to reconstruct but on nearly every view Hezekiah would have been already born in about 735 when the prophecy was first uttered. (In 2 Kings 18:2 Hezekiah is said to have been 25 years old at his accession which some date to 716/715, others to 727. So Hezekiah would have been five or seventeen years old at the time. Some argue that this historical impossibility is not a problem for a literary reading of the prophecy within the book.)

In fact, the Hebrew text is better translated, "Look this maiden is with child and is (about) to give birth to a son." In this case the timing is arguably more important for the initial fulfillment of the prophecy than the identity of the woman or the child. The prophecy gets the clock ticking, as it were.

My view is that almah in classical Hebrew designated a woman of childbearing age who had not yet become a mother. We don't have an English equivalent that takes motherhood so seriously as a status-changing event which creates a challenge for translation. Greek-speaking people have the same problem and so the first translator picked the closest equivalent - parthenos, a term which does not exactly correspond to English "virgin" either, at least not consistently. (There are parthenoi in Homer, Pindar and Sophocles who are not virgins and Dinah is called a parthenos in Genesis 34:3 even after she had been raped.) The Greek translator, however, may well have had a virgin in mind but by change of the verb form the pregnancy becomes a future event, obviously without any hint or claim that by the time she will be pregnant the woman in question would still be a virgin.

As so often, the ultimate fulfillment brings with it unexpected and heightened aspects. The firstborn child whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is God-with-us in a fuller sense than the prophecy demands and his conception was the result of a more dramatic divine intervention than the prophecy would have led us to expect.

Thomas Renz said...

I am also skeptical about the claim expressed in the sentence, "Had the Davidic dynasty been in control of the throne in the first century BC, Joseph would have been reigning in Jerusalem." There were plenty of people in those days who descended from the line of David and to my mind the NT never makes the claim that Joseph had the best claim to the throne.

Isaiah 11 could be read to suggest that the promised king (growing from the stump of Jesse, not from a branch of the royal house) is a king from an outsider line of David although I accept that the text does not strictly demand it.