We come now to the final prophecy of the child-king in these chapters of the book of Isaiah. This one ties together the elements present in the preceding ones, and brings them to conclusion. The text says:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. (Is 11:1-5)
Another dimension of the divinity of the Child becomes visible here, as does the explicit, forward-looking nature of the prophecy. For it say that there “shall come forth” a shoot from Jesse’s stump, that is, in the line of David (for Jesse was David’s father), and from his roots a branch. This is particularly telling because a stump and roots seem to indicate that the tree has been cut down, broken at its very trunk, and looks now to be barren and forsaken. Is the line of David deserted? Has it been broken off, and, as a result, are God’s promises proven to be false? But precisely from this apparently broken and failed line a new growth shall come; and this is exactly what happens, as the humble carpenter of Nazareth, Joseph, is a descendant of David in truth, though such a fact escapes the eyes of almost everyone. How far has Israel fallen from the Davidic promises that the son of David is a hidden workman in an obscure town in Galilee?
But this obscure descendant is the one chosen to be the father of the Messiah, the anointed Savior, the Child-King. And here, in this text, indeed, we have one of the most vivid explanations of what it means that Jesus, the Son of God made man, is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ—all of which mean the same thing: Messiah being Hebrew (meshiak) and Christ Greek (cristos) for Anointed One. The anointing of the Christ is not a merely symbolic anointing, a ritual sign that really means nothing; nor, however, is it merely a comission for a specific office or ministry (though this is true as well, as we see in Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4:18-19). Rather, this is anointing is first of all the simple anointing presence of a person, of the Holy Spirit who dwells within and acts with and through the Son of God. Jesus Christ is the one who acts in perfect synergy with the Spirit, in total filial docility to the love and gift of the heavenly Father. And even deeper, this synergy has its origin in that deep sacred space at the heart of the Trinity, and which gives rise to every one of the thoughts, desires, and acts of Christ: the gratuitous intimacy in pure love eternally shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This, in fact, is the breathtaking newness of the redemption brought in Christ, and a truth worth being perpetually remembered and deepened in our consciousness. God came into this world not to entrust us with more tasks, or even merely to be a moral guide and teacher, but to grant us access into the innermost joy of his own life of everlasting intimacy. Everything else in the Gospel, in the living reality of Christianity alive in the bosom of the Church, finds its meaning in the light of gratuitous intimacy, and not outside of it. For it alone—that is, the unique dignity of each person and their fulfillment in the embrace of intimacy for-its-own-sake—is the reason for which God created the universe and redeemed it in Christ. Indeed, it is the essence of his own being as Love, as the eternal communion in ceaseless dialogue and total reciprocal surrender of Father and Son in their one Spirit.
Let us return to the meaning of the resting of the Spirit on Christ, this anointing of the Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit, resting upon the humanity of the incarnate Son, permeates all of his faculties of spirit and body, such that everything becomes a manifestation, in the concreteness of human nature, of the very life of God. The Son lives, in the midst of time and space, the very everlasting love that is his for all eternity in the bosom of the Trinity, and breathes with the Father the one Spirit of Love whom they share. And the acts of the eternal Son before his Father, acts of gratuitous wonder and delight, of receptivity and reciprocal gift, of reverent awe and gratitude and ceaseless praise, of ecstatic joy in the experience of perfect intimacy: all of this is “funneled” into the concrete consciousness that is his as a man, as a human male. This is absolutely phenomenal, tremendously amazing: the presence of the Son within a human nature, taking it as his own and as the manifestation of his own divine personhood, and the permeation of this same humanity by the Spirit who is breath of Father and Son, makes our entire humanity new. It heals, liberates, and transfigures our humanity from the inside, and not only restores it to the capacities and gifts that it had in the beginning before sin, but also instils in it capacities that it can only have through divine grace, through being grafted into the very life of the Trinity in Christ and through the Spirit.
In this passage, these capacities “instilled” in the humanity of Christ—and thus also in our humanity—are what the tradition of the Church has called the “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” They are sevenfold: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, fear of the Lord, and piety. The text speaks of all of them explicitly: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord (i.e. piety).” As the living permeation of human faculties by the activity of the divine Persons, these gifts make our whole nature and experience susceptible to the wondrous guidance of God and to co-operation, to synergy with him in the reciprocity and deep union of abiding love.
Indeed, before such a profound unity of being and life, forged by grace between God and the human person, we can only stand in awe. What miracles of grace God desires to work within human hearts by his love! The radiant beauty of sanctity alive in the human person, and the beautiful integrity, transparency, and expansiveness of life (down to its smallest daily details) is truly a breathtaking reality, born of and manifesting the very beauty of the Triune God. And it is truly a miracle, such that, however much it calls for the devotion of our heart and life, it ultimately comes to blossom within us as a sheer gift of God’s own grace and activity within us, making us new. Saint Paul speaks of this with vigor. In fact, one of his most beautiful passages serves as a kind of exegesis, an unfolding of the inner meaning, of this passage that we are contemplating from Isaiah. It would be well to quote Paul now, and to lay the texts side by side:
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14-21)
Here we see the very gifts of the Spirit in their fullest blossoming, in the total transfiguration of human heart and life in the love of the Father through Christ and in the Spirit, in the deepest intimate knowledge of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God. But let us now pause for a moment to look, very briefly, at the nature of these seven gifts of the Spirit, received in Baptism and growing in us throughout life, permeating our nature and uniting it to God and his own activity within us.
