“The New Testament in the Old is concealed, the Old Testament in the New is revealed,” as St. Augustine once said.*  We can see the truth of these words in the amazing event we celebrate at Christmas.  Consider the opening verses of the first reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent, from the Book of the Prophet Micah:

Thus says the LORD:
    You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah
        too small to be among the clans of Judah,
    from you shall come forth for me
        one who is to be ruler in Israel;
    whose origin is from of old,
        from ancient times. (Micah 5:2)

We can see this Old Testament prophecy (as well as other prophecies from Isaiah, et. al.) come to fruition in the New Testament in a literal way in the birth of Jesus the Messiah in Bethlehem.  As always, however, there are deeper and deeper layers of truth underneath the surface.  Bethlehem is so small as to seem insignificant, but it will produce the Christ, just as it had once produced the great King David (the last two lines of the verse above indicate that the Messiah will be of the line of David).  

Speaking of great things coming in small packages, David himself was something of a surprise.  When the Prophet Samuel comes to Bethlehem to choose a new king for Israel from among Jesse’s sons, David is not with his brothers; he has been left behind tending the sheep in the fields, since, as the youngest and the smallest, he seemed the least likely to wield the sceptre. But, as God tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, . . . for the LORD sees not as man sees.” (1 Samuel 16:7) In a similar way, centuries before David’s time, seventeen year old Joseph, youngest but one of Jacob’s sons and “the son of [Jacob’s] old age” (Genesis 37:3) is sold into slavery by his brothers and taken to the foreign land of Egypt, from which lowly situation he rises to become the chief advisor of the King of Egypt himself, and the savior of his brothers and all their people.  

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars . . . So shall your descendants be.”

God Shows Abraham the Stars, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

Jacob’s father Isaac had likewise been the son of his father Abraham’s old age. Abraham and his wife Sarah were so old, in fact, that they had long despaired of ever having children. When Sarah overhears God, disguised as a traveler, tell Abraham that they will have a son, she laughs in disbelief.  Then

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’  Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:13-14)

And indeed God had already promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars.  Abraham himself believed it, which was “reckoned to him as righteousness,” (Genesis 15:5-6) but who else, including even Abraham’s wife, could believe such a thing?

The examples above all involve mortal human beings who are taken from lowly, and seemingly insignificant, positions to accomplish great missions. But there is something different about the Incarnation. Jesus is not only human, but God himself, “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” according to St. Paul (Colossians 1:15).  How can it be that the Firstborn of All Creation was born again as a little human baby, a baby lying in a manger out of which animals feed?

     Again, the Old Testament tells us, even if we don’t want to see it, that we should expect no different.  Consider the following passage from the First Book of Kings, as God shows himself to the prophet Elijah, who is hiding in a cave:

And he [the Lord] said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice; And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  (1 Kings: 11-13)

God Speaks to Elijah, by Henry Davenport Northrop, D.D., 1894

This, in its way, is as clear a foretaste of the Messiah as the “messianic” passages we read in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel throughout advent.  We may have heard that, before the coming of Christ, people lived in fear of divine power.  Encountering God was something to be avoided: the point of praying and offering sacrifice, even sacrificing one’s own flesh and blood, was so that God (more often understood as “the gods”) would simply leave you alone.  
     We can detect echoes of this ancient attitude in the account of Abraham as he brings  his beloved son Isaac up Mount Moriah, prepared to offer him up (Genesis 22).  At the last moment God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand, and provides a lamb for the sacrifice. The unexpected reversal in the story of Abraham and Isaac shows us the end of Christ’s earthly ministry; the story of Elijah in the cave shows us its surprising beginning. God doesn’t show himself in any of the terrifying guises one would expect (wind, earthquake, fire), but as a “still, small, voice” (in some translations a “whisper”).  In just the same way, the second person of the Trinity comes among us in the least threatening way imaginable: a helpless little baby, cradled in a feeding trough.  No wonder, when the Angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, he first tells them not to be afraid; and then he says:

For behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city of Davis a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12).

Good News , indeed.  It is, in fact, a Great Joy, and not at all a bad thing that God is in our midst, for “God is Love”(1 John 4:8); and the Infinite Creator of the Universe makes himself finite, small and vulnerable . . . just like us.

* a remark that sounds as snappy in Latin as it does in English: Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus Testamentum in Novo patet (Quaest. in Hept. 2,73: PL 34, 623; cf. DV)

Featured Image top of page: Samuel anointing David, by François-Léon Benouville, 1842

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *