c) The previous two reflections hopefully allow us to return to the biblical text with a greater depth of wonder and a more vivid capacity to listen. For even if a digression, they were intended to be a journey deeper into the center, into the Word living within every word of the written word, and an expounding of the disposition most fully appropriate to God’s gift of himself while also springing forth from this gift’s tranformative activity within us. These reflections are simply meant to be an evangelical witness to the wonderful newness of the Gospel, of God’s Love given in Christ. They seek to open up a space where we can stand before the awesome mystery of God, the Most Blessed Trinity, and his activity in history, especially in the whole mystery of Jesus Christ at the fullness of time, and be moved by wonder, gratitude, and praise at such ineffable love. They are childlike play in the Garden of the Word, a reaching out to the Eternal Sabbath through faith in the Love that gives rest in the midst of every moment, lived fully and uniquely, as it intersects with eternity.
As we have noted, in our culture many are conditioned to seek for joy and lightness of heart, for freedom from the burdens of life, not in the expansive breadth of objective reality and in the sober kiss of authentic beauty, but in media, technology, and the many forms of contemporary entertainment (not to mention the more innately disordered forms that this movement can take). And a painful fruit of all of this is a numbness of heart to the simple and unforced beauty of reality, and particularly to the sober voice of Scripture, which does not impose itself upon us, does not lay itself before us with titillating sights and sounds, nor strongly move our emotions, nor present itself on a silver platter; rather, it only gently lifts the corner of the veil to a dimension of reality that is usually beyond our reach, and yet which is meant to be our daily bread. This is the dimension of the sacramentality of all things, of every moment, and the ravishing beauty of the entire universe in the light of God’s creative and sustaining love, which comes to meet us unceasingly in an encounter that is irreducibly unique and unrepeatable.
But to experience and live this mystery, the heart must learn to be quiet, still, and receptive, to rediscover something of the virginity of the beginning, before sin tore us away from ourselves, from our true and integral nature, and fractured us on the periphery. For a million sights and sounds are not the same thing as seeing, as hearing; and countless distractions are not the same thing as true play and leisure, as true repose in the sabbath of prayer, in the lightness of communion, in the intimate embrace of reality, which opens us wide to the ever-flowing current of reciprocal relationship between God and ourselves, between all human hearts, and between human hearts and the whole of creation.
What these reflections humbly seek to offer, therefore, is childlike play, in the hopes that we, as individuals and as a culture, can rediscover the Gospel, rediscover the Person of Jesus Christ and the ineffable beauty of the Trinity, as if for the very first time; and in this, to allow us to be made new, even unto the consummation of communion and the transformation of our nature in the sanctity for which we were made.
In a culture grown old in sin and skepticism, hardened through centuries of cynical doubt and atheistic materialism (or, on the other hand, in a Church hurting after centuries of rigid legalism and Jansenistic fear), it is quite difficult for so many of us to feel anew that breath of primal wonder before a prophecy fulfilled. Indeed, at the heart of so much faerie story and myth is precisely this dynamic of a prophecy and its fulfillment. Indeed, it is not only myth, but history itself, which is permeated by prophecy, and not only Jewish history, but pagan as well, everything pointing towards and finding fulfillment in Jesus Christ: “Thou, O loved offspring of gods, O son of great Jove, the Almighty. See how the world toward thee with its ponderous mass is inclining. See all the countries, the tracts of the sea, and the depths of the heaven, see how they hail the arrival, they all, of the age that is coming” (4th Eclogue, Virgil). And again:
Judgment shall moisten the earth with the sweat of its standard,
ever enduring, behold the King shall come through the ages,
sent to be here in the flesh, and Judge at the last of the world.
O God, the believing and faithless alike shall behold Thee
uplifted with saints, when at last the ages are ended.
Seated before Him are souls in the flesh for His judgment. …
A sign will be seen by all flesh:
The tree which is the boast and desire of those among the faithful
life to pious men, but a stumbling block to the world
Water illuminating the faithful in twelve wounds.
