“O Lord, who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? We brought a report as of a child before him; he is as a root in a thirsty land: he has no form nor comeliness; and we saw him, but he had no form nor beauty. But his form was ignoble, and inferior to that of the children of men; he was a man in suffering, and acquainted with the bearing of sickness, for his face is turned from us: he was dishonoured, and not esteemed. He took our infirmities: and bore our diseases, yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction. But he was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his bruises we were healed. All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins.” Isaiah 53. 1-6.
To many of us, these words speak resoundingly of Christ the Lord and His sufferings, but they also leave us with many questions. How is it that the Lord ‘took our infirmities’ or ‘bears our diseases’ as though some sort of burden? Some in our day have said that Christ suffers some form of penalty and that this is what the prophet Isaiah is foreshadowing. What other answers can we give for this perplexing passage?
Our previous reflection showed that it was by His very coming to humanity and becoming human that Christ is said to save us from our sins which is separation from God (Linked here: God Saves His People). How then are we to reconcile this passage with that message of Christ’s joining Himself to us?
St. Matthew, the Gospel writer, seems to give us our answer when he quotes this passage himself. Thus we read the following in the Gospel according to St. Matthew,
“Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.’ And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” The centurion answered and said, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel… Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.’ And his servant was healed that same hour. Now when Jesus had come into Peter’s house, He saw his wife’s mother lying sick with a fever. So He touched her hand, and the fever left her. And she arose and served them. When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses.” Matthew 8.5-17.
If we attend to this reading, it again reveals more to us than we may initially appreciate. Here Christ is first approached by a centurion. Does it matter that he is a centurion? Probably not. But it does reflect that this man is a Gentile. This fact is then affirmed by the saying of Christ that this sort of faith was not even found in Israel. We should also remember that this healing is not even for a prominent Gentile, rather the servant of a Gentile. In Jewish eyes this was certainly a ‘nobody’ given that this servant was a Gentile who does not belong to the flock of God’s chosen Israel. In the next lines we read that Christ heals the mother of Peter, likely a faithful Jewish woman who may very well be a widow, an afterthought in the society of her time. Subsequently it is written that Christ healed ‘all who were sick’, regardless of heritage, gender, or other parameter. This healing of all nations and all peoples is what is then taken by St. Matthew to be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses.”
Whereas we have often attuned ourselves to hear this passage referring to some ‘punishment’ upon the cross, the Gospel writer himself actually relates this to Christ’s healing of all those that had come to Him. It is interesting that this is somewhat self-evident in the Greek text of the New Testament itself. Take for example:
“The medical image possesses a particularly solid scriptural foundation. The Redeemer is also the Saviour; if we have been ransomed, then also are we saved. Indeed it is often forgotten that the verb sozo (to save), used frequently in the New Testament, not only means “to deliver” or “pull from danger,” but also “to heal”; and that the word soteria (salvation) indicates not only deliverance, but also healing. The very name of Jesus means “God saves”—in other words, then: “heals”; and Christ presents Himself quite directly as a physician.” Larchet, J. C. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses Volume 1. p8.
Thus we see that the message of the Gospel is that God heals. Where Christ is said to ‘heal all who were sick’, it is said to be in fulfillment of the prophecy that He would take our infirmities and bear our diseases. In what we have seen earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, this very healing is what it means to assume the illnesses or suffering. Christ is not a passive recipient of our humanity, He does not come for a ‘visit’ to earth nor does he simply ‘appear’ as a human. He fully and truly became human and in doing so, He heals the humanity to which He is united. The irony here is that this is a text that often gets misunderstood to be saying, “Christ gets punished instead of us” and yet for St. Matthew the text of Isaiah is only said to be fulfilled through Christ’s universal healing and restoration to health of humanity. Christ’s becoming incarnate and taking our infirmities and bearing our diseases can only be true insofar as He has assumed these things to heal them. The ‘mechanism’ (for lack of a better word) for this was shown earlier (See post God Saves His People) to be by His very assumption of humanity itself. What is assailing us and what is at the root of all our ails is our distance from God. Not our physical distance but our ontological distance: our separateness, our self-reliance, our self-enclosure, our self-centeredness is what has drawn us away from God, just as the prodigal son from his father. Christ heals this very condition of isolation by ‘bridging the gap’ and coming and becoming one of us that He might re-unite God and man in Himself, in His Own Person, the Logos Who becomes human.
