Lectionary 4, Gospel: Matthew 3, 1-12
We hear one of the most beautiful passages of the Old Testament today, as Isaiah the prophet gives voice to the coming of the messiah. He will bring about judgement and peace in such an all-encompassing way that even the created order of nature, which from the beginning has been “red in tooth and claw”, will be marked by non-violence. The mention of a baby and then of a child in Isaiah’s prophecy highlights how fanciful this vision is: wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions, bears and cows, and infants and serpents do not of course mix, except in the imagination of a child for whom the world’s innate order has not yet been made clear.
The first reading also tells us that the messiah will accomplish his wonderful act of peace-making because “the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him” (Isa 11:2). Isaiah’s further description of this divine outpouring reveals to the Church the famous gifts of the Holy Spirit which Catholic children of previous generations memorized when learning the Baltimore Catechism. If they do not come to mind right away, the gifts are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. These gifts are said by Isaiah to be the hallmark of the spirit that will rest upon the “shoot [that] shall sprout from the stump of Jesse”, and the “bud” blossoming from Jesse’s roots. Christian believers see this figure as a forecast of our Lord Jesus, who would definitely fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah.
A person manifesting all of these gifts might seem as unlikely as the scenario of wild animals quietly grazing together, and this should remind us that while prophecies are indeed fulfilled, they are often brought to fulfillment in ways that we do not readily foresee. In Isaiah’s own day the gifts of the Holy Spirit were seen partially in the prophet himself, but they would only be found in their completeness in Christ. It takes a good dose of wisdom to see how the preaching of today’s gospel reveals the fullness of Isaiah’s vision in Christ’s person: after all, as portrayed by John the Baptist Jesus is no cooing babe of Bethlehem but a stern judge who has fire prepared for those who refuse his message.
If our way of thinking remains untouched by the gifts of the Holy Spirit then we would naively expect the coming of the Christ child to have been welcomed by all and to have brought about a happy picture book ending. In reality it takes the wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit to see how Christ’s messianic victory could only come by joining us in our “red in tooth and claw” nature so that he could redeem it. The Pharisees couldn’t fathom this marvelous communication of divinity and humanity and sought salvation in their own observance of the law.
The gifts of the Spirit put us in a frame of mind so that we are prepared to receive the good news that God has indeed come to his people and redeemed them, and that he has done so through the birth in the flesh—the incarnation—of his Son, who would come to be called Jesus the messiah. As unlikely as the scenario of the peaceful animal kingdom in Isaiah seems, it is all the more unfathomable that God would not only send his Son to us but have him become one of us in order to work his salvation—yet this is precisely what we celebrate at Christmas! Let us then open our hearts to the treasure of the Spirit’s gifts and welcome the messiah who brings them to fulfillment in us.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.