December 18, 2011
2 Samuel 7:1-16
Luke 1: 39-56
Luke 1: 26-38
So we’ve spent a great deal of time the past three weeks walking with God’s beloved – the oppressed, the brokenhearted and the captives – and feeling their heavy load. Here in the fourth week of Advent, we finally start to sense hope at the end of the tunnel, and that hope has a name: Mary. In the Greek Orthodox Church, Mary is known as Theotokos, from a word combining “Theos” (God) and “tokos” (childbirth) – literally “God-bearer”. Women throughout the ages have venerated Mary as a patron saint, role model and advocate. The idea of a Theotokos is, in a sense, very subversive. It means that God (at least in the person of Jesus Christ) had a mother.
Although the notion that a god can be born of a human woman was common in pagan mythology (Romulus, Danae, and even Plato were said to have virgin mothers), Mary is the first instance of a divine incarnation in Judeo-Christian literature. The reason for this is obvious – any human being who would equate himself with God (or claim a familial relationship with
God) would be guilty of blasphemy under Mosaic law and subject to death by stoning. We actually do not see any mention of the Birth Narrative in the earliest Gospel, Mark. It is only roughly 80 years after the death of Jesus that the writings attributed to Matthew and Luke detail Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy.
The Birth Narrative of Luke is a much-beloved reading during Advent and Christmas. In this narrative, the emphasis is on Mary, whereas the Matthean Gospel focuses mainly on Joseph. This probably has something to do with the fact that the author of Luke was most likely a Greek Gentile – a pagan convert to Christianity – and highly influenced by the mythic narratives of his own culture, which frequently featured the Divine Female (such as Artemis/Diana, the Virgin Warrior).
This week’s reading gives us an odd switch, in that it features the Lucan Gospel as the Psalm reading: The Magnificat, or the Song of Mary. The Magnificat – taken from the first word of the Latin version of the Song – is one of the very earliest hymns of the Christian church, and is still regularly sung or chanted in Vespers or Evensong services in many church traditions.
Mary exclaims the Magnificat during her visitation to her elder kinswoman Elizabeth, who is also pregnant from the power of the Holy Spirit. It is worth dwelling here for a moment on the context of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth. The passage begins “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1: 39-40). Mary had several good reasons to go to her kinswoman Elizabeth in haste. Mary’s pregnancy – which occurred during the year-long engagement period before the big wedding feast for her and Joseph (see “A Big, Fat Wedding and Some Big, Fat Burn-out”) – was a potential disaster on three counts, according to theologian Renita Weems:
“First, her family’s honor was at stake if news got out that she had gotten herself pregnant by someone other than her husband. They would have to scrape up the
portion of the bride price already doled out by the husband-to-be (which surely they’d spent within that year) and return it to the family of the husband-to-be. Second, her husband-to-be would be humiliated and dishonored, and any rash acts on his part to restore his honor would be tolerated and justified by the community. Third and finally, the very life of the bride-to-be was at stake. She deserved to be stoned to death [for adultery]” (Showing Mary. New York: Warner Books, 2002. pp. 99).
The first part of the Magnificat is doxology, or praise to God: “And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord [Magnificat anima mea], and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-50). The Magnificat is often sung or chanted as a song of pure joy, so we forget about the very dangerous and precarious situation that Mary knew she was in at the time she was singing it. The Magnificat is sung in spite of grave danger, which makes its joy even more poignant.
The second part of the Magnificat is the part that gets much less airplay, so to speak: “[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (vv.51-53). We often get so caught up in doxology, or praise, that we forget about the extremely subversive promises with which our praise is impregnated. This is the God of the oppressed, the brokenhearted and the captives. This is a God who routinely turns things upside down and inside out, which should be a very uncomfortable thought to those of us who are rich and powerful in our thrones. This is hope of God’s beloved, whose journey we have been walking for the past three weeks.
The final part of the Magnificat ties the promises made to Mary and the lowly of the world to the promises made to Israel: “[God] has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (vv.54-55). So the promises made to Mary are portrayed in Luke as not breaking with Judaic history and tradition, but rather being an extension of them. The God that took this underdog tribe, freed it from the Egyptians and established it in the Promised Land is the same God that promises to lift up this “handmaiden of the Lord” and fill the hungry with good things. The chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love) of the God of Israel is now manifesting in the least likely of places – the belly of a poor, unwed, Palestinian-Jewish mother. As mentioned before, this is another very daring promise, which flew in the face of the religious orthodoxy at that time. However, the entire history of Israel has been unorthodox – all the way back from the patriarch Jacob, who craftily usurped his older brother’s birthright (see “Hitting the #(*$#-It Button”).
Let us think of the ways that our lives are pregnant with God’s promises, and live in such a way as to honor the hope of their fulfillment.