1:21-23. “And she will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Now all this occurred so that the things spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Immanuel,’ which means God-with-us.
In chapters 7 through 12 of the book of Isaiah, we encounter a series of prophecies spoken to the king of Judah (Ahaz), the successor of David, who is struggling in conflict with Syria, which has allied Israel, the northern kingdom, with itself and is waging war against Judah, the southern kingdom. We thus encounter the Jewish people in a divided state, wrought by internal conflict and by oppression from without—much like humanity throughout history, and indeed like every human heart. It is within this context that God sends Isaiah to speak to the king, and invites him to “ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven” (Is 7:11); and yet the king, in false humility, refuses to exercise bold and confident trust in God, fails to place ardent desire and expectation in God’s even more ardent desire to give. But even this does not stop God, for he gives the prophecy and the sign anyway: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). This prophecy, quoted by Matthew, is but the first in a series of prophecies spoken to Ahaz, growing in a crescendo of clarity and depth.
The figure that emerges in the midst of all of these prophecies is that of a child. The image becomes clearer and clearer as one reads, emerging from the pages of the book, and indeed surpassing even the historical context in which it was spoken. For at first we can acknowledge that the beginning of the prophecy was fulfilled in the life of Ahaz, and in regards to the particular situation (the conflict with the kings of Assyria and Israel); but in the midst of this, and following upon it, something far surpassing emerges before us. In other words, a gaze to the future emerges that transcends the particular circumstances, beyond the persons involved in those dramatic events at that time, to all of us involved in the drama of history at all times, and the true child who comes as king. (We will see all of this in greater detail in the next reflection. But first some preliminary thoughts.)
This is the way, in fact, that prophecy often operates in the Old Testament—and even the ancient Jews were used to this practice of reading in “already fulfilled” prophecies a reaching out towards their true and definitive fulfillment. And it is important to emphasize also that there are a lot of prophecies which are simply not fulfilled at all before the coming of Christ, as we have seen. The ones we are dealing with now are, in a sense, both: there is a layer of fulfillment from which emerges a sense of incompleteness, indeed an explicit reaching out towards something that far surpasses and infinitely fulfills what is already given, a reaching out towards a figure whose countenance emerges from the texts of prophecy and from the contours of historical events.
Indeed, there is a term that refers to this manner of reading Scripture, which has been greatly employed throughout the history of the Church, and which was in fact used by the writers of the Gospels. The technical term for it is typology. In sum, typology refers to events and persons in the Old Testament (called “types”) which point forward to a super-fulfillment in the New Testament. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the entire Old Testament is one grand prophecy of the New Testament, one long hymn of longing and hope from which emerges, little by little, the figure of the Messiah, the Savior, which human hearts expectantly await. But this figure cannot be fully seen or known in the Old Testament; there is a hint of him, a sketch, a mysterious presence, but only his full manifestation in the New Testament makes him explicitly and completely known. And once he arrives, he surpasses all expectation and desire, while also re-ordering false expectation and fulfilling hope in a way different, though more profound, than we could have imagined.
Yes, the very meaning and mystery of the Old Testament is unlocked only in the light of the New Testament, in the light of the figure of Jesus Christ whose gaze illumines it all, and shows a single picture on every one of its pages. But so too: the figure of Jesus Christ becomes richer and clearer as one comes to see him as the fulfillment of every word spoken in the Old Testament, to see all the lines of prophecy, event, and wisdom intersecting upon him. This is how the early Church was able to say: “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (see Catechism, n. 129).
This reality of typology is so rich that we can only hint to it here with a few examples. Further reflections, and indeed simply Scripture itself, will unfold this and make it clearer and more radiant. Not only words of explicit prophecy, but the very fabric of historical events, prophecies of Christ and prepares receptive hearts to see and welcome him. Thus from the very beginning, the experience of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden points to the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection: where the new Adam and new Eve, Jesus and Mary, are united at a tree, the Tree of Life, which heals the wounds incurred at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here their primal experiences of solitude, nakedness, and unity—wounded by sin—are restored in the purity of love that is stronger even than suffering and death. So too the survival of Noah and his family in the midst of the flood, and the sending forth of the dove over the waters to bring forth the branch of new life, symbolizes Christ, at whose baptism the Spirit descends as a dove, and indeed the ark of the Church, kept aloft on the waves of this world.
Again, the sacrifice that Abraham intends to offer of his son, Isaac, foretells the sacrifice of Christ: a “beloved son” being offered, who carries the wood of his own sacrifice up the hill to the place of gift. As God himself makes clear at that time, by interrupting the sacrifice of Abraham (since God does not wish for the death of the living, and does not deal in human sacrifice), revealing instead that the redeeming sacrifice can only be a work of God himself: “God will provide himself the sacrifice” (cf. Gen 22:8, 14). And once more: the entire exodus from Egypt of the Israelite people under Moses sums up, in condensed form, the nature of salvation that is manifested on a deeper, spiritual level, in Christ (and clearly effects, though in the humility and hiddenness which are traits of God’s deepest activity in this world, the material, political, and concrete affairs of humanity in this world as well). The sacrifice of the passover lambs, followed by the meal of communion, and then the passage of the Red Sea into the desert of purification; to the mountain of encounter and covenant; to the passage over the Jordan and into the promised land: all of this is ultimately fulfilled in Baptism (our own Red Sea) and the Eucharist, our own acceptance of the gift of the true Lamb and our entry into the meal of intimate communion with him; our own life of faith in the desert of this world, looking forward to the final passage across the Jordan of death and into the everlasting happiness of the promised land of heaven.
