(I just wanted to use the word motif.)
There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name Elizabeth. And they were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame. And they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren, and they both were well advanced in years. And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, According to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord. And all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: [Luke 1:5-13]
Elizabeth had not only been barren, but was advanced in years. Zachary had prayed for children and his prayer was finally heard. This immediately brings to mind the Genesis narrative of Sarah and Abraham. Sarah’s circumstance was exactly the same.
And when [the three men] had eaten, they said to him: Where is Sara thy wife? He answered: Lo, she is in the tent. And he said to him: I will return and come to thee at this time, life accompanying and Sara thy wife shall have a son. Which when Sara heard, she laughed behind the door of the tent. Now they were both old, and far advanced in years, and it had ceased to be with Sara after the manner of women. And she laughed secretly, saying: After I am grown old and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure? [Genesis 18:9-12]
God made a promise to Abraham, that He would give him the land of Canaan, and that his descendants would inherit it. Abraham took ownership of the land, and the son who would inherit it would be Isaac, the son of Sarah. God also made the promise of the land to Isaac, and his son who inherited the promise was Jacob. (See also, XII – Title Deed)
When you see a similarity between the Old and the New Testaments, look deeper. The similarity between Elizabeth and Sarah is there for a reason. Remember that this is God’s revelation of His Truth to us. No event stands alone, it is always meant to reveal more of God to us. Sarah was barren, and advanced in years. She is promised and receives a son. Her son takes over the inheritance of the promised land, a land that Abraham had just recently entered. Abram was from Ur of the Chaldees. This was the old world, a land of idolatry. When he came to Canaan, he was a sojourner in a strange land, but it was a land of promise, a land flowing with milk and honey, a type of paradise. There was idolatry, but there was, for him, the Lord in the land.
Abraham’s son was Isaac. God told Abraham this was the son of the promise, who would inherit the land of Canaan. He subsequently told Abraham to kill this son. Despite the apparent contradiction, Abraham obeyed. At the last minute, the angel stayed his hand. At the time, this appeared to be just a test. It took millennia for the mission of salvation to unfold to where it could be understand that the near-sacrifice of Isaac was a precursor to the sacrifice of Jesus. Here, again, we see a similarity between the Old and the New, and we must look deeper. Isaac and his descendants were promised the land of Canaan. Jesus and His descendants, which means us, His spiritual descendants, are promised the Eternal Land of Heaven. There are many stories in the Bible of promises deferred and then granted, of exile and ingathering. They are all analogies of our sojourn in this world, waiting for the promise of Heaven.
There is another, big analogy, a continuation of the barren older woman motif, if you will. In the Bible, the Promised Land is called Canaan, Israel, Judea. She had been promised the Messiah, but still waited for Him. She was near the end of her earthly life. She was perilously close to losing her Jewish character. She was under Roman military rule, and the Romans were getting fed up with her rebelliousness. Her king, Herod, was not a Jew. Her priesthood was obviously corrupt and worldly. She was perilously close to being either swallowed up in the Roman Empire, or being destroyed. It was in this period, within a generation of the time when the Temple would be destroyed, that she received Her infant King.
If you struggle sometimes to understand what it means when the Bible gives examples and analogies, as I do and as I believe we all must, then I think it helps to understand something about grafting. Because that’s what all this is about, is grafting. St. Paul writes about it in his epistle to the Romans, and we’ve looked at that before. Understanding that the Gentiles, being compared to a wild olive tree, are “grafted into the good olive tree”, allows us to understand how God is working in His vineyard.
Successful grafting occurs when the growth layer tissues of the plant being grafted (scion) are exposed by cutting and then placed against the exposed growth layer tissues of the plant receiving the graft (rootstock). After being pressed together, protected from adverse environmental factors by taping or similar method, and tied tightly so as to stay in position, the nutrients from the rootstock feed the scion so that it grows as if it is natural to the plant. There are several factors that determine success or failure but that is it in a nutshell.
