Volume of the Book
is the season of growing anticipation of the coming of Christ and
Christmas, and I cannot help thinking of a biblical text which treats of
his coming, one from the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 5-7.
We find it in the midst of an argument to the effect that the Levitical
sacrifices never really did any good, so that it was no great loss for
Christ to come and abolish them, putting his own atoning death in their
place. The writer puts into the mouth of Christ, apparently just having
arrived on earth from the Empyrean realm, the words of Psalm 40. "When
he cometh into the world, he saith... a body hast thou prepared for
me... Then I said, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written
of me,) to do thy will, O God."
this passage has always rung with a sense of destiny and portentous
meaning, announcing the arrival of the Desire of Ages. I can think of no
more powerful Advent text. Here are the images that crowd in upon me as
I read the text.
cometh into the world, he saith, 'A body thou hast prepared for me. In
the volume of the book, it is written of me: I come to do thy will, O
God.'" From the perspective of the author, no doubt what is meant here
is a reference to Old Testament messianic prophecy.
early Christians, of course, believed that the career of Jesus Christ
was predicted in minute detail in the Hebrew Scriptures, provided one
only knew how to read them, and that required a thorough schooling in
Christian doctrine. So if these were in fact prophecies, it is no
surprise that no one had thought so in pre-Christian times.
writer means that the epochal time had come, the moment when the
heavenly figure of the pre-existent Son of God had come down to earth
through the medium of a body of flesh like ours. He knew the
requirements of the messianic mission and was ready to undertake them,
fulfilling to the letter all that the Law and the Prophets and the
Psalms had written of the role he was now assuming. The great work of
salvation is about to begin as the words of Hebrews 10:5 and 7 are
us set aside the difficult question of whether Jesus Christ and his
death were predicted before the fact (if anything in the eternal
synoptic view of God may properly be said to be "before the fact", for
all moments are alive to him).
the analogy that strikes me. It seems to me in Hebrews 10 it is as if
some great literary character were suddenly to materialize before us.
Here is Hamlet or Lear, Faust, Ebenezer Scrooge, Jane Eyre, Agamemnon.
For some of us no better model of heaven could be imagined! Here is that
beloved character, of whom one has often wished that he or she might
truly exist and that one might meet him! It is this secret wish that
makes such entertainments as Hal Holbrook's "An Evening with Mark Twain"
course Twain was real, but the point is the same. Think of a historical
character you wish you could meet. Napoleon, Solomon, Lincoln, Joan of
Arc, Samuel Johnson. Imagine they have appeared again, in the flesh. And
they are just as you would expect from what you have read of them,
though wonderfully more. They have stepped into a body and carried with
them what you read of them in the volume of the book. What a joy, though
sadly to be known only in dreams.
But I am
saying that in a sense this fantasy sums up what happened with the
coming of Jesus Christ. Here is a cherished character from the pages of
legend: the Jewish Messiah, he whose advent generations have faithfully
dreamed of. And now their dreams have taken substance! Here he is!
Emmanuel has come!
isn't this pretty much what it means to say that with the coming of
Jesus onto the stage of history, "the Word was made flesh and dwelt
among us?" Or as C.S. Lewis once said, that "myth became fact"? A
character of eschatological fiction, of poetic myth, appeared as a man.
And people were excited and amazed to meet him. Their lives were changed
in the encounter. We are their heirs.
irony is that history has long by-passed this harbinger of the end of
history, this Messiah. He returned to the pages of Scripture. Now for us
he is a character in the gospels. And no one can tell where in their
pages fact ends and myth begins. So now the reverse has happened: fact
has again become myth! Flesh has again become word!
John has his Jesus-character say, "I do not leave you as orphans."
Instead of the irrecoverable human Jesus, a man among men and women, we
are bequeathed what Tillich called “the picture of Jesus Christ” in the
gospels, an icon painted with words that fairly crackles with spiritual
power for everyone who gazes deeply enough into it! As Paul said, "And
we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord [Jesus],
are being changed into his likeness, from glory unto glory!" (2
Corinthians 3:18) Paul is saying that it is altogether possible for this
word that became flesh and then became word again to return anew to
flesh in us! Myth can become fact again in you!
is where a pedantic detail regarding Hebrews and the way it quotes Psalm
40 becomes relevant. The Epistle to the Hebrews is quoting not from the
Hebrew text of the Psalms, but rather from the Greek translation known
as the Septuagint. The Septuagint has the reading, "a body thou hast
prepared for me," and that is why the writer to the Hebrews thought the
passage was relevant to the incarnation of Christ.
original Hebrew has "ears thou hast opened for me." What did this mean?
The original point is that God scarcely cares about bloody offerings.
Rather he wants a worshipper with attentive ears, who marks and heeds
the requirements of Scripture. What comes out in Hebrews as "In the
volume of the book it is written about me," originally meant, "In the
scroll of the Law, it is written for me to observe A, B, and C."
has long ago stepped back into the pages of biblical saga, from whence
he briefly emerged, but he reemerges again whenever you and I approach
the volume of his book, the gospels, with open ears to hear his word and
do it. When you and I will turn the other cheek, seek reconciliation
rather than revenge, when we will love our enemy and ask what is the
most God requires of us, not the least, then people will see again his
word made flesh, but not until then. In this Advent season, heed his
word and so let him come forth!
By Robert M.