It is important to note that it seems that these gifts are presented in three sets of two, with the seventh crowning and fulfilling all the others. We have 1) wisdom and understanding, 2) counsel and might, 3) knowledge and fear of the Lord, 4) and delight in the fear of the Lord, i.e. piety. Wisdom gives us true understanding of things as they really are; counsel imbues us with might, with the power of God at work in weakness, in all the affairs of daily life; knowledge born of profound understanding gives birth to fear of the Lord, which is better translated as reverence for the Lord; finally, the capstone or succulent fruit (or even the root) of all of these gifts is piety, the sweetness of delight and spontaneous happiness at living a life of total reverence and love for God and for all that he has made.
It’s quite amazing how much these few words open up for us, isn’t it? The gifts of the Spirit are all, ultimately, a matter of seeing, a seeing born of love and total devotion. Yes, for the incarnate Christ, this seeing is one with his eternal seeing at the heart of the beatific vision—the vision proper to God the Son in his all-knowing and all-pervading gaze of tenderness upon the face of the Father and upon the whole creation. This vision is translated into the context of a human consciousness, and yet still lives and is operative within it in fullest measure. In our case, on the other hand, we partake in this same vision through faith, hope, and love, these three core virtues which manifest as the gifts of the Holy Spirit; they are, really, just ways of trying to classify and expound the one and undivided activity of God within us, and our docility to this gift. And such classification can obviously be helpful, though it is important to remember the undivided origin and goal of all of this: a simple heart-to-heart, person-to-person communion with God, in the simplicity and unity of love.
Before concluding this reflection, let us give a little “definition” of each of these gifts (for lack of a better word). Wisdom consists in the ability to see in the light of the creative action and caring intentions of God, to see all bathed in the light of his own creative and sustaining Wisdom which has fashioned the world: this Wisdom who is the one Word, the only-begotten Son. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear” (cf. Is 11:3); this is how Isaiah himself summarizes. An essential aspect of wisdom is the realization that things that appear the same are not necessarily the same. True wisdom lies in being able to descend below the surface and to judge things, not by mere appearance, but by their inner essence, by what they truly are in the eyes of God. It is the ability to trace them back to the primal vision God has of them, and to love, reverence, and care for them accordingly. Thus wisdom as a way of looking births understanding.
Understanding is wisdom’s fruit, a deep and intimate knowledge of things as they really are. It is an acquaintance with the mystery present in each created thing—with what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “inscape,” the “bounded infinity” by which everything is rooted in God’s sustaining love and points to him. This deep acquaintance with reality, born of the loving gaze of wisdom, leads to a truly deep connaturality with things, such that they are known in their essence, in their true nature, not merely by abstract ideas or discursive reason, but by the communion of the heart with them. And if one abides in this deep communion, this connaturality, then the gift of counsel manifests itself deeply. Counsel, we could say, is wisdom and understanding as applied to practical, concrete circumstances, to decisions and the nuances of human action. It is, in a word, the gift of discernment. If wisdom and understanding are primarily contemplative in nature, gratuitous wonder before and intimacy with reality—and above all with God, the author of reality and ultimate Reality himself—then counsel is primarily practical, born of the contemplative and leading to it. It directs in the freest and most authentic course of action in given circumstances, and shows the way to act most truly, in fact, in all the little things illumined in the light of wisdom and understanding.
And clearly counsel, in this respect, gives birth to might or fortitude. As Saint Paul noted, this might is the very strength of the Spirit alive in us, filling us with joy and lightness and vigor in all the affairs of life, spurred on by the impetus of wisdom and understanding, and the solidity of choices and acts born of the gift of counsel. A true life of fidelity to God is not meant to be a perpetual burden or a ceaseless gauging of abstract ideals or legalistic demands; rather, it is meant to be “running in the way of freedom” that God marks out for his beloved and precious children, that we may live in the same lightness, expansiveness, and depth of love and communion that God himself lives, and by his gift.
Finally, we have the two gifts of knowledge and reverence for the Lord. These are the full flowering of the others because they are purely God-centered, and thus the fullest blossom of the gratuity that is proper to all life and love. For the knowledge spoken of here is not a merely intellectual knowing, and not some kind of “possession” at all; rather, it is the knowledge of intimacy, the knowledge of person and person, as in “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore a son” (Gen 4:1), and “This is eternal life, that they know you, Father, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). And knowledge and reverence here are inseparable; for to know God is to be in awe of him, to be bathed in humble gratitude and dilated in confident trust and self-abandonment before he who is infinite and eternal Love, everlasting Communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To be united to God in the full flowering of the gifts of the Spirit, in other words, is to be possessed by the very delight of God. And this is why delight is the capstone of all the gifts, the full fruit of piety: the simple and all-pervading joy of belonging to God and being all his, knowing that, first, out of his tenderest love for us, he has desired to belong totally to us and to be all ours.