All of this we may draw out from the short text of Matthew 8.5-17 and the Gospel writer’s understanding of Christ’s ‘bearing of our iniquities’. However, this same theology would then become (which should perhaps seem self-evident) axiomatic of the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation as seen in the writings of the church fathers.
Let us take as an example first the writings of St. Athanasius who, in his writings, against the Arians (who denied the divinity of the Logos or atleast ascribed to Him a lesser pseudo-divine status than that of the Father) bases his defense on exactly these premises. If the Logos is not truly God come in flesh, then we have not been healed. Death, corruptibility are all incumbent upon departure from God (ie sin) and thus cannot be healed except by God’s truly taking flesh. An extensive quote from Against The Arians elaborates this beautifully,
“But this [the destruction of the works of the devil] would not have come to pass, had the Word been a creature; for with a creature, the devil, himself also being a creature, would have continued the battle forever, and man, being between the two, would remain in peril of death, having none in whom and through whom he might be joined to God and delivered from all fear. Whence the truth shows us that the Word is not a created being, but rather Himself their Framer. For therefore did He assume the body created and human, that having renewed it as its Framer, He might deify it in Himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after His likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father’s presence, unless He had been His natural and true Word who had put on the body.” Against the Arians Discourse 2 , Chapter 21, Tract 70
We interrupt the passage here to note a few salient features. St. Athanasius is adamant that to affirm human salvation we must have a God made flesh in order to unite humanity to Himself. Thus, this humanity, joined to God, is introduced into the Kingdom of the Father by His Son coming and becoming human.This is the healing of humanity, this is the bearing of our burdens so that He might heal it. St. Athanasius continues that this is the case with Christ’s humanity. If we are the ones to be healed, it must be true that Christ becomes one of us. He takes our flesh and becomes truly human. He does not become a human looking ghost or a humanoid hybrid of some form. This is certainly seen in the text of the Epistle to The Hebrews, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren (Heb 2.17).” Therefore St. Athanasius continues,
“And as we had not been delivered from sin and the curse, unless it had been by nature human flesh, which the Word put on (for we should have had nothing common with what was foreign), so also the man had not been deified, unless the Word who became flesh had been by nature from the Father and true and proper to Him. For therefore the union was of this kind, that He might unite what is man by nature to Him who is in the nature of the Godhead, and his salvation and deification might be sure. Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh not true which He assumed. But surely He took true flesh, though Valentinus rave; yea the Word was by nature Very God, though Ario-maniacs rave; and in that flesh has come to pass the beginning of our new creation, He being created man for our sake, and having made for us that new way, as has been said.” Against the Arians Discourse 2, Chapter 21, Tract 70.
To resist belief in the Logos’ true Divinity and being co-essential (of the same essence or substance) with the Father on one side or to deny the truly human existence He put on is to jeopardize the faith and our salvation. For how else could Christ be said to ‘take our infirmities’ and ‘bear our burdens’ unless he took on that true humanity which required healing? Or how else could He have actually afforded us that healing, and thus salvation, except by assuming that humanity healingly being united to God. Thus in the mystery of the incarnation it is fulfilled that Christ took our infirmities and bore our diseases but only insofar as He has healed them. The assumption of humanity and its very healing, are one and the same act because it is the Logos Himself Who assumes humanity. This is all said very succinctly just one passage earlier in the same work by St. Athanasius,
“Again, if the Son were a creature, man had remained mortal as before, not being joined to God.” St. Athanasius, Against The Arians Discourse 2, Chapter 21, Tract 69.