A rod to rule and govern strongly.
This was written before-hand by our God,
Savior, immortal king, who suffered on behalf of us.
(Prophecy of the Sibyl of Erythrae, hundreds of years before Christ)*
As J.R.R. Tolkien understood so well, all true myth and faerie story teaches us a profound truth about the heart of reality; and this is why these stories grip our hearts and fire our imaginations so deeply. They do so because they show the innate miracle of all things, the marvelous and unexpected wonder of things being as they are, since they could, just as easily, not have been at all. Thus they ultimately point towards the Love that lies at the origin of all things, and that guides them, through all the diverse acts of the drama, to their joyful conclusion in the “happily ever after.”
Indeed, according to Tolkien, an essential element of true myth is what he termed eucatastrophe, in other words, a “happy catastrophe,” in that what from a human perspective appears to be doomed to failure ultimately, through the mysterious presence of the divine, blossoms in the greatest possible good, indeed in the definitive victory of good over evil, of light over darkness, of love over hate. This conflict of good versus evil, of a good that appears so weak before forces of evil that seem to far outweigh it, lies at the heart of the drama of myth; and the miracle of the story always lies in the fact that the weakness of goodness proves totally and utterly victorious over the apparent power of evil, and that the vulnerability of love proves to be the eternally enduring reality, and the might of wickedness proves to be a mere crumbling facade before the enduring fidelity of love. And the conclusion of all this? The wonderful realization that everything hoped for and promised in myth becomes definitive, historical reality in the Gospel! The birth, life, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the true eucatastrophe in which the whole world, through the gift of divine Love, is redeemed and prepared for that perfect “happily ever after” of heaven and the new creation.
Let us then turn again to see this prophecy spoken in the book of Isaiah, preparing hearts to witness the wondrous miracle when it occurs…and let us try to approach it with that childlike wonder with which children let themselves be moved the gift of reality. For the beautiful truth here is that the prophecies of the Old Testament are not an a-historical myth living in never-never land, but rather God’s own tender voice at work in the fabric of historical time, preparing his children to welcome the coming of his Son, and the redemption and newness of life that he brings:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” which means God is with us. We said that this is the first in a series of prophecies from chapters 7 through 12 of the book of Isaiah. These words of the first prophecy refer first of all to the child who was born during the time of crisis in which king Ahaz found himself, and yet they point beyond themselves, and in hindsight we see their providential ordination by God himself in preparing contemplative hearts for the conception and birth of his Son: for the conception of a child, as wondrous as it is, is not a miraculous sign; but a virginal conception is, and the woman referred to, h’alma, the parthenos, can be either a “young woman” or a “virgin.” Thus when Matthew speaks of this prophecy in respect to the Virgin Mary, it is like he is saying: “See, this is what the prophecy ultimately pointed toward all along. This is the true sign that can come only from God and bears the marks of his true liberating activity, which was only partially experienced at the time the prophecy was spoken.” Thus the first aspect of this miraculous sign is the sign of virginal birth.
The name of this child is even more telling: Immanuel, God-with-us. The virginal birth in fact points right towards this: born not from the seed of any man, but from God himself received virginally, through the Spirit, this child is divine, not merely human, even though he has taken human nature to himself. Yes, Jesus Christ is God’s immanence, his intimate closeness to us and his presence among us (immanu-el). And indeed such a child, namely God himself, the eternal Son, can only be conceived virginally, since he already has a Father, God. This is the transparency to the Trinity, to the eternal begetting of the Son, that lies at the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation. So too, in Mary we see a transparent manifestation of the mystery of the Holy Spirit (as intuited so deeply by Maximilian Kolbe), the eternal Womb of the Son’s begetting and the embrace and kiss of the divine life, shared between Father and Son, just as Mary’s womb is the space of the redeeming kiss of heaven and earth, kissed by the Father in the Spirit to bring to conception and birth the Son of God made man.
