DECEMBER 19, 2010: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Those who study Scripture today don’t interpret some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures as the authors of the Christian Scriptures interpreted them. They didn’t have the tools modern scholars possess to recreate the world of these ancient sacred authors. Often they had just the writers’ words, and knew nothing of the events and context against which their words were produced - the key to interpreting the authors’ original intention. Neither did they see the necessity of reading any author’s entire work, or even large sections of it. It was sufficient for them to read only a verse or two, often taking the passage out of the writer’s context and slipping it into their own. This certainly is the case with today’s first and third readings.
Thirty-five years ago, during a diocesan clergy conference, Fr. Raymond Brown disturbed some of my brother priests by stating, “There are no predictions of Jesus, as such, anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.”
Hands quickly flew into the air. Fr. Brown patiently replied to each objection to his statement, especially the ones which sprang from Matthew applying Isaiah’s famous “virgin-shall-conceive-Immanuel” quote to Mary and Jesus. Just by putting verse 14 back in the original context of Isaiah’s chapter 7, Brown demonstrated that Ahaz needed an immediate sign; not one that would take over 700 years to be fulfilled. He then said that the pregnant girl (not necessarily a virgin) was probably Mrs. Ahaz, and the Immanuel, their son, Hezekiah.
Yet as recently as last week, I was reminded that old habits (or interpretations) die hard. One of my students showed me a “Pocket Catechism” her pastor had distributed that morning to the students and teachers of his Parish School of Religion. Question 22 read, “How do we know that Jesus is the promised Savior?” The answer: “Because all that the Prophets had foretold about the Savior was fulfilled in Jesus.”
The late Sulpician Scripture scholar acknowledged biblical Israelites were certainly waiting for a Messiah. But Brown mentioned that he always assured his Jewish friends, “The specific Messiah you’re expecting has yet to come.” The Scripture passages which speak about a Messiah don’t point people in the direction of Jesus - unless we fall into the trap of “eisegeting:” putting our meaning into the text instead of taking the sacred author’s original meaning out of the text.
Yet we must do more than just realize our Christian authors didn’t know the historical context of the Hebrew authors. We must also admit that many of us know little about the faith context of our Christian authors. Before these writers even began searching the Hebrew Scriptures for Jesus “proof texts,” they’d experienced him/her alive and active in their everyday lives. The biblical texts they employed in their writings didn’t create their faith in the risen Jesus, they simply helped surface different dimensions of that unique person’s presence in their midst.
Their belief in Christ among them was an essential part of their lives even if no Hebrew Scriptures existed. Notice, for instance, that Paul employs no scriptural text to back up his belief that Jesus “. . . was made Son of God in power, according to the spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead. . .“ even though he just stated the gospel he proclaimed was “. . . promised long ago through (the) prophets, as the holy Scriptures proclaimed.. .“ He obviously experienced Jesus before he checked the holy Scriptures.
We who both preside at Eucharist and also study Scripture, usually proclaim only the first of the two Advent prefaces. We simply can’t force ourselves to say the words in the second preface, “His (Jesus’) coming was foretold by all the prophets.” But instead of quibbling over prediction/fulfillment passages, we should be leading our communities to experience our sacred authors’ faith - in and outside of the Eucharist.