Birth of the Word in the Soul Part V

Mary’s response to this miracle of birth is simple and concise. Let it be. In the moment of her assent, assured of its possibility, Mary’s faith shatters the seeming limitations of this world, so the fullness of God can find its expression in the fullness of humanity. Mary’s fidelity to her heritage and to Yahweh inaugurates the renewal of the kingdom, God’s reign as the place of promise, now realized in her son. As the Spirit of Yahweh enters into the mother of Jesus, the place of promise is no longer only a land, but a way of being, the ever-abiding-yet-to-come kingdom of God in the human heart, begun under the heart of a woman.

Mary’s let it be is the life-affirming response running through all of scripture. From a woman who considers herself a handmaid, by her assent, Mary becomes co-creator with Yahweh, open, responsive and receptive to the sacred spirit that overarches human finitude to bring about that which is no longer bound by time. Be it child or image, painting or poem, or the life lived authentically in response to the spirit hovering over the waters of this world, we, like Mary, give worship to that same spirit in each new day, in each new creation we bring forth, ever open and attendant to its advent.

As we sift through the gospels in order to make a response to the question Jesus put to his disciples and to us, who do you say that I am, we do well to look first to his mother. What she was, he will become. His first lessons came from her; his last instructions are for her care. She is present from the beginning of her son’s life until its end. From Bethlehem to Calvary, from the manager-cave of his birth to the rock-hewn cave where his body is placed after his death, Mary will watch Jesus grow and she will watch him die. The first place Jesus goes when he comes out of the tomb is to his family in Galilee. For a few brief moments a mother will hold her son again. After he goes to his Father, Mary is present at Pentecost when the spirit of her risen son is poured out upon her and the disciples, giving birth to the community of believers, just as it conceived her son in the temple of her belief.

The angel tells Mary that her kinswoman Elizabeth is also going to have a child.  As soon as the angel departs, Mary is off to share her news with Elizabeth, who is overcome with joy at Mary’s greeting.  At this greeting, John, the babe in her womb, leaps for joy. This leap of recognition spills from his mother as she cries out Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Elizabeth’s happy words to Mary come from the song of Deborah and Barak when Israel triumphed over Canaan. As these two women stand at the threshold of their lives, Luke uses the triumphal events of Israel’s past to telegraph the triumph their sons will have over foreign rule and foreign hearts, to bring their people safely home to Yahweh.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s jubilant song also springs from within her. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. From the depths of her soul she reaches back to the sacred writings of Israel, to the poetry of the woman Hannah who took a similar path to the one Mary is about to embark upon. Her song magnifies the wondrous deeds of the Lord God of Israel, wrapping her unborn son in the blanket of his destiny. She knows she is blessed. She knows she will give to the world the man who will magnify the same Lord with his life, so much so that he can call him Abba, Father, and tell us that to see him is to see the Father.

 Mary’s Magnificat is taken from the ancient canticle of Hannah, as Hannah surrenders her son, Samuel to Yahweh in service in the Temple. Like her kinswoman, Elizabeth, Hannah was beyond child-bearing age and was mocked because she was barren. She prayed to Yahweh for a son who would, as Elizabeth intones, take away her humiliation. And Yahweh gave her Samuel. And she gives Samuel back to Yahweh, just as Mary and Elizabeth give their sons who, like Samuel, will rescue Israel from her enemies and go on to be great leaders.

In the Magnificat the voice of Yahweh resounds again, echoing from Malachi, reiterating that the covenant made with Abraham has not been dashed upon the rocks of their oppression, but lives in the flesh and blood of two infants whose destinies could not have been foretold or imagined. One will be the unlikely messenger of the promise; the other the embodiment of that promise.

There is an irony here not to be missed. When he became their leader, the people pressured Samuel for a king but Samuel repeatedly refused. Eventually, however, he relented. In the end he had been right to refuse them, for the choosing of King Saul was the beginning of the end for the nation. The twelve tribes would shatter. When John and Jesus come on the scene, the Jews living in Judea are no longer the unified tribes of Israel but rather divided into often quarreling sects under Roman occupation. Once more they want a king. A powerful militaristic leader like David who will save them from their oppressors. But Jesus, like Samuel, refuses to take to himself the mantle of kingship. In the four gospels Jesus speaks more of himself as a shepherd than a king. He saw what the people did not. The shepherds who came to the manger were a sign in themselves. Their presence announced that a shepherd-leader had come among them. It is part of the paradox of his life that King of the Jews became the title that mocks Jesus’ death, though his death would not deter the advance of the kingdom he came to bring about.

©2014 Cathie Horrell.  All Rights Reserved.

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Birth of the Word in the Soul Part IV

Luke’s narrative opens in the Jerusalem Temple. It is the same Temple from which Jesus will later make his final fateful journey. Zechariah, a priest of the order of Aaron, is in the Temple performing his priestly duties. The angel Gabriel, the first of many who make up the chorus of Luke’s gospel, appears before him standing at the altar in the Holy of Holies where Zechariah serves.  Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are a couple on in years. He and Elizabeth are childless. But now he is told by Gabriel that his wife, believed to be barren, will give him a son. His prayers have been answered. With the incessant do not be afraid of the Lord’s messengers, Gabriel’s announcement imparts the mantle of the prophet Elijah on their unborn son, naming him John, delivering a not-so-subtle indication of the trajectory of John’s life. From being the joy and delight of his parents, to the commission to bring the repentance and return of the whole nation to Yahweh, even before his conception, John has his work cut out for him.

This first annunciation happens during the hour of incense, the rising smoke of the Temple offering calling the people to prayer. Unbeknownst to the waiting multitude, they are also being called to be among the first witnesses to their own saving. These are the first of the many crowds that will shadow Jesus throughout his life. From the outset, both John and Jesus draw the attention of many people in Judea and the surrounding countryside. From the people waiting outside the Temple to the neighbors who will rejoice along with Zechariah and Elizabeth, the births of these two extraordinary children, who will change the face of Israel and the world, is not to be a singular blessing for their parents alone, but an experience for the multitude and the many.

When Zechariah emerges from the Temple he is unable to speak, struck dumb by Gabriel because he openly dared to doubt the angel’s words.  He can communicate only in signs. Yet when he emerges it is evident to the people that Zechariah has had a vision. Luke sets these events squarely in real time, noting the hour of the day, lest we get lost in the other-worldliness of angels and visions.  It is three o’clock in the afternoon, known as the ninth hour. This will be the same hour in which Jesus breathes his last. Luke too is communicating in signs. He is signaling to his audience, already familiar with the sacred writings of Israel, something more telling about these events.

Zechariah returns home mute. He is able to indicate, however, to Elizabeth that they are to have a son. We do not hear Elizabeth’s response to this revelation until later, when she is visited by Mary. All we are told at this juncture is that once she conceives she keeps herself apart, like her people when they first came to Jerusalem, staying apart, growing quietly to maturity, deepening the roots of their faith. This news of this miraculous event ends Elizabeth’s humiliation of being barren; now she has only to wait and watch for the miracle to take root within her.

In another not-so-distant countryside from Zechariah and Elizabeth, another birth is announced by an angel. Before Israel held or heard of the child Jesus, a young Jewish girl, destined to be the first follower of her son, becomes a partner to the promise made long ago to her people. The ru’ah of Yahweh that hovered over the waters at creation will now overshadow the mother of Jesus, forming in her flesh the beloved son, who will later stand in the waters of the Jordan, blessed by that same spirit into his own life work.

©2014 Cathie Horrell.  All Rights Reserved.