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.

Birth of the Word in the Soul Part II

angel to Zechariah  John the Baptist stands at the confluence of the two testaments. The Hebrew Bible ends with the Book of Malachi. In Malachi, Yahweh is speaking. His are the first words of Genesis and his will be the last words in the final chapter of the recorded history of Israel. In Malachi we hear the Lord God’s last lament over his people, an impassioned reminder of what he has done for them, who he is for them and what he expects of them. He tells them he will send an Elijah-like prophet to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. These enjoinders echo in the angel’s announcement of John’s birth to Zechariah at the opening of Luke’s gospel.  Through Gabriel, Yahweh voice reverberates in his Temple, across two testaments, charging John even before he is in the world with the task of preparing the path and the people for the next emissary of Israel’s fierce, possessive, loving God.

As the second testament begins, Yahweh sets himself squarely in the midst of Israel again, making himself the architect of these two unlikely births. The Spirit of Yahweh inhabiting Luke’s gospel will overtake John, from the outset setting him apart. John will not follow in his father’s footsteps as a Temple priest. The Temple priests were hand-picked by Yahweh to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem after David took the holy city for his people. Rather, John has been chosen to carry the covenant back into the imagination of Israel, to grow in the wilderness, raving like a mad man on the margins of society, a fiery prophet challenging, cajoling the Hebrew people. His words ring out much like Yahweh at the end of Malachi. Between the two testaments comes a yawning silence. But before his voice goes silent, Yahweh Sabbaoth entreats the tribes of Israel, who have strayed from the covenant, to repent and return to him so that he can return to them.

The prophets are gone. A remnant awaits. A child is born. A child who comes into the ordinariness of life, into the midst of a faithful remnant waiting for a messiah to deliver them from their Roman oppressors and reclaim the vision of the covenant, now imaged in the birth of a child. This child, Jesus.

From the moment of his conception, Jesus’ life is marked by many journeys. The first he makes inside his mother, when she goes to visit Elizabeth to share her good tidings. At the end of Mary’s half-day’s walk to Zechariah’s house, it is John in his mother’s womb who first acknowledges by his leap of joy the cousin for whom he will pave the path made of the expectant hopes of the Jewish people. The next journey Jesus makes is to Bethlehem, still safely ensconced within his mother, his father Joseph leading her mount across the rocky wilderness to a census taking and his birth. Throughout his life Jesus journeys toward each new horizon of being before him. But the journey that was his long before he came into the world, is the journey the Hebrew nation made as they crossed the wilderness, on their way to becoming the people of God.

© 2014 Cathie Horrell. All Rights Reserved.

Under the Heart of a Woman

 stary night  St. Paul’s message is rooted in his proclamation of the Christ. After Jesus’ resurrection Paul is the first to announce that Christ will come again. In Col. 3:16 Paul says let the message of Christ find its home in you. Paul’s is the message of another Advent, the promised of the coming of Christ. For Paul it is not only a future event, but his insistence that we can have Christ, Christ’s life and love for each of us, which we especially need to hear and get closer to today.  It is a powerful Advent message. To live our lives in the Spirit of Christ as he says repeatedly in different ways in his letter to the Romans. Paul believes fiercely in the Life of the Spirit working in our lives.

That Jesus as the Christ can be born in the world and in us is evident as we celebrate the season of Advent. Even before Paul became an apostle for Christ, before the Christ child was born, it was under the heart of a woman that Christ found a home. Jesus’ first advent was to his mother, Mary.  When the mother of Jesus journeys to Elizabeth’s home to announce her good new, she became the first Christ-bearer, Jesus’ first disciple. The Spirit that made possible Jesus’ conception in a woman, is that same Spirit of Christ that Paul champions as a coming possibility in our lives as well. But it was Mary and Elizabeth that became the first heralds of the coming birth in the world, Christ’s first coming in the world to two woman.  Luke’s gospel, like Paul’s writing, is also filled with the image of the Spirit. (Apparently Luke and Paul were at one time traveling companions.)

As Luke’s gospel unfolds, the infant Jesus is seen laying in a cave-like stable, near the outskirts of a town teeming with people arriving for the census, his parents and simple shepherds his first followers.  But the shepherds are not the first to herald Jesus’ arrival and rejoice at his advent.  Luke’s good news is carried first on the lips of a few old people and one young Jewish girl.  They are the faithful anawim, the remnant of Israel, scrupulously observing the rituals and customs of their faith.  Their faith will make possible what the world deemed impossible. They were waiting for him, as we do today. Their longing became the threshold of his coming. Mary’s fidelity to her faith and worship brought about the improbable advent of new life to Israel. And today to us.

We are seeded with the Christ-self like the sacred seed planted in Mary.  We are invited to give life and meaning to that seed, to attend to its growth, so that who Jesus is we too can become. As we make our journey in faith, we join with Mary and Elizabeth, as Jesus’ first disciples, to awaken and give birth to the Christ-self in our lives as well. A life that is meant to be heralded, shared and rejoiced with others.  This is our let it be to the God who is ever renewing the world in his image. Just as his Spirit came upon the mother of Jesus in his great act of loving us and the world, by the grace of his Spirit we also become the waiting manger for the Word become flesh.

From the heart of the manger in Bethlehem we are fed; our hearts filled with praise springing forth in song, where the worship of God becomes the artistry of our lives. There it is real, human, enfleshed, ordinary, giving birth and giving witness to Jesus in the world.  In this we are with them, with him, in the purpose and passion of his life, to his God and Father, our God and Father as well, began under the heart of a woman.