23 December 2012
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Advent 4C (RCL)
This week’s reading from Luke’s Gospel includes the Magnificat, Mary’s song, which serves as something of a prologue to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ mission will be about the salvation of his people, and the Magnificat lays out the program — God has come to the help of Israel, cast down the mighty from their thrones, scattered the proud in their conceit, filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty. Mary’s song parallels Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 1, which she sings when she discovers she is pregnant. Of course, for Hannah and Mary the circumstances are very different. Hannah was Eli’s second wife, and could not get pregnant, and her co-wife Peninnah teased her mercilessly about that. Obviously, she was very happy to discover she was pregnant. Mary, on the other hand, is betrothed, and pregnant by someone other than her fiance. Not a happy circumstance.
The first line of her song is, “He has regarded the humiliation of his slave girl.” But in what parallel universe has God already done those things which Mary sings (in the aorist, implying completed action)? Even by the time Luke writes his Gospel, these things have not happened. In fact, things have gotten worse for Israel — the Temple has been destroyed and Jerusalem razed. Rome still is still ascendant. So, why would Luke put these words on the lips of a frightened, pregnant teenager?
Luke is inviting us to frame the world differently, to look at the status quo in a new way. Luke is creating a community of resistance. Those things that appear to be powerful are not powerful, if we see things aright. Mary, after greeting Elizabeth, can see things differently. Her pregnancy is no longer shameful, but in fact honorable (the meaning of “from now on all generations will honor me” — same word used in the beatitudes). Luke is creating a community in which the poor are honored, the grieving, the humble, the peacemakers and the ridiculed.
We have framed honor as a closed system. There is only so much to go around, and so if someone is more honorable than me, I must be shamed, or humiliated. Luke sees it as an open system. If you honor someone else, your own honor increases. We have framed power as power over, rather than power for. Power is a good thing, it gets things done, but we see it as a limited commodity. I have to get mine and the expense of yours.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is completing his argument about Jesus’ act of worship in the heavenly Temple replacing our worship in the earthly one. We could very easily veer off into a completely spiritual religion, thinking that only what happens in heaven matters. But the author prevents that. “A body you have prepared for me.” Jesus offers himself continually to God, just as God continually offers Godself to us. But he does it in the body. Bodies are the locus of intimacy. We enjoy good food in the body. We enjoy sex in the body. We enjoy listening to one another, or listening to good music in the body. We enjoy the warmth of a summer day in the body. As we re-frame power and honor, we have to locate this new community in the body. We often see our bodies as a liability — certainly as we get older, and our bodies don’t work as well as when we were kids, we wish to replace them. But the Body is where the divine love is revealed.
If we honor another’s body, empower it, enjoy it, we are drawn into the world in which God has overthrown the proud and fed the hungry. We have to learn to see the world differently, to see it in terms of honored bodies, in terms of intimacy and vulnerability. We can’t create a powerful community without vulnerability, specifically the vulnerabilities located in bodies — touch, taste, joy, companionship, song, laughter — all draw us together into this new world.