Christmas is one time many people outside the Church actually hear the words of the prophets. It forms a part of the folk tradition of Christmas. They are read in the services of many traditions.
The prophets are a challenging group. The prophet, male or female, speaks the words of God. There is clearly a demand for the person addressed to be holy and listening, and he may well be resistant. One thinks of Jonah fleeing from his task of demanding the repentance of Nineveh and taking to the ship. The usual form of prophecy consists in some kind of ecstatic or inspired utterance. This is not exclusive to our faith and was found is pagan Greece, with the oracle of Delphi for instance, and in shamanism across the world. Some prophets in history were false, some were true.
Aside from questions of where the inspiration comes from, what distinguishes the prophecies of the Church is that God does not confine himself to individuals and their needs; He talks to His whole People as well. Prophecy is quite simply the words of God to the community under His care and judgement.
God’s purpose is concerned with the whole of humanity, hence the call to preach and make disciples of all the nations, (St Matthew 28:19). However the first vehicles of prophecy in salvation history are to be found in the Old Testament and with the Jewish people. Christ Himself referred to this in His remark: “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). It was in the context of Israel that God’s prophets of the Old Testament spoke and, by and large, most of the prophecies are addressed to Israel only, at least initially. Many of these prophecies concern the coming of the Messiah. We see in the Nativity some of the fruit of God’s providential plans for our salvation.
There are heresies in the west that seek to undermine the apostolic Christian faith. For instance they would have us believe that Christ was not born of a virgin, and the word used is simply one that means a young woman, and they will also claim that the prophecy was not about the Messiah anyway but a topical event. The short answer to this is the Tradition of the Church says otherwise. In fact the words in Isaiah 7:14 were translated as virgin in the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament used in the New, and we can therefore attribute that translation to the work of the Holy Spirit. God does say through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel, that is, “God with us.”
Prophecy is quite capable of having two meanings at the same time and with different layers of thought. God is a very good poet if you like. An excellent example is Psalm 21/22. This is possibly a lament by the Psalmist but also a foretelling of the details of the crucifixion. It starts: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” We must be careful to read the prophecies in the context of Tradition to discover their meaning.. Antiochian theologians tend to consider things in their historical and theological context. It is not a matter then of just reading and making one’s own mind up.
Isaiah prophesied in the 8th century BC. In chapter 9 verse 6 he says: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” It is not a great surprise, therefore, that the Child foretold is God Himself, God the Word. In the context of Judaism this was actually pretty amazing. How this might have been interpreted at the time is a matter of mere speculation. We see now the Old Testament in the light of the revelation of God in Christ. What I want to hold onto here is that the Incarnation was part of God’s plan from the very beginning.
Micah (5:2) tells that the Messiah shall come from Bethlehem, and there is of course the Rod out of the stump of Jesse”, (Isaiah 11:1 and the “A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.”(Numbers 24:17). God in various ways used the Jewish people to bring salvation to the World. Part of this was the expectation and foretelling of the Messiah. Our salvation was in hand before we were born; we can trace the expectation back thousands of years. God is consistent. Now we have the Messiah, and it is not just words of God that we have. We have the Word of God Himself.
The inspiration and the purpose of all prophecies is God’s relationship with His people. Just as the priesthood of the Old Covenant is transfigured and summed up in the more perfect priesthood of Christ, so He is the perfect prophet. He is the Word of God as well as the One who teaches and lives the truth of God.
Unlike the ancient people of God, whose struggles and relationship with God were recorded in the Old Testament, we have the fullness of God in our reach. This grasp of God is within our capabilities by His grace. We can physically approach God and we do so in Holy Communion. Like the wise men we can worship in His very presence. This is a major undertaking, but to us all, intellectual or simple, rich or poor, the Light of God shines upon us.
In Genesis Chapter 22:17-18 God promised Abraham “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring tas the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” That promise is fulfilled in the Church.
We, as heirs and descendants of Abraham, not of flesh but of the will of God, are assuredly called to be a blessing to the nations. That is our role, our prophetic role, to speak the word of God, to live it and to make God known in the world, in this time and place. Because we are heirs to the prophets, and because we know the reality of the awesome truth, the fulfilment of some of those prophecies, our humble response is to reveal that truth.
We know that as St. John put it in his gospel Chapter 1: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” He still dwells amongst us. Today we recall His coming as a human child, for us, prophesied from long ages past.
May the joy of our Incarnate Lord God be with you all, this Christmas and unto the ages of ages. Amen.