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Breath of the Spirit
Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.
Breath of the Spirit is our electronic spiritual and liturgical resource for our members and potential members. Nothing can replace your chapter or other faith community but we hope you will find further support here for integrating your spirituality with your sexuality and all the strands of your life.
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.
DECEMBER 22, 2019: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
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.
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