Annunciation of the Lord

by V. Rev. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.


“The Lord Himself will give you a sign: the Virgin shall be with child…”

Every year we hear this prophecy of Isaiah, and we instinctively know it was fulfilled in the virginal conception of Christ in the womb of Blessed Mary.  And indeed that is true.  It’s not just an adaptation of an ancient text to fit a mystery of our faith; this prophecy, even as it flowed out of Isaiah’s mouth, literally referred to the incarnation of the Son of God by the Holy Spirit.  And yet, because the selection offered is truncated, we miss the wider historical context in which the prophecy was made, a context which only adds to the profundity of this prophecy.

King David died in the year 970 B.C.  His son Solomon, in 930.  Because of his infidelities to right religion, the kingdom was divided into the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel and the tribe and a half of the southern kingdom of Judah.  The twelfth king of Judah was Ahaz, reigning in the second half of the eighth century B.C.  At some point in his reign, the kings of Syria and Israel ganged up to overthrow him, and they marched on Jerusalem.  And God’s reaction was to assure Ahaz he would not be defeated, offering him the sign he declined to ask for, apparently out of piety and humility.

But who was this Ahaz?  Was he really so pious?  Scripture records that he made molten images of the Baals, burned his own sons as an offering to the demons worshiped by the nations roundabout, removed the altar Solomon had built, erected a new altar in its place, and closed the temple.  Yes, he was evil.  So when Isaiah offers to give him a sign that Jerusalem would not be defeated by the combined forces of Israel and Syria, his demurring was completely hypocritical.

And Isaiah replied, “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: the Virgin shall be with child…”  Interestingly, signs in the Old Testament didn’t always come before the thing of which they were a sign but rather afterwards.  One famous example is that, at the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God commanded Moses to lead His people out of Egypt, and the sign that God really was commissioning Moses to do this was that, after it was done, Moses would return to Mount Sinai with the people to worship God there.  At other times, the sign did come before what it was intended to confirm, as we would expect.  Gideon’s fleece, now wet when the ground was dry, now dry when the ground was wet, confirmed that he was to defeat Midian.

But here, the sign works both ways.  The virginal conception of Emmanuel was the sign that came after, confirming that it was God Who prevented the Syrians and Israelites from overthrowing Jerusalem.  But the salvation of Jerusalem from the Syrians and Israelites was also a sign that God would send His Christ from a virgin mother.  “Unless you believe, you will not understand,” Isaiah told Ahaz.  

And these signs are fitting for each other.  Freedom for the earthly Jerusalem from foreign foes is a suitable sign to prefigure the liberation of the heavenly Jerusalem from sin and the devil.  And vice versa, salvation in Christ Jesus is a fitting and more than fitting sign to prove it was God Who saved Jerusalem from her enemies.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, was with them both then and later.  The sign was perfect.

And so, the generosity and mercy of God is brought into even greater relief.  He promised a miracle, yet not to those who were worthy but most unworthy.  He lavishes His greatest gifts even on the ungrateful.  We see difficult, stubborn, vexatious, impious and wicked men, and we shrink back and decide not to do as much good for them as we could.  God sees the same men and gives His very self.  The Apostles Christ sent unto men living as beasts and turned them into angels.  To render unto the wicked the greatest kindness and benefits is nothing less than divine.  And in this do we celebrate the Annunciation as God would have us do: never to be injured by anyone without returning a special gift of love.

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