I’ve just finished reading (again) The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. I had forgotten what a beautiful storyteller Tolkien was and how much I loved the story of the hobbits of the Shire and the coming of the great King of the West.
There is something deep in the heart and soul of the human race. It is a longing; a longing that we, at times, cannot give a name to. Our stories reflect this. We all love a good story, especially one with a happy ending.
Why do we love story?
I believe we love it because our longing for the story comes from the One true Story. We find its beginnings in Genesis 3.
The story started out so perfectly. Warm, sunny days; abundant and lush food. Peace reigned and the human race was in perfect communion with God and one another. But evil comes, as in all stories. Evil enters, disrupting the entire order of the world. Now instead of peace, there is enmity; shame where there was innocence and darkness where there was light.
But a promise is made. A Redeemer will come, One who will bring the story to its dramatic climax by stamping out this evil. For thousands of years, we waited. The human race floundered in a story of depravity, death and sin. Where was the Promised One, the Redeemer who would crush the evil of the serpent?
This brings us to our readings for this week:
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7
Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10
Let us begin by considering the text from Isaiah. Look at the descriptions given for the “servant” of God. We are told he will be:
Upheld by God Himself
The delight of God’s soul
The Spirit of God will be upon him
Bring justice to the nations
He won’t be someone you would notice
He will not be cruel to the oppressed
He will be a light to the nations
He will give sight to the blind and set prisoners free from darkness
He will be a covenant to the people
He will not fail.
This seems impossible when we look at the conditions of the world then. And now. There is none who can fit this mold. Many leaders of the people came along but none of them lived up to these standards. All of them failed. All of them. The people of Israel had to be frustrated. The Promised One, the servant of the LORD, the Messiah was not going to come. I’m sure we would have felt the same had we been alive in those days. For hundreds of years, nay thousands, they had been waiting and continued to wait. Where was this Messiah?
St. Mark and St. Peter tell us. St. Peter, in our text from Acts, tells us and those listening then who this Promised One was and is. St. Mark tells us the story, albeit in his typical succinct way, of the fulfillment of the promise.
Look at St. Mark’s gospel text today. St. John the Forerunner was preaching that someone greater than him was coming, someone that he wasn’t even worthy to untie his shoes for him. You have to understand this in its context. St. John was popular in a sense. Holy Scripture tells us that many were coming to John to be baptized and hear his preaching. St. Luke calls John’s audiences “the multitudes,” while St. Matthew says “all the region” was coming to hear John. There was great anticipation. Was this the One? He seemed to fit the description. But he says no, there is Another.
Into the story steps the most unlikely Redeemer; a peasant carpenter whom no one knew. No one had even heard His name. But look at St. Mark’s account. When Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism, something happens. The Spirit of God (the Holy Ghost) descends bodily upon Jesus and the voice of the Father speaks from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Does that sound familiar?
Chosen, upheld by God Himself, the delight of God’s soul, not being someone noticeable…Sounds like Isaiah 42. St. Mark and the other gospel writers will go on to tell us how Jesus fulfills the rest of the Isaiah 42 prophecies.
I want us to go back to something in Isaiah 42 for a second. Look at verse 6. God says, about His servant, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…”
Notice God doesn’t say I’m “making a new covenant” in a legal sense. Let me explain.
God had been making covenants with His people throughout their history. He made a covenant with Adam (the covenant of works), He made a covenant with Noah (not to destroy the world by flood again), He made a covenant with Abraham (a promised people), He made a covenant with Moses (to be a kingdom of priests) and He made a covenant with King David (eternal kingdom). Then, in the prophets, specifically Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, God speaks of a new covenant. What is a covenant? It is a promise that God makes with His people. “If you will do this, then I will do this” kind of thing. God’s covenants are always tied to promise. If you will obey, then I will bless you. But the people could not obey. They did not keep God’s covenants.
Now what? The people have not kept the covenants they made with God. What will God do?
He says, through Isaiah (and others), that not only is He going to make a new covenant, but we see in our Isaiah text today, that covenant is a Person. It’s no longer merely a formal agreement. It is the very person of God in the second person of the Holy Trinity come as one of us.
This is the triumphant and happy ending of the sorry story of the human race! God Himself has become flesh. In His flesh, Jesus is the New Covenant.
