The Key That Fits the Lock, Part TwelveANTHONY ESOLEN
"I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." (Gen. 22:17-18)
The prophet Gad approached David and gave him a choice of numbers: seven years of famine, three months of flight before his enemies, or three days of pestilence. David, notably, does not choose any of them. He understands his error. So God sends the shortest of the punishments, and yet "there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men." (24:15)
The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go seek the one lost. Everywhere outside the ambit of the covenants old and new, the one is not only left to die. The one is often sacrificed deliberately to secure, as by a bargain, the well being of the ninety-nine. That is the kernel of Shirley Jackson's horrible pagan story, "The Lottery," wherein the ordinary people of an American farming village each year choose, by lot, someone to stone to death, so that the corn will grow high.
Thus when Jesus speaks of the good soil that yields thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, or when in the Apocalypse the apostle sees 12,000 saints from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, they are speaking of things beyond number. They are both too many to count, but also too great, too glorious to count.
God's blessings are the "good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over." (Lk. 6:38) They are the "precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments." (Ps. 133:2) They are the "river of the water of life" coming forth "out of the throne of God and of the Lamb." (Rev. 22:1)
Saints are not elements in a collective. What happened when, according to legend, Saint Francis met Saint Dominic, and they embraced? One saint plus another saint does not equal two saints. It is glory, and a shadow of the paradise to come.
So what does it mean when God says to Abraham, "I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven"? Notice the crucial word, multiply. "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it," said God to Adam and Eve, in blessing. (Gen. 1:28) The multiplication of Abraham represents a creation within and beyond creation, a special fruitfulness within and beyond the ordinary fruitfulness of the earth.
The faithful Abraham stands as father of many. It isn't just that the Hebrews will become numerous. An entirely new principle of life has been introduced into the world. "For God," says Congar, "Abraham, alone in a world that was already populous, was already the people that would make up the company of believers . . . . a seed that was able to fertilize the field of the world."
Abraham was a sinner, and he died as all men must. But "Abraham rejoiced to see my day," says Jesus, "and he saw it, and was glad." (Jn. 8:56) We strive to have the faith of Abraham, but not faith in Abraham. We have faith in Christ, the first fruits of the resurrection, the Messiah, who unites all nations in the glory of the Lord.
Hence we should understand Jesus' parting words to His apostles as a consummation of the blessing given to Abraham: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." (Mt. 28:20).
If the world would understand itself, it must turn to Him "who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of truth." (1 Tim. 2:4) For He comprehends all in Himself, all the infinitudes of personal being, to which the stars in the heavens are less than a grain of sand on the shore, or a twinkle of the eye to eternity.
Anthony Esolen. "The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Twelve." The Catholic Thing (January 3, 2012).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: email@example.com.
The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which daily brings you an original column that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current events affecting the Church, along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Robert Royal, Brad Miner, James V. Schall, S.J., Hadley Arkes, Francis J. Beckwith, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.
Copyright © 2013 The Catholic Thing
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.