The first reading this Sunday contains a quote so familiar to us that it can be considered integral to Catholic consciousness. The prophet Isaiah said, “the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isa 7:14) This quote from Isaiah appears often during Advent, and with regard to the virgin birth of Jesus. The repetition probably serves to obscure the meaning of the text.
Isaiah pronounced this prophecy to Ahaz, the King of Judah. At the time, the northern Kingdom of Israel had made a military alliance with the Kingdom of Syria; the purpose of the alliance was to overthrow Jerusalem and the southern Kingdom (Judah). When Isaiah spoke this prophecy, the armies of Syria and Israel were already attacking Jerusalem.
It was a desperate situation, and Isaiah had come to Ahaz to assure the King of God’s help. The Divine help that Isaiah was offering was proffered in the form of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Ask for a sign from the Lord, your God; let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!” (Isaiah 7:11) Evidently, God wanted to leave no doubt in the King’s mind that Divine help was near at hand. Ahaz’s response was a curious one. He said, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!” (Isaiah 7:12)
The King’s response sounds like a faithful one. Who among us would choose willingly to tempt God’s patience? And yet, Ahaz was scolded for not asking for a sign. The scolding came in the form of the quote that is so familiar to us, “Is it not enough that you weary human beings? Must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isa 7:13-14) Why was it that Ahaz’s apparent self-restraint was judged so harshly by God and the prophet?
In my homily last week I mentioned that it can be beneficial to cultivate a measured amount of dissatisfaction with the state of one’s own life, as this can lead to growth and transformation. Dissatisfaction with other people can lead to judgmentalism, but dissatisfaction with oneself can lead to a fuller, more faithful life. To be dissatisfied with one’s personal capacity to love, forgive or show compassion is the beginning of growth in these virtues. To be dissatisfied with one’s ability to follow God’s will is the necessary impetus to grow in holiness.
Everyone feels these types of dissatisfaction mentioned above, but not everyone learns to live with them. The reason that these dissatisfactions are so difficult to face is that they never go away. No one ever attains a truly satisfying level of forgiveness or compassion or love of neighbor. No one ever learns to be adequately faithful to God’s will. Many people’s response to the incompleteness of these deep desires of the human heart is to lose interest in pursuing them. This response to on-going dissatisfaction appears completely rational, until one learns the truth about dissatisfactions: that it is appropriate and necessary for some desires to remain always unfulfilled in this life.
In a very real sense, we are exiles living in a foreign land. Every human being has the capacity and desire to know and love God. Each person has the desire for perfection, but that desire is experienced solely within a universe that is decidedly imperfect. We are fully products and residents of the world of time and matter, but we are created for citizenship in another realm where perfection is real rather than merely sought after. The strange contradiction of human existence is that the only possibility for our complete happiness is direct and eternal knowledge of God – an experience that isn’t possible in this world.
For these reasons above, we are truly exiles in a foreign land. As good as this life is, it will always be less than completely satisfying; it should always be less than completely satisfying. There should be some dissatisfactions that we don’t try to resolve, and some questions left unanswered. The alternatives to living with this basic contradiction of our existence are much more troubling than our dissatisfactions. The substance abuse, violence, narcissism and self-destructiveness so prevalent in our society are symptoms of the despair that results from ignoring our essential nature.
Ahaz was satisfied to rely solely on military and political power in order to protect the Kingdom of Judah. While this might seem like the rational choice, it was a faithless choice. God’s promise to Ahaz (“the virgin shall be with child, etc.”), was the assurance of the continuation of the Davidic dynasty. Ahaz seemed less concerned with the continuation of God’s rule than the continuation of Ahaz’s personal power. Consequently, his pious sounding answer was judged to be faithless.
If Ahaz had been a little less concerned with the imperfections of the world, and a little more concerned with waiting for the perfect accomplishment of God’s will, things might have turned out better for him. As it happened, Ahaz was spared conquest by Syria and Israel, but lost his sovereign power to the Kingdom of Assyria. God’s will was accomplished, but without Ahaz’s participation. We face a similar dilemma each day. Will we rely on the imperfect satisfactions this life offers or will we hope in the perfect happiness that comes only from God?
We get no perfect answers to prayers in this life; we get no full satisfaction of our wants and needs, nor should we expect this. We live imperfect lives, awaiting the arrival of God’s perfection. God’s answer to our dissatisfactions is their on-going continuation throughout this life – because this is the only possibility we have for remaining connected to God, the fulfillment of our hopes.