By Charlie Johnston
When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Superman comic books. How cool it was to imagine having superpowers – to fly, to be super-strong, invulnerable, faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. I spent many hours devising theories on how to make human flight a reality – and jumped off more shed roofs testing those theories than I can count.
In the end, as entertaining and admirable as Superman was (in those days, he really DID stand for truth, justice, and the American way), he was not useful as an inspirational role model. No matter how much I tried or trained, I was never going to have Superman’s powers. If that is what it would take to overcome evil, then evil would prevail despite any poor efforts on my part. Oh, I still like the old guy. He is entertaining and takes me back to some of my childhood enthusiasms, but he is not useful in figuring out how to can make a difference in the world.
In first and second grades, I was not all that enamored of history, either. It was all these incredibly noble men and women serenely doing incredibly noble things while everybody else swooned at their prowess and nobility. What did that have to do with me? I had enough trouble trying to keep my friends and I from veering into stupidly dangerous antics. Then, in third grade, I stumbled upon a book that charted the real warts of some American Civil War heroes and the real virtues of some of the villains in that contest. I was astonished to consider that some abolitionists were personally repulsive and that some slave-owners were otherwise kind and compassionate. I read of some of Lincoln and Grant’s flaws – and their pressing on in spite of those flaws and the setbacks they caused. Now I was hooked. If real people, struggling with their own worst tendencies, could transcend their flaws and accomplish really noble things by giving themselves over to something greater than themselves, by committing to be a sign of hope to those around them, I was in. You have no idea how this captured my imagination.
From these real people of history and their authentic stories, warts and all, I had MUCH to learn. How did they overcome their worst instincts and accomplish good things? How did many, even despite never quite conquering their worst instincts, manage to accomplish good and noble things despite these flaws? This was news I could use – and a worthy subject to immerse myself in.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.”
1 Corinthians 13:11
I was delighted that my piece on Jesus and Mary last week triggered an abundance of contemplation on the relationship between Jesus and Mary. Contemplation, to me, involves entering into the real-life challenges, sorrows, and obstacles faced by the genuine flesh and blood people who populate the Scriptures. Too often, with false piety, people imbue Biblical heroes with superpowers and act as if that is the way God accomplishes His will in the world. If that is the case, what hope is there? Which of us has superpowers? If that is what it takes to defeat evil, then evil will prevail. Rather, God accomplishes His will through ordinary people with ordinary limitations and, often, striking flaws. Other than Christ, Himself, there is no man on a white horse coming to rescue us. It is just us, committing to stumble forward in His service despite our infirmities. That is the mud and the blood in which His rescue is writ.
There is, of course, one superpower that all, from the greatest to the least, are given access to: the superpower of abiding faith. Alas, few take the time and live the sacrifice necessary to develop this supreme power, for it requires denying oneself and the temptation to vanity. Jesus said that if we had the faith of even a mustard seed, we could move mountains (Matthew 17:20). So why don’t we see mountains hopping about driving mapmakers back to the drawing board on a routine basis? In part, because few actually believe it and, in part, because most of those who do want to move a mountain just want to show their prowess (a vanity) rather than for any genuinely needful or compassionate purpose.
Authentic faith requires not just that we believe, but also that we submit and commit. To submit means to acknowledge our desperate infirmity and complete reliance on God, to recognize vanity for the painted seductress she is and, to the best of our capability, abandon her altogether. It is to know that we will never fully understand God’s plan – and will often misunderstand it entirely – but to relentlessly take the next right step as we understand it, knowing that we will take some wrong steps and trusting God to correct our course and draw useful things from our honest errors. (And committing ourselves to His mercy to draw useful things even from our dishonest ones when we repent of them) To commit does not mean to be a sunshine sailor (oh, how I loathe the ravishing error of the prosperity gospel!), but to press forward to death, even when you are filled with fear and don’t understand why it should be so. Faith, most assuredly, is not for the faint of heart.
Certainly, God sometimes entrusts a supernatural gift to a man’s own discretion. How else could Moses have drawn water from the rock when he was angered by the Israelites’ rebellion? Yet these gifts, which so many covet and think would solve all their problems, are a demanding and terrifying burden for those to whom God grants them. When the Israelites had rebelled again in the desert because of their thirst, God commanded Moses to speak to the rock before the whole assembly, commanding it to yield water. In his anger, Moses told the people, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20) Then he struck the rock twice. Water came forth, but Moses had not done as God had instructed him. Even worse, he intimated that the power to draw water from it was his. Moses did not do this out of any over-arching vanity, but out of anger at the complaints and disbelief of those who had already been the beneficiaries of so many miracles. Even so, the price God exacted from Moses for this act of disobedience was to deny him entry into the Promised Land. Real power is a deadly dangerous thing that carries with it almost unbearable responsibility. Most who covet it think it will solve all their problems. In reality, God knows that whenever He entrusts such a gift to even the greatest of His servants, it is like sending a 12-year-old to drive a V-8 Mustang in the middle of an ice storm. Covet faith, not gifts, and God will give you what you can handle for HIS purposes and to edify HIS people. You will never be the Master, only the servant.