“The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and call his name Immanuel.” The whole of the Incarnation is contained in this prophecy. But this is only the first in the series. Let us look at the rest of this series now, to see how the divine stature of this figure of the child is unfolded even more. The prophecies are quite rich, so we will not be able to explicate even a small part of their depth. We only hope to give a jumping off point for deeper personal prayer and exploration. At first, the text prophecies the victory of Israel over the nations that oppress her, and that the God of hosts shall “become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Is 8:14-15). This is clearly fulfilled in the coming of Christ, whose very presence brought out the secret thoughts in the hearts of men (cf. Jn 2:25); he was, indeed, the rock of salvation who was also a scandal to those who refused to accept him, and thus “the corner stone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21-22; see also Ps 118).
Yes, the prophecy foretells a great darkness, but in the midst of this darkness, dawn comes, precisely through the sign of the child. It says that in the midst of this darkness and pain, there will be “no gloom for her that was in anguish,” in other words, for the child’s mother. And then the text names the location from which this light comes: “he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Is 9:1; Matthew explicitly quotes this whenever he shows that Christ’s ministry originates in Galilee: see Mt 4:15-16). And then it proceeds, with deep lyrical beauty, to paint the portait of this promised child’s reign. Let us quote the text at length:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Is 9:2-7)
Now the simple name “son of David” is beginning to shine with radiant light and meaning! There are a few elements of this text we would like to specify, leaving their unfolding to the reader’s contemplation: 1) the essence of this prophecy is light dawning in the darkness, a symbol which is a profound summary, as it were, of the whole mystery of redemption and salvation, as portrayed quite explicitly, for example, by John in his Gospel: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5); 2) this is also a prophecy of the liberation of the nation, of Israel, from oppression, and the birth of true and enduring peace (see Is 9:3-5); 3) the origin of this light and this peace is the birth of a child—“for to us a child is born, to us a son is given”—and this child is king and ruler of the nation; 4) his reign is characterized by enduring serenity and solidity, as well as unending duration—“of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end”—and these traits are rooted in the nature of his governance, in who this child-king is: “upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Is 9:7). The king rules with justice, with transparency to the righteousness and goodness of God, for he is, in fact, God’s own gift to his people: for the Lord of hosts himself will do this. And precisey because his care for God’s people is God’s own gift, God’s own presence among his people—and only because of this—his rule is everlasting peace and harmony.
5) Finally, the identity of this king is expressed in a series of titles (which at first we passed over) that unveil in a mysterious and yet transparently beautiful way who this king truly is: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:6). Unlike the disappointing translation of the NAB—namely, “God-hero”—the text truly does call this child-king “Mighty God.” He is the Almighty (El Shaddai), the One who created the universe and who has been active in history from the beginning of time, who chose Abraham and promised him universal blessing, who allowed this blessing to rest upon David and his heir, and who now becomes flesh among his people as their true Shepherd, King, and Leader. And because he is the Mighty God, he is also all these other things: a wonderful counselor, speaking not with merely human wisdom, but with the ineffable wisdom of God (see Mt 7:29); the everlasting Father of his people, because he is pure transparency to the face of the heavenly Father and to his eternal love (see Jn 14:9); the Prince of Peace, who restores to the fractured nation, and indeed to the entire universe, the harmony and unity that were broken because of sin, and are now, through redemption, restored (see Eph 2).
In the next reflection, we will conclude our contemplation of these verses of Matthew with the final prophecy.
* For an in-depth exploration of Christ in prophecy, not only Jewish but pagan, etc., see the work of Roy Abraham Varghese, particularly The Christ Connection: How the World Religions Prepared the Way for the Phenomenon of Jesus. Regarding this specific prophecy of the Sibyl, it is fascinating that in Greek the entire poem forms an acrostic (words formed from first letters of lines) that spells: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, Cross.