Professor of Liturgical Studies
Divine Word Seminary
Commentary 2: Fr. Antonio Pernia, SVD
Society of the Divine Word
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign:the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son,
and shall name him Immanuel.”
Signs play an important role in our everyday life. Before buying and consuming any food, we check the signs of freshness and make sure they are not beyond their expiry date. Lovers and spouses demand proofs and signs of their partner’s love and fidelity; they too are very keen in discovering signs of a falling out of love of their partners. Parents look for signs of development and maturity in their children. Economists speak about signs and indicators of economic growth or decline. Doctors describe our health through signs and symptoms. And some panic when they see the first traces of wrinkles on their faces or the first strands of white hairs on their head because these are signs associated to getting older.
We realize that sign is a pervading reality of our life as humans. Therefore, it is not strange that in our relationship with the divine, signs are indispensable. A cursory glance at the use of the term “sign” in the Bible reveals that it appears little less than 200 times without counting its various synonyms. It is comparable (in terms of its frequency of use) to other important biblical terms and concepts like righteous/righteousness, faithful/faithfulness, etc.
God, being transcendent, deals with his people who are limited and finite through signs to an even greater degree. It is through sign, understood as “an action, an occurrence, and event by which a person recognizes, learns, remembers, or perceives, the authenticity of something” (Gunkel, TDNT VII, 213) especially the salvific will and plan of God. For example, God used the rainbow, a sign in nature, as a remembrance of the covenant which He made with Noah after the flood: “God added: ‘This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth’” (Gen 9:12-13). The various signs connected with the Exodus event, like the plagues in
It is not surprising, therefore, that God would offer a sign to Ahaz, the successor to the throne of David, threatened by the neighboring kingdoms, not to fear (v.4) but to believe (v.9). The King is invited to ask for a sign – any sign - but he declines, hiding behind a pious refusal to “put the Lord to the test” (v. 12; see Ex 17:2; Deut 6:16; Judg 6:17). This situation is not concerned with a request for a sign, but with an offer of a sign which would make it easier for him and his people to believe. Thus the king’s response is a failure of faith, an unwillingness to be assured. It should be noted that it was common for kings or other leaders to inquire of the Lord, often through prophets, before deciding to go to battle (see 2Kgs 13:14-19). So Yahweh responds angrily through the prophet and gives a sign: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” This is to re-affirm that ancient promise to David and the election of
From the early Church, in trying to understand the mystery of Christ, the God-man, saw in this passage from Isaiah (our first reading today) a hint to this mystery and saw in it a prophecy that was fulfilled in Christ, the Immanuel who was conceived by the Virgin Mary. [Modern exegetes, however, are unanimous in pointing out that there was an inadequate rendering of the Hebrew term almah = young woman to the Greek word parthenos = virgin by the Septuagint, a term that would be adopted later by Matthew and Luke. It is true though that the term almah does not exclude that dimension of virginity.] Of course, the early Church did not find any difficulty in making this affirmation of the virgin birth because she had experienced already Jesus as the glorious Lord and was seen as the fulfillment of all the prophesies of old especially that promise that the throne of David will last forever (see Ps 89: 36-38) was seen to have been fulfilled by the coming Lord (Lk 1:32-33; cf. Rev 11:15). But whether we interpret the birth of Jesus as extraordinary/miraculous or not, the point is God intervenes to save his people and he keeps his promises.
The sign given - a child - is also very significant. The child symbolizes hope (Is 9:1-7). In promising a child to be born in the context of an international threat was God’s way of convincing Ahaz that his kingdom will perdure because the birth of a child signifies a promise of a new generation. Rabindranath Tagore would say: “Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.” Thus, Ahaz needed only to trust and God promised him that the fulfillment would be imminent: “For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Is 7:16).
The birth of Jesus as a child is not only the fulfillment of the promised redeemer of humankind or the expression that God has not given up of humanity but Jesus became the new sign, the new image, the new face of God for humanity to contemplate - that of a fragile child. Through Jesus, God has refashioned his image and revealed himself through His beloved Son as the merciful Father whom we can approach with confidence. Indeed, Jesus’ humanity is the sign / sacrament of the Father.
It is this new sign – Christ – who is the fullness of grace and redemption is being offered to us today through the Church especially through her sacramental signs. As St Leo the Great taught: “Our redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” While it is true that we can find signs of God’s presence in nature, in the events of our lives, yet the privileged signs of his presence and concern for us are what He has instituted in and through His Church. If they are not so, Christ would not have instituted them.
If Jesus’ humanity is the sign/sacrament of the Father, the sacraments, in turn, are the efficacious signs of Jesus. Let our commemoration of the Incarnation of the Son of God in this season of Advent and Christmas lead us to a better appreciation of the signs of Christ’s presence among us: the sacraments of the Church especially the Eucharist.
Bad news? Often it happens that God’s Word comes to us as bad news. For not seldom, when God asks to enter our lives, his Word demands of us a radical change, transforms our plans, and even shatters our dreams.
This seems to have happened to Mary when the Angel Gabriel came to announce the news that she would be the mother of God’s son. No more dreams of a quiet life with Joseph in a small corner of Nazareth. Mary was being asked to be involved in God’s plan for salvation of the world by being the mother of the Messiah. This would draw her into the controversy surrounding her son and thrust her into the political intrigues of the big city of Jerusalem. But what started as bad news eventually became good news for Mary. How did Mary transform bad news into good news?
Three moments. First, the moment of fear, confusion and even rebellion. Mary was greatly troubled at the Angel’s greeting. She was afraid, and she protested: How can this be, since I have no relations with a man? This was followed by a second moment. A moment of reflection and prayer. Mary pondered over the Angel’s greeting. In a spirit of openness and an atmosphere of quiet, she listened to the explanation of the Angel. She discerned God’s ways as revealed in the lives of others. She dared to believe and trust God. And thus came a third moment. The moment of joyful acceptance of God’s Word. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Also in our case, the Word of God can come at first as bad news. But, like Mary, we can transform bad news into good news. To do so, we need to live through the three moments in Mary’s response to God’s Word – fear and confusion, reflection and prayer, joyful response and acceptance.
Christmas is God himself transforming bad news into good news – the bad news of the sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden becomes the good news of the birth of God’s son among us. May our celebration of Christmas make us learn to transform bad news into good news and make us the bearer of good news always.