This editorial by Andrew Britz, OSB, titled Emmanuel, is from the Dec. 18, 2002 issue of the Prairie Messenger. It can be found in his book Rule of Faith: As we worship, so we believe, so we live.
“The Lord will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel” (Is 7:14).
Down through the ages this prophecy of Isaiah has remained one of the church’s favourites. It was originally proclaimed during wartime and thus has a special poignancy this year, as some leaders of the western world appear eager to go to war.
Ahaz refused to listen to Isaiah. His prophetic word was painful, not because it demanded great ascetical or difficult tasks, but because it drove him to the core of his being. It called him to faith, to trust — in the face of the utter truth about himself.
All of us tend not to look too deeply into ourselves. Only with pain and self-doubt do we ever move beyond the masks we create for ourselves.
Ahaz could not move beyond his mask. The king had paraded himself publicly in Jerusalem as a strong man, as the one the people could trust to confront without fear the advancing armies outside the city gates. The people did not believe this; but that was not the problem. Life became more dangerous for everyone when Ahaz started to believe he was the mask he had so carefully constructed.
The king’s solution was simple: it was not too late to build up his army and screw up his courage. This, however, ran contrary to the advice the prophet gave him. Isaiah had warned: “If you do not stand by me (put your faith in God), you will not stand at all” (Is 7:9).
Ahaz would have listened to the prophet had Isaiah asked him to execute some act of valour before the enemy. But Ahaz knew the prophet too well; he knew part of the sign from God would include placing his trust in the Lord. That he could not do.
Trust is built on inner honesty. Trust is the acknowledgment that we cannot do it alone, that our inner resources are not sufficient to carry the day. It is indeed a death to our pride, asking instead that the Lord begin afresh with us.
Isaiah knew that Ahaz was lying when he said that he did not want to test the Lord. He knew that the king was not ready to trust the Lord.
Isaiah was bitterly disappointed. He had hoped against hope that the king would tear off his mask and learn to trust. While he knew that God could not be present effectively in Jerusalem as long as there was no trust, he continued to hope, to dream of a time when God would be so close to his people that they would call him Emmanuel — God is with us.
From the earliest days of the church, Christians have seen in the virgin birth the fulfilment of Isaiah’s dream. Mary has become the model that Ahaz refused to be. While Ahaz could not trust the Lord enough to open his city gates and allow the Lord to hammer his swords into ploughshares, Mary believed that God would fulfil her. She knew that God would fill her emptiness, could make her virginal womb burst forth into new life.
Isaiah did not believe he was asking the impossible of Ahaz. In fact, the prophet felt the king had nothing to lose. Since Ahaz did not have a prophet’s far-seeing eyes, Isaiah knew that the king could only see defeat and humiliation before him. Yet even this did not turn his head. It was still easier for Ahaz to believe in his mask and in his sword — even in the face of hopelessness — than to turn and trust the Lord.
Political leaders have the “marvellous” ability to view the world in terms of brute power, and though they weave lie upon lie to give their use of such power a benevolent face, they all too often become the first victims of their lies. (It is not at all impossible that George W. Bush believed his rhetoric of wishing to bring democracy to Iraq rather than of gaining control of one of the world’s largest oil fields.)
Isaiah eventually gave up on Ahaz. Though Ahaz was a descendent of King David, the prophet did not see any good coming from him. Indeed, he went back before David to his father Jesse. According to Isaiah, it made more sense to believe new life could come from the stump of Jesse than to hope for something from those petty rulers who could not see beyond their sword (see Is 11:1).
Here we see the true meaning of Mary’s virginity. St. Matthew, in tying the virgin birth of Mary’s child with the Emmanuel prophecy of old (see Mt 1:23), is not saying that a virgin birth is something greater or more noble than marriage, or that being born of a virgin is a holier way of coming into the world than is the normal sexual route the rest of us took.
But he is saying that Isaiah’s call to trust in the grave of Jesse, that a new shoot would spring from it, is child’s play alongside belief in the fruitfulness of a virgin, that salvation will always be a new thing calling us to part with the sword of Ahaz that we might know the Prince of Peace “who judges not on appearances or hearsay but with integrity and justice” (Is 11:3).