Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Virgin Version

One of the joys of a good story is enjoying it again. Sometimes you notice new details. And when it is a well-told story, you might notice how certain themes are developed and how important events are foreshadowed. I was rereading the Harry Potter saga and you can see how all along J.K. Rowling was setting up the themes of not passing judgment on others, of doing what’s right rather than what’s easy, of hope and faith, of fear and hate, of death and resurrection. Especially prominent is the saving power of self-sacrificial love. It is ironic that so many fundamentalists missed the profoundly Christian ethos of this series of books.

These themes come from the Bible, of course, and here too there is foreshadowing. In the Bible it is called prophecy. We find a famous example in the passages from Isaiah 7:10-16 and from Matthew 1:18-25. But you may have noticed something. The verse in Isaiah is different from the version we find in the gospel. Why is that?

Isaiah says, “look, the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will call him Immanuel.” Matthew says, “look, a virgin…” Is Matthew fudging the quote to bolster his interpretation of the prophecy? No, he was just doing what we are doing: using a translation. Isaiah was written in Hebrew. Hundreds of years later, Jews in the Roman Empire spoke the common language of the day, Greek. So they and the writers of the New Testament were most familiar with a popular Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. And the Septuagint uses the Greek word for “virgin.” To be fair, in that time and place any unmarried young woman was supposed to be a virgin.

Does that mean that the quote from Isaiah wasn’t really a prophecy? Only if we define prophecy in a narrow way. And unfortunately that’s exactly what a lot of Christians do. They act as if the Bible is made up of a bunch of lists: top 10 things God wants you to do, 9 things you’d better not do if you don’t want to wind up in hell, 7 signs of the apocalypse, 6 ways to tell if you’re a leper, and 100 precise prophecies predicting the Messiah. But the Bible has only a few deliberate lists and only because it contains various types of literature.

We think of a prophet as something similar to a psychic. But in the Bible a prophet is someone who speaks for God, someone who announces the Word of God. Sometimes a prophet describes the current situation from God’s perspective. Sometimes a prophet prescribes some types of behavior and proscribes other forms of behavior. Sometimes he or she delineates the consequences of bad behavior or announces what God promises to do to reclaim his lost people. So foretelling events is only one type of prophecy. And sometimes the prophecy has an immediate, rather straightforward fulfillment that presages a more distant and greater manifestation.

The immediate situation that Isaiah was addressing was a threat to Judah. The king of its sister nation of Israel and the king of Aram, modern day Syria, were pressuring Judah to join them in an alliance against the Assyrian empire that would have been disastrous. To encourage King Ahaz to resist this ill-fated move, God offered a sign to assure him. A young maiden, possibly Isaiah’s prospective wife, would get pregnant, have a baby and by the time he’s old enough to discern good from evil, the threat would be no more. So when that happened, the prophecy would be fulfilled. Why is Matthew bringing it back up?

Remember when we were talking about in a great story events are often foreshadowed. In the beginning of first film in which Cate Blanchett plays Elizabeth the First, the dying Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic, begs her Protestant half-sister not to take the blessed Virgin from the English people. At the end of the film, Elizabeth becomes the beloved virgin queen, honoring her sister‘s request in a startling way. In every Harry Potter book, he and his friends confront the choice of facing death and their greatest fears to save the ones they love. But each time it becomes harder and the stakes higher. Heroic friends and allies die. In the final book, Harry realizes that he must let Voldemort kill him to destroy the magic link that keeps them both alive. This time Harry must set aside any hope of defeating his enemy. In fact, to kill Voldemort will simply fracture Harry’s soul as it did the dark wizard and curse him to the same sort of evil half-life. Harry puts away his wand and goes to face his fate, like a lamb to the slaughter. This act is both somewhat like and yet much greater than the sacrifices Harry has made before. And in retrospect, it becomes clear that each book was pointing to this conclusion.

This is how the writers of the New Testament and indeed the rabbis of that day read the Bible. Its riches were inexhaustible. Anything in God’s Word could have both a literal and a spiritual meaning. Any prophecy could have an immediate fulfillment that was also a hint of greater things to come. Since God’s character does not change, one would expect a consistency in his actions. Therefore his earlier acts bore similarities to the later ones. But since he was God he could hardly be expected to simply repeat himself. So one would expect him to create surprising variations on earlier themes.

And that’s what we have here. In Isaiah’s time the natural birth of a son named Immanuel signals God’s promise of political peace. But several hundred years later, the birth of a son who is Immanuel--”God with us”--signals God’s promise of a more profound and far-reaching peace.

The disciples didn’t see this until after Jesus’ resurrection cast the otherwise tragic events leading up to his death in a totally different light. Some of this must have come from Jesus’ teachings after he arose from the dead. Luke tells us that on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted the things about himself that were written in all the scriptures.” And it all made sense. And it resonated. “They said to each other, ‘were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the road and as he opened up to us the scriptures?’”

So they scanned the scriptures and found all these hints and foreshadowing of Jesus’ life and ministry. Especially startling were Psalm 22 and the later chapters of Isaiah. Here they found descriptions of God’s suffering servant so explicit that those who witnessed his crucifixion must have shivered as they read them. It was the resurrection of Jesus that vindicated him in the eyes of those who thought he was just another failed Messiah-wannabe but it was these prophetic passages in the Hebrew Bible that helped them understand what he was doing. And what he was doing was marvelous.

The only way to break the cycle of violence is to not respond violently. The only way to bring peace between those at odds is for the aggrieved party to initiate it. We have been at war with God a long time. We started it. Now he is ending it. And he does so by absorbing all the violence, all the betrayal, all the injustice, all the hatred, all the cruelty, all the hypocrisy, all the prejudice, all the political cowardice, all the religious complicity, all the personal justifications, all the inhumanity that humanity can muster. He takes all the evil that men do and buries it, with him, in his grave. And then he leaves it there. Jesus doesn’t bring it back when he returns to life. 30 years after he took his first breath in a stable and opened his eyes under the light of a dazzling star, he takes a new first breath in a garden-like graveyard and squints in the light of the rising sun.

On Easter Jesus is reborn. The birth pangs began on Good Friday. The baby who lay where no baby should, in a feeding trough, is laid out where no person should be, on a cross. The infant hailed as King by the heavenly court is ironically labeled “King of the Jews” by an emperor’s lackey. The child revered by lowly shepherds is mocked by passersby. The toddler presented with gifts by scholars is stripped of all he owns by soldiers. But then the babe who entered into a womb through a miracle exits his tomb through another miracle. And once again God starts doing on a grander scale what he has done before.

For God did not resurrect the Son in whom he was pleased as a stunt. It was a prelude. Again he is hinting at a greater fulfillment. He means to resurrect this rotten world that he once pronounced good. It is not only people who are to be born again, but the world as well. And as the Body of Christ on earth, we are to be at the forefront. As Jesus went about healing and comforting and confronting and suffering for his trouble, we will as well. It will not be easy. It will take sacrifice. There will be birth pangs. But God has already said it will happen. And in Jesus he has already begun it. It is for us to continue in the spirit of what has gone before. And if the past is anything to go on, when it is time for the new heavens and the new earth to be born, it will be as surprising as a virgin giving birth and as unexpected as finding God in a feeding trough.

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