II Lent Friday – Esaias 7: 1-14

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And it came to pass in the days of Achaz the son of Joatham, the son of Ozias, king of Juda, there came up Rasim king of Aram, and Phakee son of Romelias, king of Israel, against Jerusalem to war against it, but they could not take it. 2 And a message was brought to the house of David, saying, Aram has conspired with Ephraim. And his soul was amazed, and the soul of his people, as in a wood a tree is moved by the wind. 3 And the Lord said to Esaias, Go forth to meet Achaz, thou, and thy son Jasub who is left, to the pool of the upper way of the fuller’s field. 4 And thou shalt say to him, Take care to be quiet, and fear not, neither let thy soul be disheartened because of these two smoking firebrands: for when my fierce anger is over, I will heal again. 5 And as for the son of Aram, and the son of Romelias, forasmuch as they have devised an evil counsel, saying, 6 We will go up against Judea, and having conferred with them we will turn them away to our side, and we will make the son of Tabeel king of it; 7 thus saith the Lord of hosts, This counsel shall not abide, nor come to pass. 8 But the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus, Rasim; and yet within sixty and five years the kingdom of Ephraim shall cease from being a people. 9 And the head of Ephraim is Somoron, and the head of Somoron the son of Romelias: but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand. 10 And the Lord again spoke to Achaz, saying, 11 Ask for thyself a sign of the Lord thy God, in the depth or in the height. 12 And Achaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord. 13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a little thing for you to contend with men? and how do ye contend against the Lord? 14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel. 

Here is the best-known and most explicit Old Testament prophecy of the Incarnation of God the Word:  “…behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.”  When the fullness of time had come, neither an angel nor an ambassador came to save us, but the Lord Himself, Emmanuel, whose name being interpreted means “God with us.”  

Long before the time of Esaias, however, Moses had mystically learned of this in his encounter with God at the burning bush.   St. Gregory of Nyssa says the following: 

It seems to me that Moses already knew about this mystery by means of the light by which God appeared to him when he saw the bush burning without being consumed (Exodus 3:2).  For Moses said, “I wish to go up closer and observe this great vision (Ex. 3:3). I believe that the term “go up closer” does not mean motion in space but drawing near in time.  What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin, once a period of time had passed.  Just as on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted.   Nor should you consider comparing the Virgin to a bush to be inappropriate, for the bush prefigures the God-bearing body of the Virgin. – St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Birth of Christ 

Neither Moses nor Esaias – nor Gregory of Nyssa for that matter – were what people today would call academic theologians.  They had wisdom, because they feared the Lord.  They had faith in Who He is, and they had hope in His promises. Advancing from Faith in His Truth to Hope in His Goodness, finally they came to that true knowledge of God which is the union of the mind with the ultimate Beauty, Who is Love.   

So Faith comes first.  The Lord Himself makes this plain in today’s reading, through the mouth of Esaias.   He tells King Achaz that the king does not understand the prophetic revelation because he does not believe:   “…but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand (v.9) .”  

Blessed Augustine of Hippo explains this relationship between faith and understanding thus: 

The sacred and hidden mysteries of the kingdom of God require people first to believe so they become people who understand.  Faith, you see, is a step toward understanding; understanding is the well-deserved reward of faith.  The prophet says this plainly enough to all those who impatiently put the cart before the horse by looking for understanding and ignoring the need for faith.  He states, “…but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand (Esaias 7:9.)” Faith too, of course, has a kind of light of its own in the Scriptures: in the readings from the prophets, from the the gospel, from the apostle.  I mean, all those texts that are chanted to us at the appropriate time are lights in a dark place, to keep us going until the day.  The apostle Peter says, “We have the prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention, as to a light in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (II Peter 1:19). Sermon 126

St. Peter understands that his flock often perceive that their lives in this world are in “a dark place,” and of course we often feel that way too.   What he and St. Augustine offer as a cure for this is that we hasten to the Church and hear, at the appropriate time, that is, according to the Church’s liturgical calendar, the sacred prophecies of the Old and New Testaments, which throw light into our darkness and give us the strength we need to persevere, until “…the day dawns and the morning star rises” in our hearts.  The light of spiritual understanding does come if we keep struggling in faith and hearing God’s word with an open heart; we know that, for we periodically experience it, and no one can tell us that it does not happen.  And we know that this is not delusory, because it is the most solid, stabilizing, consistent, and joy-giving interior experience we ever have. Each of us can say to himself, “I am certainly not a a Moses or an Esaias or a Gregory of Nyssa, but the Lord in His greatness does reach down to my lowliness and enlighten my darkness, whenever I take off the sandals of my self-sufficiency and vain knowledge, and fall down before the Burning Bush with faith and the fear of God.”  

Panagia herself exercised this active faith that is prior to knowledge, regarding the very prophecy we read today.  She had read it too, and she believed.  When the great archangel came to tell her that she was to enact its fulfillment, she did not for one moment doubt the prophecy.  Her question to St. Gabriel was simply out of a desire to grow in understanding; as one thirsting to grow ever  in divine knowledge, she wanted to know more about the details.  Here is what St. Ambrose says about it:  

When Mary asked the angel, “How shall this be? (Luke 1:3-4),” she was not doubting what the angel said; she wanted to know how it would come about.  How much more measured is her response than the words of the priest Zechariah.  She asked, “How shall this be?” [Zacharias, by contrast, asked] “How shall I know this? (Luke 1:18).” She responds to what is to happen; he remains doubtful of the news. He shows that he does not believe by saying that he does not know, and seeks to find someone else as warrant; she declares that she is ready to do what she is called for and does not doubt that it will take place.  She asks only how it will happen when she says, “How shall this be since I have no husband?”  Such a marvelous and unheard-of birth needed to be announced so that she could believe it.  For a virgin to give birth is a sign of a divine mystery, not a human affair.  Further, Mary had read the words, “Receive a sign: Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Esaias 7:14).” Therefore she believed that the prophecy would come true, but how it would happen she would not have read, for how it would be fulfilled had not been revealed even to so great a prophet.Commentary on Luke 2:15 

When we struggle with weakness of faith, let us not then obey the suicidal impulse to pitch our feeble minds into the swirling cesspool of human curiosity and vain reasonings.  Let us instead kneel before the icon of the Most Holy Virgin, read her Akathist Hymn, and cry out to her in the words of the archangel.   This pleases her greatly, and her all-powerful intercession will invincibly incline the will of her divine Son, the Daystar of God, to send His light into our hearts. 

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