Tuesday, December 28, 2010

St. Joseph and the Holy Innocents

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents.  These were the infant children of Bethlehem massacred by King Herod in an attempt to wipe out Christ, whom he perceived as a future rival.  This act ultimately was inspired by the devil.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, three magi are led to a manger to adore the Word made Flesh.   In a real way, they are proclaiming the value of life.  Under the inspiration of the devil, Herod proclaims death.  This situation has remained with us today.  Today's massacre is the outrage of abortion, where millions of innocents have been sacrificed under the direction of the evil one.

Both have the same purpose, the destruction of the innocent.  Many people ponder Satan's conflict and think his battle is only with God.  His battle is against all God has created.  When Herod massacred the innocents, the devil intended to send a shot across the bow to all creation:  there is no length he would not go to in his goal of warring against God.  Anyone who thinks they can be "neutral" is sadly mistaken.  These babies were as "neutral" as could be (most of them infants, lacking the ability to even choose good or evil at this point) and they were slain, partly out of a vain hope that Christ would be amongst the slain, and partly just out of rage by Herod.

Yet we do know that Christ survived.  He survived thanks to St. Joseph.  We know from today's Gospel that Joseph was told by an angel to flee Bethlehem and go into Egypt where he would be safe.  At this point, St. Joseph gave up his entire livelihood and smuggled Mary and Christ out of Israel.  By this very act, he was signing his death warrant.   Even with all the risk, Joseph does all of this without complaint.

Perhaps we should start imploring his aid today.  Just as he protected Christ from the devil, is he not also willing to protect all of us, as he is our patron?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why the Incarnation Matters: The House of David Continues

After a bit of a break, I would now like to continue our series on the Incarnation and its understanding throughout salvation history.. Today, we come across what could be viewed as the most important of the “Emmanuel” prophecies of Isaiah. Indeed, we Christians have recently celebrated the fulfillment of this prophesy at Christmas. We are told “Behold, a woman shall conceive a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel.”

While this prophesy ultimately points towards Christ, I believe there are certain aspects of it that we miss, and these are vital for why this was such a comforting prophesy to the Jews. We must remember, the prophets were not simply there to tell news of the distant future. The immediate context is quite different.

If we remember from our previous discussions, the Kingdom of Judah was a vassal of the King of Assyria. A vassal is one who is forced to be in submission to a stronger power, for the sake of their own survival. The King of Assyria had almost complete domination of this region. In addition to Judah, the Kingdom had forced into servitude the Kings of Damascus and Samaria (amongst many others) as well. As with any vassal, rebellion was a common occurrence. People hate to be under forced submission for long. The moment they get an opportunity, they will likely rebel to assert their own independence.

This is precisely what was happening. The Samarians and Syrians declared their independence from Assyria. In such rebellions, the retaliation of the overlord is normally swift and brutal. If the Assyrians let this go unpunished, their other vassals may likely follow suit. Once they declared their independence, Damascus and Samaria immediately prepared for war. They also did their best to recruit other vassals of Assyria to likewise follow in their footsteps. The most obvious choice was the Kingdom of Judah.

For various reasons, Judah rejected this overture. They felt their interests were not served by a rebellion. They were historical enemies of Damascus. (Within the very generation of this event, Syria launched a failed siege of Jerusalem) They originally submitted to the Assyrians to save their necks from Samarian aggression. Barely a century before, they had been the vassal of Omri, King of Samaria.

For the anti-Assyrian coalition, this rejection was unacceptable. They needed all the manpower they could get in defending their lands from the coming Assyrian invasion. Furthermore, if Judah stayed loyal to Assyria, the Assyrians could easily use the realm of Judah for their own ends. Their troops could be resupplied, and they would have easy access to launch invasions on both fronts. For their plan to work, Judah had to go along with them.

With this in mind, they devised a plan. They would invade Judah and depose King Ahaz. In his place, they would place their own puppet ruler. This ruler was not of Ahaz’s direct line, and would be gladly follow along with this plan if it meant he could secure the throne. The armies of Judah would then join with Damascus and Samaria to prepare for the Assyrian invasion.

Whatever one thinks of King Ahaz, he was no fool. He knew that joining this coalition would not work. The Assyrians would respond, and respond brutally. (Such was their history.) Even if it did, Ahaz would not find his kingdom independent. Syria would no doubt attempt to bring them under their umbrella. At least with the Assyrians, they were far enough away to where Ahaz had a degree of autonomy, provided he did not rebel. Yet this distance was also a curse. Ahaz reasoned the Assyrians would not arrive in time to save him most likely. He could not stand against the might of both Damascus and Samaria. The situation looked hopeless.

God announces that He will not let this stand. He made a promise to David that one of his descendants would remain on the throne. This plot went directly against that plan. In addition to announcing His opposition to this, God declares to Ahaz He will perform a sign to that effect. The God of the universe intends to show a sign of good faith in His defense of Judah.

Ahaz rejects this overture, claiming He has no desire to tempt God. While sounding noble, perhaps there is something more at work. We know that Ahaz was not a noble man. The book of Kings describes him as doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord, like the Kings of Israel.” In a sense, he was even worse than the Kings of Israel. The last time he felt threatened, he offered his son as a burnt offering to his pagan deity. He desecrated the altar in the temple; making it identical to a pagan altar he was awestruck by when he visited Damascus.

When Ahaz rejects a sign, he does so out of a rejection of the God of Israel. In his eyes, Yahweh was not supreme. He was just another god. Any god could give a sign. His humility is entirely false. God delivers an angry response, stating that this rejection shows Ahaz wishes to provoke Him as well as the nations.

Yet God will still show a sign, yet not for Ahaz’s sake. Just as He defended the wicked Samarians from the Syrians because they insulted Him (1st Kings 20:23-28), He would defend Judah for His own sake. If the royal line died, God would have broken His promise.

This is the context for what was said. Isaiah announces that a woman shall bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel. He also predicts a true golden age for the people of Israel as a result of this son.

Christians and Jews have debated for centuries if the prophesy is to be understood in light of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet what we do know is that this birth would be a sign. What was that sign? If a true golden age of the Davidic Kingdom would be launched by this son; this means the Davidic line would survive. This would mean that the schemes of Damascus and Samaria would have to fail. They would not be deposing Ahaz, for one of his sons would reign over a true golden age of Judah according to God. Considering that at the time Ahaz had no direct heir, this cemented the deal.

In the immediate sense, the people would have seen this prophesy fulfilled with Ahaz’s son Hezekiah. Hezekiah was one of the greatest Kings of Judah. Under him they did gain independence from Assyria. Judah ended up rebelling anyways later in Hezekiah’s life, but for their own freedom. When the Assyrians invaded, they suffered a humiliating defeat. Though the Assyrians attempted to spin it as a victory (Sennachrib in his memoirs uses propaganda to boast of humbling the “puny” King of Judah, even though he retreated with a significantly smaller army and never again attempted to make them submit), their hegemony over Judah had ended. Hezekiah also launched bold religious reforms, helping Judah to return to the worship of Yahweh.

While a certain case can be made for Hezekiah to be the fulfillment of this prophesy, I submit Isaiah has much more to say on the matter. In chapter 9 Isaiah expounds on what kind of child this servant will be. The prophesied child shall be called “Father of the World to Come”, the “Prince of Peace”, and one whose “empire” would be “multiplied.” Illustrious though his reign was, Hezekiah did none of these things. There had to be someone else.

Whoever this applies to, the message is clear. Even in their darkest hour, God stands beside them, for the sake of His covenant. Man may plot and scheme all they wish, their plans will not come to fruition when they conflict with God’s.