Types, Symbols, and the Nativity Story

Biblical typology is the study of words, events, symbols, etc. that have a broader meaning then their immediate literary context. Numbers connected to events are the most common types found in the Bible;  there were forty days of rain, forty years in the Sinai wilderness, forty days fasting in the desert etc.. It tells us that these events are connected or somehow foreshadow each other. Other important numbers include 1, 3, 7, 8, and 12.

Probably the best book on the subject is The Bible and the Liturgy by Jean Danielou. He looks into the Bible for events that foreshadow Catholic liturgy. One example he explores is the narrative of the flood and how it foreshadowed baptism. The ark going through the noahwater represented the purification of mankind just as for those being baptized, water represents purification from original sin.

Also, he points out that the number of people on the ark is eight, the number that represents the new creation, the eighth day. Sunday is considered the eighth day as the day of Christ’s resurrection. (Danielou makes an interesting observation that there is no record of any dissent by Jewish Christians in the first century when they made Sunday rather than Saturday the day of worship). This is why in most Catholic churches the baptismal fonts are octagonal (at least at the time he wrote the book — 1956). Baptism removes the stain of original sin enabling a new creation.

Just as a dove returns to Noah with an olive branch, a dove descends upon Christ at His baptism. The olive branch, Danielou suggests, might be a reference to the gentiles since its symbolism as a sign of peace is not found in Near Eastern literature but only in later Hellenistic writings. The ark, because it’s wood, and because it is the means of saving Noah and his family, might foreshadow the cross.

Biblical typology can involve much speculation, and is generally not studied by theologians today. But the providence of God over history can be clearly seen in the more obvious examples.

I see God’s providence in the story of Christ’s birth. The name of the city, Bethlehem, means “house of bread”; and Jesus would give us His body to eat in the form of bread.  magi1Similarly, when He was born He was laid in a manger, which is a feeding trough. Also, by necessity, He was born in a stable, right where one would expect a lamb to be born; Jesus would be the Pascal Lamb, sacrificed for our sinfulness. In Hebrew law the lamb had to be completely consumed during the Passover celebration, nothing could be left over or thrown away.

Then there are the shepherds in the field, why was the announcement of the birth from heaven made to them? Perhaps it was because it was natural for a shepherd to be the first to witness the birth of a lamb. Another possibility is that it is a sign that Jesus would be one of them, a shepherd, both a shepherd and a lamb.

The House of Bread, the stable, the feeding trough, the shepherds: I see in the story of Jesus’ birth a foreshadowing of the Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist. Thank you Lord!

Merry Christmas to all!


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