This truth is also taught by St. Gregory the Theologian in his poetic oration on the Nativity of Christ,
“And that was that the Word of God Himself—Who is before all worlds, the Invisible, the Incomprehensible, the Bodiless, Beginning of Beginning, the Light of Light, the Source of Life and Immortality, the Image of the Archetypal Beauty, the immovable Seal, the unchangeable Image, the Father’s Definition and Word, came to His own Image, and took on Him flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul’s sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin was made man… He came forth then as God with that which He had assumed, One Person in two Natures, Flesh and Spirit, of which the latter deified the former. O new commingling; O strange conjunction; the Self-Existent comes into being, the Uncreated is created, That which cannot be contained is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeality of the flesh. And He Who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of His Godhead. He that is full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while, that I may have a share in His Fullness. What is the riches of His Goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second Communion far more marvelous than the first, inasmuch as then He imparted the better Nature, whereas now Himself partakes of the worse. This is more godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 38 The Oration on the Birthday of Christ or The Theophany, Chapter 13.
Let us contemplate these words as we hear, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”. Christ assumes the very poverty of the flesh, flesh which is weak and perishable considered on its own. The flesh to which is said, ‘dust you are, dust you shall become’ (Gen 3.20) once it had departed from communion with the Divine, is the same flesh which is taken by the Logos to be brought into a new communion with Him. For our Gospel writer, Matthew, as well as the fathers this hard text from Isaiah seems to simply be emblematic of the true union of God and man in the God-man, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Logos of The Father. Again, this is not a passive union nor simply a visit to humanity (though the fathers speak of Christ’s becoming human to speak to us by means of our flesh cf. Athanasius On The Incarnation, 8). Christ healingly assumes human flesh. It is only in the context of the miracle of healing all who were sick that Christ is said to have taken our infirmities.
This perhaps gives us an interpretative key when reading Isaiah 52-54 as set by the Gospel writer. While many interpretations have been put forward today, it would seem that St. Matthew, and the fathers of the church similarly, would interpret Christ’s assumption of any aspect of human existence (even shame, being spat upon, fear, death, etc) as being solely in the context of assuming it to heal it. Healing then would seem to be the central metaphor at play in this text. In fact this may give us a key into the very next line if we read on to Isaiah 54.1,
“Rejoice, you barren that did not bear; break forth and cry, you that does not go in labor: for more are the children of the desolate than of her that has a husband.” Isaiah 54.1.
In the light of the resurrected Christ we can gain a new understanding of this mysterious text. Christ’s healing union with our humanity is what makes humanity no longer barren. Throughout the Old Testament, the community of God was in travail truly trying to obtain a life it did not have, this is the barren mother. Now, through God’s union with humanity, and therefore His healing of it, the Church brings forth many children through baptism. Just as we soon will celebrate Christ’s resurrection, ascension and then the Pentecost, this text of Isaiah seems to reflect this reality. Through Christ’s healing union with humanity and then His destruction of death and sitting at the right hand of The Father, as God incarnate, The Spirit is then sent that we too may share in newness of life (Romans 6.5). This is summarized beautifully by St. Athanasius who says,
Who will not admire this? or who will not agree that such a thing is truly divine? for if the works of the Word’s Godhead had not taken place through the body, man had not been deified; and again, had not the properties of the flesh been ascribed to the Word, man had not been thoroughly delivered from them; but though they had ceased for a little while, as I said before, still sin had remained in him and corruption, as was the case with mankind before Him… Therefore in like manner not without reason has He transferred to Himself the other affections of the body also; that we, no longer as being men, but as proper to the Word, may have share in eternal life. For no longer according to our former origin in Adam do we die; but henceforward our origin and all infirmity of flesh being transferred to the Word, we rise from the earth, the curse from sin being removed, because of Him who is in us, and who has become a curse for us. And with reason; for as we are all from earth and die in Adam, so being regenerated from above of water and Spirit, in the Christ we are all given life; the flesh being no longer earthly, but being henceforth made Word, by reason of God’s Word who for our sake ‘became flesh.’” St. Athanasius, Against The Arians, Book 3, Chapter 26, Tract 33
Thus the Gospel writer and the fathers of the Church have given us the paradigm with which we might properly see these verses in Isaiah. Christ is not bearing an arbitrary punishment nor does He simply stand in our place as our passive victim. Christ’s bearing diseases and taking iniquities can only be interpreted in the lens of His simultaneous healing of these very afflictions.