In his homily for today, reflecting upon the increased frequency of readings from the Book of Isaiah as the Church approaches the birth of Jesus, Father Steve speaks of how the Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, when read through the lens of an understanding of the prophet Isaiah, are far beyond mere biographical information.
Often times the Gospels are received by the faithful as if they were biographies of the Lord Jesus providing us with details about his life in the same manner that a biography of George Washington or Julius Caesar would. The Gospels clearly present details that one would find in a biography, and yet if we view the Gospels as being representative of this kind of literary genre, they simply fall short of their purpose. Much of what one would expect from a biography is missing from the Gospels, particularly the details of what Christ was doing and where he was prior to his emergence as a public figure. The authors of the Gospel seem to be relatively uninterested in these details, facts a modern biographer would insist are essential for their work.
If the Gospels are not biographies, what are they? The term “theological narrative” is often used by scholars as the correct way to refer to the literary genre of the Gospels. Theological narrative basically means that rather than presenting theological propositions about the Lord Jesus along with concise explanations of what these propositions mean, a theological narrative embeds what is believed about the Lord Jesus in a story. The story then becomes the means by which the theological claims about the Lord Jesus are evoked and explicated.
Thus, for example, the theological proposition that the Lord Jesus is God could be communicated in the manner that St. Thomas examined this revelation in his Summa, but the authors of the Gospel discerned it was fitting to relate the experience of the Apostles in terms of what Christ did when he healed the sick, raised the dead or calmed the storm at sea. Both St. Thomas and the Gospels are making the same point about the Lord Jesus even though the genre that they employ to make the point is different. Understanding that the Gospels are presenting theological propositions about the Lord Jesus in reference to what he said and did in the form of a story discloses the meaning and purpose of the Gospels in a way that looking at them as biographies does not. It also explains why the Gospel writers did not include some of the things that biographers would have included- those details were not necessary to make the theological point that the authors of the Gospels wanted to make sure that we knew and understood.
Mind you, the fact that the Gospels are theological narratives rather than biographies is not meant to imply that the events and circumstances described in their pages are simply made up so as to make a theological statement. Rather, the theological statement being made emanates from extraordinary events that actually happened. In the face of such marvelous revelations, theology was the only means by which what is described in the Gospels could be explained. This might kick at the goads of modern preoccupations which insist that what is described in the Gospels defies merely natural or materialistic explanations and therefore must be either mythology and metaphor; considering that the authors of the Gospels likely knew more about myth and metaphor than our limited, modern minds can comprehend, it is telling that they did not employ either to make their point. The Gospels are a narrative distillation of eyewitness testimony.
What the Gospels record is what witnesses saw and experienced, but they also indicate that what was seen and experienced could be explained in reference to strange foreshadowings that were present in the texts that Israel held to be revelatory of God’s plan and purpose. In particular were the writings of prophets like those presented in the Book of the prophet Isaiah, whose vision of God’s involvement in Israel’s history included the restoration of Israel and the re-establishment of the Kingdom of David (even though this seemed unlikely, if not impossible). The Church, in its Lectionary for Mass, does the work of correlating the writings of Israel’s prophets with the theological narratives of the Gospels, a correlation that is particularly evident in today’s scriptures from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew.
Christ is identified in the Gospel as the “Son of David” which is not just a means by which the Lord Jesus is honored or merely a statement about his family pedigree. Instead it is signaling to us that he is someone that the prophets foresaw would come, and in his coming, the restoration of Israel and the Kingdom of David would be accomplished. That it is a blind man who calls out to him with this title is also indicative of the fulfillment in Christ of the vision of the prophets, and in this regard, today’s passage from Isaiah is quite specific: “On that day… Out of the gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see.”
Note that as this eloquent passage from Isaiah continues, he tells us not just that the blind see, as remarkable as this might be, but he tells us what they see- God acting to bring about a new era in Israel’s history, a time that is properly called the “Messianic Era.” Christ is the Messiah, and with his revelation to Israel, which is evident in the extraordinary action he takes in regards to the two blind men, the God of Israel is acting to accomplish what he had promised that he would. This is the theological proposition that this passage from Matthew’s Gospel wants us to understand.
Throughout the season of Advent, the correlation with the Gospels and the visions of the prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah, is employed in the Lectionary for Mass with ever more dramatic import and effect. There is a theological symbiosis between what the prophets announce and what the Gospels describe, a relationship that illuminates the identity of the Lord Jesus. The full impact of this revelation is inhibited if we simply reduce what the scriptures present as mere facts about Jesus’ life and times or insist that the text tell me something that is immediately relevant to my own peculiar concerns. The details the Gospels provide are meant to do something much more significant than this: they are meant to tell us that after many years of expectant waiting, the God of Israel has finally acted to effect the restoration of his people and more than this, he has revealed himself in Christ, to Israel and to the world.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.