All of this, in fact, and so much more, is quite explicit in the pages of the New Testament. As we said, this is the way that the biblical authors themselves read Scripture, even if in our cynical and intellectually arrogant age we had lost sight of the primal wonder of Scripture, of the rich significance of each event and of the profound beauty of fulfillment in Christ, preoccupied as we were with “proving” or “disproving,” or in fact dismantling the beautiful figure of Christ according to our own prejudice and rebuilding him according to our wishes in the same act. Gladly, it looks like we are beginning to come full circle, and to exercise healthy doubt regarding our doubts, and to extend credit to the wisdom of the Church’s lived-experience of the mystery of Christ, of which she is the custodian, and which has lived within her, unfolding its riches more and more, for two-thousand years.
Indeed, it is not too much to say that what our world needs more than anything else right now—besides a rediscovery of the center of the center, of the true meaning of reality as love and intimacy in the likeness of the Persons of the Trinity—is a rediscovery of wonder. Indeed, these two dimensions go hand in hand. For a realization of our destiny as participation in the innermost life of God who is utter joy births the fullness of wonder and unhindered gratitude. On the other hand, despite movements to the contrary, our world (at least in the west) is still largely secular, slipping further and further from the meaning of the Gospel and of the nature of reality which it has revealed and so long safeguarded. We have been occupied far centuries now in “dismantling” our heritage, in rejecting and forgetting the awesome gift that came to us in Jesus, came to this world, and “renewed the face of the earth” (cf. Ps 104:30), and by this I mean the Gospel of God’s Love in Christ, that we have nearly succeeded in creating a society from which he is, for all purposes, totally excluded.
And this hasn’t ended with just excluding Christ, or Christian religion, or even the Judeo-Christian moral heritage, but in fact with rejecting the reality of objective truth itself, replacing it with “subjective will” or a relativism in which each person has their own truth; and now it has gone so far as to dismantle not only God but the very image of God in man and woman. For if God himself is rejected, pretty soon everything that speaks of God, too, must be rejected or distorted beyond recognition: thus objective truth, goodness, and beauty have to go; so too does our embodied gender as man and woman and the mystery of communion and fruitfulness it manifests (since this points us straight back to God and gives us a profound sensitivity to the very heart of the Gospel); so too does a moral law written on our hearts, “to be known and read by all men” (2 Cor 3:2, cf. Rom 2:15); so too, ultimately, as an unintended but unavoidable consequence of this, true childlike wonder and lightness of heart disappears, and the jaded and numb heart seeks for joy and entertainment in petty things, in peripheral things, rather than rejoicing in the grand and expansive mystery of the whole of reality, breathtakingly beautiful and ravishingly liberating, as revealed in Christ, in the light of the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
G.K. Chesterton spoke of this well. He was comparing the joy of the “pagan” world with that of the Christian world. But his words uncannily fit out current situation, for we are now largely successful (as a culture) at being “post-Christian,” or “neo-pagan.” The only caviat now is that what was good in the old paganism, namely the aspiration for truth, goodness, and beauty and the mysterious movement of human hearts towards Christ who was yet to come, has been replaced by the hollowness that follows upon rejection of Christ, and even upon the arrogance that claims that “God is dead, and we have killed him” (Nietzche). There are many, indeed, who think it is good and heroic to stand before an abyss of absurdity, gazing into the blackest darkness of despair, and to will forth meaning from within oneself. For man needs God, after all, and if he rejects the real God, then he will unconsciously replace him with something else, whether a created reality or, in this case, with his own self and his own will.
What a “mature” way of living, an “adult” way of fashioning one’s own life! But it is precisely the folly that keeps hearts from being moved and transformed by the awesome gift of God’s love given in Christ: for this gift comes to meet us in our poverty and need, to offer itself, vulnerably and gently, to us in our own vulnerability. It is thus, as always, a gift for the little ones, for the children, for those who are capable of desiring, of hurting, of longing, and of being stirred to awe, gratitude, and wonder, and who are light enough to let go of themselves into something greater, and to fly in the amazement and freedom that blossoms in this space.
We have gotten off track from G.K. Chesterton. Let’s return now, and end this reflection with his quote:
It is said that Paganism is a religion of joy and Christianity of sorrow; it would be just as easy to prove that Paganism is pure sorrow and Christianity pure joy. Such conflicts mean nothing and lead nowhere. Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided. And the really interesting thing is this, that the pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens. The gaiety of the best Paganism, as in the playfulness of Catullus or Theocritus, is, indeed, an eternal gaiety never to be forgotten by a grateful humanity. But it is all a gaiety about the facts of life, not about its origin. To the pagan the small things are as sweet as the small brooks breaking out of the mountain; but the broad things are as bitter as the sea. When the pagan looks at the very core of the cosmos he is struck cold. Behind the gods, who are merely despotic, sit the fates, who are deadly. Nay, the fates are worse than deadly; they are dead. And when rationalists say that the ancient world was more enlightened than the Christian, from their point of view they are right. For when they say “enlightened” they mean darkened with incurable despair. It is profoundly true that the ancient world was more modern than the Christian. The common bond is in the fact that ancients and moderns have both been miserable about existence, about everything, while mediaevals were happy about that at least. I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything—they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything—they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.
The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. Yet, according to the apparent estate of man as seen by the pagan or the agnostic, this primary need of human nature can never be fulfilled. Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity. This is what I call being born upside down. The sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss. To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small. The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.
Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.i
i. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter IX, “Authority and the Adventurer.”