Oh Church, do you see?! Do you see the delight of God’s soul, the light to the nations that He has given us? Jesus, the Christ, is the fulfillment of all the promises of God! He has come to the nations as the promised Light, the bringer of justice, the freedom from the darkness of sin, the sight for the blind!
He will not fail!
One of the things that getting rid of all social media has done for me is to open up some time in my schedule. I was looking forward to a bit more time because I had not been reading much in the recent past.
I’m a reader. I love to read. Mostly I read a lot of theological type stuff, but I also really enjoy classical type literature and almost anything historical. I love a good story.
So, when this time opened up in my schedule, I knew I wanted to do some reading that was non theological. One of the books I wanted to read again was JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I read these stories for the first time in early high school and was just absolutely captivated by Tolkien’s storytelling. His stories have layers to them. I mean, dude invented the languages spoken by his characters in the books.
So, I’ve begun reading Tolkien’s massive work again. I have the three books all in one edition so it’s monstrous. My 7-year-old was looking at it the other day and said, “Whoa. That’s a big book.”
Love me some Tolkien.
Anyways, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the art of storytelling recently. I’ve noticed something that I think we don’t really want to think about too much these days. I heard a priest say this the other day on a podcast and it’s so true.
Not all stories have a happy ending.
How did you react to that statement just now? Do you agree or disagree? Does that make you feel sad or do you have a visceral kind of negative reaction?
Our society is obsessed with happy endings. Here’s what I mean. Our kids play in some type of sports thing and everybody gets a trophy (at least in the early years). We so desperately go out of our way in all parts of our lives to make sure that everyone feels “included” and “happy,” whatever those two words mean anymore. We insist that everyone be “equal.” We are obsessed with happy endings.
But this is simply not reality. In sports, everyone can’t win. Not everyone feels included and happy and not everyone is treated equally. This is the reality of life. Whether we like it or not, it just is. People get sick. Old age comes. Cancer happens. Car crashes happen. People lose their jobs. The media tells us that, if we’ll all just wear masks and socially distance ourselves or take this vaccine, we can all have a happy ending to the Covid-19 story.
But it’s just not reality.
I mean, if masks worked so well, why did the CDC tell us (via their website which they promptly took down) that 70% of the people who contracted Covid-19 were wearing masks when they contracted it? Why is it that a virus that has over a 99% survivability rate (without underlying co-morbidities) requires a vaccine?
Happy endings. We must have them. Even if we have to sacrifice our souls (as in being told we can only go to Mass in certain numbers thus prohibiting people from receiving the sacraments) or our well-being (like our jobs because the government decides who is “essential”) or the mental and social stability of our children (by closing down their schools).
We are so afraid of suffering and death that we will do anything to avoid it.
How very un-Christian. How very unlike our forefathers and fore-mothers in the Faith. How very unlike Christ.
He was unafraid of suffering and death. In fact, He welcomed it. He welcomed it because He knew the only way to save us was suffering and death.
And now, we who follow the Christ get to follow in His footsteps. He has blazed the trail before us. He has shown us how to embrace suffering and even death, knowing that on the other side of it is a happy ending. Stop running from suffering and trying to avoid death. Embrace it, knowing that you and I can participate in the suffering and death of Christ!
The truth is that we are obsessed with happy endings because, if we are in Christ by faith, the end of our story is happy. In fact, if we believe the Bible, it is unbelievably happy. There will be no more tears, no more pain, no more sorrow, no more death. Only peace in the presence of the One who suffered and died so that we can have the happy ending our soul craves and cries out for!
Tolkien reminds us what awaits us,
““PIPPIN: I didn't think it would end this way.
GANDALF: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
PIPPIN: What? Gandalf? See what?
GANDALF: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
PIPPIN: Well, that isn't so bad.
GANDALF: No. No, it isn't.”"
White shores and a far green country under a swift sunrise of joy that never ends…
St. John’s Apocalypse tells us,
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true. And he said to me: It is done. I am Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end. To him that thirsteth, I will give of the fountain of the water of life, freely.” (Rev. 21:1-6, DR)
A new heaven and a new earth. God will dwell with us and us with Him. He will wipe away every tear and death shall be no more.
He is making all things new.
Happy endings, brothers and sisters!