When He speaks and acts, God tends to do so in layers. For every decisive event He foretells, there are a multitude of types of that event, that foretell some aspect of the event. Adam is a type of Christ, as is King David – as, for that matter, is King Hezekiah.
When Isaiah gave his prophecy of the virgin birth, it was to King Ahaz. That king, with ostentatious humility, refused to ask a sign of God. So Isaiah, after chiding Ahaz for his ostentation, said, “…the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:10-17) And so it was that one of Ahaz’ young wives conceived and bore Ahaz his son, Hezekiah. Describing this royal child a couple chapters later, Isaiah added that, “The government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) These prophecies and that of the suffering servant fit the reign of Hezekiah, who succeeded his father Ahaz, to whom the prophecies were given by Isaiah. Of course, they did not fit completely, as Hezekiah was not the mighty God nor the everlasting Father. But it is almost certain that Israel and Isaiah saw this prophecy fulfilled in Hezekiah.
You are probably saying (at least I hope you are) that these prophecies of Isaiah apply to Jesus Christ. You are right. If you want to delve deeply and completely into Christology, you must begin with the Book of Isaiah. Yet, just as Old Testament prophets often did some symbolic action to signify the import of their words, so is the fulfillment of authentic prophecies almost always preceded by imperfect types of what the prophecy intends. When people get into hot disputes about the particular meaning of prophecies, I often roll my eyes and think that if only those people could learn to say, “Yes, and” instead of just “But” they would approach the truth so much better. In the early Fifth Century, St. Cyril of Alexandria, speaking specifically to interpreters of Isaiah in the Introduction to his Commentary on Isaiah, wrote, “First, the interpreter must determine the historical meaning and then interpret the spiritual meaning, in order for readers to derive benefit from every part of the text. The exposition must be clearly seen to be complete in every way.” Clearly, St. Cyril was not amused by the “either, or” school that so permeates amateur interpretation.
This foreshadowing, showing the shape of the definitive event in miniatures that proceed it, suffuses God’s entire universe. You might call it His signature move. Look at a jagged rock. It replicates, in miniature, what a mountain looks like. Take a tiny chip of that same rock and put it under a microscope and it replicates both the larger rock and the great mountain. God speaks in layers, that point to greater layers, which point to the fullness of His truth. This is why, in speaking of prophecy, I usually say I understand part of what something means, rather than that I understand it in its fullness. I do this that I do not unwittingly impoverish God’s rich, thrumming Word into some stick figure parody of His majesty.
God also seems to delight in embedding things in His authentic prophecies that those who doubt Him can hang their hats on. If you just want to show how clever you are rather than discern what God intends, He gives you ample opportunity to deceive yourself. In the very prophecy of the virgin birth, Isaiah does not use the ancient Hebrew word for virgin (bethulah), but instead a word designating a young woman (‘almah). That has inflamed a sad number of exegetes to claim that Isaiah made no prophecy of a virgin birth, at all. And yet, throughout the Hebrew Old Testament, whenever ‘almah is used it is to describe an unmarried young woman. Most tellingly, it is the sign given to Ahaz. Such a sign must be strikingly out of the ordinary to be an authentic sign. If the sign were just that some unnamed young woman would give birth in the kingdom, that would be no sign at all – like saying your sign is that it will get dark tonight. The preponderance of the prophecy clearly indicates a virgin birth – and intimates His divinity hundreds of years before it was definitively fulfilled.
Do not think that by my skepticism over imbuing Biblical heroes with superpowers I reject the supernatural. Quite the contrary. I think promiscuously adding supernatural qualities to ordinary events ultimately causes potential believers to dismiss the faith as an amalgam of superstitions, which is precisely why I am rigorous. I want to preserve the persuasive power of actual supernatural events by acknowledging that God set up the laws of the universe for our good – and usually acts within those confines. When He acts outside of them, it should snap our heads all the more. I find no persuasive natural explanation for the Shroud of Turin or the Tilma of St. Juan Diego, but I am persuaded that the devil has made it easy for unbelievers not to seriously grapple with these things by sparking so many Christians, in the name of piety, to imbue perfectly ordinary events with supernatural import, thus discrediting Christian teaching on the supernatural altogether.
I was delighted that so many of you DID enter into deep contemplation over the relationship between Mary and Jesus. While I gently prodded some of the commenters who suggested that the birth could not have been accomplished in the normal way consistent with their idea of what piety requires, I do actually agree with those of you who said it was without pain. After all, Isaiah foretold it: “Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son.” (Isaiah 66:7) Rigorously follow the evidence, rather than making it up as you go along; challenge all your own suppositions; then when you come upon a solution that fits, understand that like the blind man holding the elephant’s trunk, you have come upon an aspect of what God intends, not the fullness of it.
God loves the ordinary – and so do I. Enter into deep contemplation of how the many broken, flawed, but very holy men and women before us confronted the evils of their times and the dire challenges in their lives with the only superpower that God assures us of: faith in Him. This very act of serious, deep contemplation will deliver you from pious platitudes into resolute faith.
It is critical now, for the challenges all around us are coming to a head. When you resolve to be faithful unto death, you begin to attain the only superpower you will ever need.
Up, up and away!