Abraham and his descendants were taken out from Ur and grafted into the land known as Canaan. He was called to sacrifice his promised son in that land. I suggest that this was where the ingrafting took place, where the cut was. It was a spiritual cut, but it was a cut. I really think this is the key to understanding the Bible, and any time someone veers it is because they err by defining “spiritual” as referring to some offhand whimsy of God, something that “could have been done” another way but wasn’t. When Abraham, elderly man that he was, having received the promise of an heir who would continue his genealogical line, received the heir, and then agreed to sacrifice that heir at a young age, before the heir could have children, then Abraham was agreeing to an earthly contradiction. There was no earthly way to overcome this. As the early Church fathers taught, this earthly contradiction could only have been overcome by God’s resurrecting the boy from the dead.* Thus, Abraham had faith that God could resurrect the dead. This is why Abraham was the progenitor of the Christ. Once again we see the continuity of the Bible across 1000's of years.
*Since Isaac was not the Messiah, God stayed Abraham's hand.
And he brought him forth abroad, and said to him: Look up to heaven and number the stars, if thou canst. And he said to him: So shall thy seed be. Abram believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice. [Genesis 15:5-6]
Faith and constancy in belief was necessary for the Jews to remain in the promised land. Sometimes it was a king, sometimes a prophet, who held them there. God allowed them to be exiled to Egypt and to Babylon, but He brought them back each time, because He had not yet given them His Son, the truly Promised One.
Now, enter the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s always a blessing to bring her into the picture. She was not only the Blessed Virgin, but she was a type of the Church. As she carried God, she was known as the Theotokos, the God-bearer. She was prefigured by the Ark of the Covenant, as has been previously discussed. She came to Elizabeth, and the infant John in the womb leapt for joy at the approach of the infant Lord in the womb. (You don’t get more faithful than that, to have faith while still in the womb.) At this moment, Elizabeth, the older woman who had finally received her long-hoped for child, was epitomizing the nation/people of Israel, who were finally receiving their long-hoped for Messiah, in the twilight of their earthly kingdom. Those who accepted Him with faith would leap for joy. Elizabeth was not carrying the Messiah, she was representing Israel at that moment. It was Mary who was carrying the Messiah.
This was where the grafting was again occurring. While many individual Jews would follow Jesus, the nation of Israel would not. The promise was given over to those who followed, and follow, Jesus, in His Church. It is a higher thing to receive the promise of eternal life in Heaven than to receive the promise of a land on earth.
Those who have read this blog previously know that I consider the Jewish return to the Promised Land as being a fulfillment of prophecy. How do I reconcile these ideas?
As Abraham would have been forced to reconcile the contradiction he was presented with- to kill his son, the heir through whom his seed would number as the stars, before he could produce seed of his own- by concluding that his son would be resurrected from the dead, so we must reconcile a contradiction, and no amount of replacement theology frees us from this. The promises of God are without repentance. The Church teaches that the Jews will accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, in the Last Days. Therefore, we must conclude, through faith, that the Jews will do just that. There will be a mass conversion. And the fact that they returned to Canaan, Judea, Israel, after 1900 years, is a clear sign. I am not the first to say that you can recognize someone by those who hate him. Israel is hated by the world. The Jews were murdered by the Nazis, hated by the Communists, vilified and terrorized by the Islamists. Short of the Second Coming, the return of the Jews is the clearest sign from the hand of God that we have seen since the growth of the Church. The Church is, by all indicators, receding in influence. She has nowhere to go. The Pope has said that we cannot and should not try to expand the Church where other religions already hold sway. So the Church established by Christ has hit a limit. She has no further moral influence on the world, as she did as recently as the 1950’s. The Pope is now only taken seriously as far as he discusses climate change, immigration, and religious inclusiveness. There is not a single conservative Catholic voice that I have heard since coming into the Church, that proclaims the Church is anything but on the wane. I believe that whenever the Holy Spirit holds back, it is because He is ready to spring forth somewhere unexpected and huge. I would not be surprised to see a surge of His power in the modern state of Israel.