DECEMBER 18TH, 2016: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
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.
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 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.
Today’s first reading is probably the most misunderstood passage in the entire Bible. Beginning historically with Matthew’s quote of the verse in our gospel pericope, we’ve presumed Isaiah has Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he proclaims these words to Judah’s 8th century BCE King Ahaz: “The virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Nothing could be clearer.
Yet there’s no way to get around the late Raymond Brown’s contention that there are no predictions of Jesus, as we know Jesus, anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures. As far as I can tell, all historico-critical Scripture scholars agree with Brown. First they argue that Ahaz needed his sign yesterday, not 700 years in the future. Second, the Hebrew word – almah – which we Christians have gratuitously translated as “virgin” simply refers to a woman who has not yet had a child. (Like the word “heifer” designates a cow which has not yet had a calf.) Certainly virgins fit that category; but so do pregnant women who have yet to deliver their first child. These experts conclude the almah in this context is Mrs. Ahaz, and Emmanuel their future son Hezekiah, who would rule so well it would be like having Yahweh among us. Isaiah is simply assuring Ahaz his wife’s pregnancy is Yahweh’s sign the king’s family won’t be annihilated if he refuses to join an alliance against Assyria.
Though with just a minimal smattering of Jewish history it’s not difficult to understand the original meaning of today’s first reading. It’s also not difficult to understand why our Christian ancestors in the faith so often insisted not only Jesus’ message, but Jesus himself was prefigured in the Hebrew Scriptures. Along with Matthew, even our earliest Christian author, Paul, presumes this to be a fact. He tells the church in Rome today that he’s been “. . . set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures . . . .” For many Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures basically fill the role of Johnny Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon, announcing, “Now here’s Jesus!” One way Jesus’ first followers defended their acceptance of him as Messiah was to claim that if their fellow Jews read their Bible correctly, they’d also see it predicted Jesus and his message.
Even if today we know more about ancient history and the original intention of our sacred authors than Christians did 2,000 years ago, we still must appreciate the spirituality of those who preceded us in the faith. Unlike some of our own faith, theirs was biblically rooted. I presume Paul, following the standard exegesis of his day and age, believed many of the prophets foretold the coming of Jesus as Messiah. But on the other hand, when he spoke about the “gospel of God” being proclaimed through the prophets, he hit the prophetic nail on the head.
Without ever mentioning Jesus of Nazareth, biblical prophets foreshadowed his message and ministry, insisting that in Yahweh’s eyes people are more important than institutions, rules and regulations. When those Jews whose faith dovetailed with the faith of the ancient Hebrew prophets encountered this itinerant Galilean carpenter, they saw and heard things most people missed. Like Joseph in today’s gospel, they experienced God working in ways they could never have anticipated. They also received an “annunciation,” convincing them this particular teacher was completely different from all other teachers.
Though largely ignored by preachers, scholars insist that biblical annunciations are literary devices employed by our sacred authors to make certain their readers understand the meaning of the events they narrate. Among other things, that means if we have a prophetic mentality, we’ll personally experience many more than just the three gospel annunciations.