Every so often, a funny email makes the rounds, listing all the things that have disappeared since the fifties—things like 45 rpm records, whitewalls and so on.
But the other day I saw a list of things that have vanished since the seventies, or even the eighties—things like floppy discs, phone books, long distance charges, film, and typewriters. Those things are closer to home for me, though I don’t miss any of them.
Still, I’m more than a little worried that one day the list will include things I’ll really miss. How long before letters disappear? For the younger parishioners, I’m talking about a communication written on paper, with ink, and delivered by mail, in an envelope.
If letters disappear it’ll be far more significant than the loss of film or floppy discs. They’re modern inventions that became obsolete, but we’ve been writing each other letters for thousands of years and it will be a great loss if we stop.
I just don’t see how emails can compete with real letters. My dear friend Mark, who has moved from North Van to London to Washington to Singapore, decided we were starting to get out of touch and that he wanted to do something about it. So in June he wrote me a letter from Abu Dhabi and announced he was starting a new tradition: he would write me from every hotel in which he stayed during his globetrotting travels with the World Bank.
Since then I have received letters from Beirut, London, Perth, East Timor, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, Myanmar, Jakarta, New York and several places I can’t pronounce. Fourteen letters in six months.
Could email ever compete with that?
Of course I wanted to follow the new tradition myself, so I decided I would write Mark from every hotel in which I stayed. Unfortunately, I promptly discovered that neither the Motel Six nor the Days Inn provides hotel stationery for its guests. I did manage to send a couple of notes on those little pads they give you beside the phone.
Now why am I telling you all this? Certainly the fact that Mark and his wife and children are here at Mass this morning was what got me started. But the point I want to bring home is this: letters matter a great deal.
In the first place, a big part of the New Testament is made up of letters—there are 21 of them, thirteen from Paul and eight from others. Paul’s letters alone make up about a quarter of the New Testament. Our second reading today is taken from a letter he wrote to the Christians in Rome around the year 55.
St. Paul writes to the Romans to instruct them about many aspects of Christian truth—from sin through grace all the way to salvation. Along the way, he teaches something that we modern Christians tend to take for granted: the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament by the coming of Christ.
The text we heard this morning is one breathless exclamation of praise to God, a single sentence that comes at the very end of the letter. But notice how Paul describes God—as the One made known to all nations through the writings of the prophets.
With the coming of Christ, the prophetic scriptures of what we call the Old Testament, once the sole possession of the Jewish people, are now addressed to all the world.
The prophets did not speak their own words, but God’s. Although their writings are not in letter form, we might well think of them as timeless letters from God—letters written in the course of many centuries, dealing with many things. But no Old Testament prophecy was more important than the promise of the Messiah.
Advent is a time to reflect on the unbroken line of communication between God and his people that culminates in Christ. On the first Sunday of Advent, the prophet Isaiah gives voice to the hope of Israel when he says to the Lord “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
On the second Sunday, Isaiah tells the people to prepare for his coming—to make straight a highway for God. As Handel set so perfectly to music, every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” as “the Lord God comes with might.”
In the Gospel for that Sunday, St. Mark introduces John the Baptist—the last of the prophets—with Isaiah’s words, clearly intending to show that the prophecy is being fulfilled.
Last Sunday, Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy anticipated the mission of Jesus, who read exactly this text about binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to captives as he stood in the synagogue at Nazareth, fulfilling it as he spoke.
Why are the Old Testament prophecies so important? The main reason is this: “The New Testament represents the fulfillment of the words and oracles of the prophets…” [Scott Hahn, ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary, 736].
Simply put, “The prophets of old spoke words that have come to pass.” Isaiah alone is quoted or paraphrased nearly one hundred times in the New Testament [ibid.].
We must understand, of course, that the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the New is not some kind of fortune telling, in which we “prove” Christianity by showing that exact details of future event were predicted in precise detail. Seeing Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Christ strengthens and affirms faith; it certainly doesn’t provide or replace it.
Prophecy and promise are closely connected. In the rich relationship between Old Testament and New, we can see how God keeps his promises—in his way, in his time.
Echoes of Isaiah should sound in our hearts at Christmas, when we gaze on the scene at Bethlehem and recall his prophetic word to Ahaz: “Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (cf. Is. 7:14) Today's Gospel reading directly refers to the fulfillment of this divine promise.
Finally, at one of the Christmas Masses we will listen to another New Testament letter that sums up everything I have said. In its very first verse, the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes to us no less than to his original audience: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
There may come a day when pens run dry and my friend Mark can’t find a sheet of paper to write on; but the Christmas message is timeless even if a future generation only understands electronic communication. We can always tell them that Christ is a love letter to the world that arrived precisely when God hit “send.”