December 20, 2016

Five Themes in Isaiah's Prophecies of Christ's Birth


First, there’s a sense of something wholly new. “See, I’m doing something new. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” So Isaiah 43:19 declares. Isaiah trembles with excitement at the sense of something wholly new and unexpected. The end of Isaiah 52, which was read for Christmas day mass last year, speaks of nations startled, and kings standing speechless. “They shall see what has not been told them, shall behold what they never heard. A whole new world will come into being – one far removed from the trials, strife, and suffering of ours. It will be a world where swords will be beaten into plows, and the lion will lay down with the lamb.”

Second, there is a sense that the whole world has been longing for this thing that is coming, for the Messiah. So, while Isaiah foresaw the coming salvation as something wholly new, it was also something for which the world had been longing. This is especially suggested by recurring images of fresh water being poured out upon or bubbling up from dry desert lands. For example, Isaiah 44:3 prophecies that “I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground, streams upon the dry land.” Likewise, Isaiah 35:1 declares that the desert and the parched land will be glad, and then there’s this in Isaiah 25:9: “And it will be said that day, ‘Beyond, this is our God, for whom we have waited that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited.”

Third, there’s also the sense of abundant life. Along with images of flooding deserts, there are also those that indicate a newness and abundance of life. “The virgin will conceive, and the barren woman with no children will rejoice at suddenly finding herself to have many. God will make the wilderness rejoice and blossom, such that it will even become like a second Eden.” Do not these motifs of Abundant life call to mind the world of Jesus Himself in John 10:10? “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

Fourth, there’s this motif of the light of the world. Isaiah’s filled with images of light breaking in on the darkness. At the midnight mass year, we read the beginning of Isaiah 9. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who live in a land of gloom a light has shone." In Isaiah 42:9, this image is combined with the motif of prisoners who were being freed to suggest light that liberates. In order to convey the completely unexpected and miraculous newness of such light, Isaiah 42:16 then discusses this motif in terms of the healing of the blind. "I will lead the blind on a way they do not know. By paths they do not know I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them." From the gospels, we know that the light that dispels the darkness of evil and leads us to God is Jesus. He’s the light that frees us from our sins and heals our spiritual blindness. Indeed, even Christ describes Himself in John 8:12 as the light of the world.

Fifth and finally, there’s the sense of overwhelming joy that permeates the prophecies of Isaiah. Isaiah 52:8 declares: "Your sentinels raise a cry. Together they shout for joy. For they shall see directly before their eyes the Lord’s return to Zion." According to Isaiah 25:9, "We shall rejoice and be joyful in his salvation."

This sense of overwhelming joy pervades Isaiah. "The very heavens and earth will break out in joyful Song, even the wilderness, the barren women, and the ruins Jerusalem will rejoice." Rejoice, I say again, rejoice always. For to us today a child is born in Bethlehem.

Excerpt from "Isaiah, the Prophet of Christmas", a reflection by Stephen Beale.

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