The virgin shall conceive
Since the beginning of Advent, the readings of the Christian liturgy have been from the Book of Isaiah. But there’s one that is increasingly haunting with each pasing year. It’s King Ahaz’s perplexing refusal to his God:
“Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!
But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!”
Perplexing, because he makes himself sound reverent and humble. But the Lord, though the prophet, reads the heart of the king and knows how stupid, vain and prideful he is.
Haunting because Ahaz doesn’t sound like a long ago leader. Instead, Ahaz acts just like those in charge of almost everthing today.
Isaiah’s words are the Lord’s:
Listen, O house of David!
Is it not enough for you to weary men,
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.
Perplexing too because King Ahaz is in trouble…of the humungous kind. Assyria was about to invade. Jerusalem would fall, but the prophet is telling this weak, idolatrous king that if he asks, he and his nation will be saved.
But he will not ask.
These people in the old testament are like looking in a mirror, aren’t they?
How many times have we closed our minds and hearts to His help, wisdom and love? Transfixed by the horrifying headlines, anxiety overwhelms:
- Like King Ahaz, we’re blinded to the miracles shimmering right in front of us.
- And are deafened to His call to real freedom and so we trust mere men for our salvation.
- And yet the virgin shall conceive.
If we peel back the layers of history,
the depth of Ahaz’s problem, and reason for the prophet Isaiah’s dramatic intervention become clear. Israel is facing an extreme threat from Assyria. In his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Emeritus Benedict explains.
“…Ahaz is facing a critical situation, where two neighboring kingdoms are entering into an alliance against the superpower of the day, Assyria. These two kingdoms are trying to pressure him into joining, but Ahaz thinks this foolish and will not do so. The king is fearful of these kingdoms and so enters a protection alliance with Assyria against them. The problem with this treaty was that the “payment” Assyria demanded was idolatry. Isaiah is trying to keep him from this, as idolatry will have devastating consequences for the people of God…The answer given by the king appears pious…[but] the king’s refusal of the sign is not, as it appears, an expression of faith, but on the contrary an indication that he does not want to be disturbed in his Realpolitk” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 46-8)
Despite a lifetime of wanton rebellion, flaunting of the Law and blasphemous conduct, God still works to save Ahaz from himself! Thus, is there any sin of yours and mine- or of anyone else- that this majestic, mysterious and merciful God will not forgive?
Could we stop placing our trust in flawed men and institutions?
If we bend our necks and knees and ask, more accurately, beg– for ourselves- and for all the King Ahaz’s in our world, can we serve as channels for Peace?
Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God, let it be as deep as the netherworld or as high as the sky: the virgin shall conceive!
January first isn’t just the first day of the new year
but it’s also the Solemnity of Mary.
Mary: the woman we can’t help but be thinking of during these holy days of the Christmas season. The impossible circumstances of her life.
Brad Pitre notes in his book Jesus and the Jewsh Roots of Mary, that:
Pope Leo l wrote: “For he was conceived by the Holy Spirit within the womb of the Virgin Mother, who gave birth to him in such a way that her virginity was undiminished…descending frim his heavenly throne the Son of God enters into the infirmities of this world and, not leaving his Father’s glory, he is generated in a new order and a new birth…”
And Gregory of Nyssa, “Christ’s birth alone occured without labor pains…began to exist without sexual relations…Just as she who introduced death into nature by sin was condemned to bear sin in suffering and travail, it was necessary that the Mother of Life…having conceived in joy should give birth in joy…”
Ancient Christians saw the pains of childbirth as unnatural: the result of the fall. They believed precisely what the ancient Jews did: in the new creation birth would no longer cause suffering. Just as the birth of Jesus was the beginning of the new creation, the new Adam, so Mary is the second Eve.
Our words are not just inadequate in describing the incarnation but they beguile us into thinking we understand what is incomprehensible., the magnitude of Jesus’s condescension, the immensity of the love and mercy of our Triune God.
A poem by a priest comes close.
And nothing would again be casual and small
is the title of a piece by Claire Dwyer. She takes the line of a stunning poem by Reverend John Duffy for her title.
I Sing of a Maiden
by Rev. John Duffy, C.S.s.R.
And was it true,
The stranger standing so,
And saying things that lifted her in two,
And put her back before the world’s beginning?
Her eyes filled slowly with the morning glow.
Her drowsy ear drank in a first sweet dubious bird.
Her cheek against the pillow woke and stirred
To gales enriched by passage over dew,
And friendly fields and slopes of Galilee
Arose in tremulous intermixture with her dreams,
Till she remembered suddenly…
Although the morning beams
Came spilling in the gradual rubric known to every day,
And hills stood ruinous, as an eclipse,
Against the softly spreading ray,
Not touched by any strange apocalypse
Like that which yesterday had lifted her sublime,
And put her back before the first grey morn of Time —
Though nothing was disturbed from where she lay and saw,
Now she remembered with a quick and panting awe
That someone came, and took in hand her heart,
And broke irresistibly apart,
With what he said, and how in tall suspense
He lingered, while the white celestial inference,
Pushing her fears apart, went softly home.
Then she had faltered her reply,
And felt a sudden burden of eternal years,
And shamed by the angelic stranger standing by
Had bowed her head to hide her human tears.
Never again would she awake
And find herself the buoyant Galilean lass,
But into her dissolving dreams would break
A hovering consciousness too terrible to pass —
A new awareness in her body when she stirred,
A sense of Light within her virgin gloom:
She was the Mother of the wandering Word,
Little and terrifying in her laboring womb.
And nothing would again be casual and small,
But everything with light invested, overspilled
With terror and divinity, the dawn, the first bird’s call,
The silhouetted pitcher waiting to be filled.