FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary the mother of our Lord, is the psalmody for this coming Sunday. It is a remarkable song for a lot of reasons. Mary appears certain that the downfall of the mighty, the salvation of the oppressed and the realization of God’s covenant promises for Israel are accomplished facts. Unless she is hallucinating, she must know that the Roman Empire is still firmly ensconced, Israel is still under military occupation and none of that seems likely to change anytime soon. Mary seems to be living an alternative reality where God’s promise of salvation to Israel has already been fulfilled. For her, it’s a done deal.
An unborn child, not even a person in our contemporary estimation, is a slim reed on which to base this confident assertion of God’s triumph over injustice and oppression. Yet Mary stubbornly insists that she is pregnant with Israel’s salvation. Her longing is too real to be denied. So is God’s. One of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser I believe it was, told us that the Hebrew Scriptures are straining toward Incarnation. The refrain, “I will be your God and you will be my people” is sounded throughout the law and the prophets. That refrain forms the back drop for John the Evangelist’s declaration that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is given expression in the Book of Revelation, where John of Patmos has the angel in his vision declaring: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” The Incarnation, then, is where God’s longing for us meets our yearning for salvation. In Jesus, room is made for God to dwell in our midst. That is the miracle about which Mary sings. Where there is room for God, there is room for anything!
Here’s a poem called “Magnificat” by Mary Ruefle.
O Lord, I did walk upon the earth
and my footprints did keep pace with the rain
and I did note, I did note where orange birds
flew up from the puddles thou hast made
and where the toads leapt from your trenches,
but nowhere was there that I could go
for I could not rise from the firmament
upon which I was placed, and nowhere could I
so I kept until I could no more straight
then bent said I am down to make room for the more
and you half hearing did send me down
into the soul of another by mistakes
and I would like to thank you for it
from where I lie, risen in the eye of the other.
(Emphasis in original text) “Magnificat” by Mary Ruefle, from Selected Poems (c. 2010 by Wave Books, 2010). Mary Ruefle was born in 1952 outside of Pittsburg to a military family. Throughout her childhood, she travelled with her family to various places in the United States and Europe. She has written several books of poetry, essays and fiction, including Indeed, I was Pleased with the World, The Adamant, A Little White Shadow, and The Most of it. You can find out more about Mary Reufle and her books at the Poetry Foundation website.
Micah is one of the Minor Prophets. He is “minor,” though, not in terms of importance but by the volume of his work. In comparison with the Major Prophets (i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & Daniel), Micah is only a slim collection of prophetic utterances. As is the case for most of the prophets, the book of Micah is not really a book in the proper sense. It is more like an anthology or collection of the prophet’s oracles most likely compiled and arranged by his disciples after his death. It is likely that this “book” was edited and supplemented with the work of these disciples and probably reached its final form during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile following the conquest of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.
According to the introductory verse of the book, Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Micah 1:1. This would have made him a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. See Isaiah 1:1. Micah was from the small village of Moresheth in Judah (Micah 1:1) and so had occasion to observe up close the injustice and oppression exercised by the rich and powerful in society, a perspective that his contemporary might have lacked, being associated as he was with the royal court in Jerusalem. See, e.g. Micha 2:1-2. He likewise deplored the abuse of the prophetic office, (Micah 3:5), the corrupt practices of Judah’s rulers (Micah 3:11) and the moral indifference of her priests (Micah 3:11).
At this point, Judah was leading a precarious existence in the shadow of the mighty Assyrian Empire. Micah witnessed the Assyrian attack that would eventually end the Northern Kingdom of Israel, thereby bringing the Assyrian army to the very border of Judah. In the face of this crisis, King Ahaz saw only two choices. He could join with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its ally Syria in an anti-Assyrian alliance-which appeared doomed to failure. Or he could proactively seek an alliance with Assyria. The emperor of Assyria would no doubt find such an offer attractive. It would give him a small, but effective ally at the rear of his enemies. Control of Judah would also give Assyria a buffer between its own sphere of influence and Egypt, its enemy to the south. Of course, such an alliance would come at a heavy price for Judah, including the loss of her sovereignty, the requirement that she receive into her temple the gods of Assyria and heavy tribute payable through taxation of the common people. Yet as unattractive as this Assyrian alliance was, King Ahaz found it preferable to joining an anti-Assyrian military effort that was likely to end badly.
Micah (and Isaiah) saw yet a third alternative. Judah could wait for her God to deliver her-as God had always done in the past. Though Ahaz proved a disappointing king, Micah is confident that God will yet raise up from Bethlehem (the home of David) a king who, unlike Ahaz, will give to Judah and her people the peace, safety and security for which she longs. Scholars have long debated whether these words constituting the reading for Sunday are actually those of Micah or those of a prophet living after the Exile speaking these words of hope and encouragement to the exiled Jews. I side with those who attribute them to Micah. There is no mention at all of Babylon in chapter 5, but there is a clear reference to the threat posed by Assyria. Micah 5:5. Though the NRSV separates this verse from the section forming our reading, I don’t see any warrant for that in the Hebrew. Neither did the translators for the old RSV. Furthermore, Israel is not addressed here as a community of exiles, but as a nation under siege according to Micah 5:1 (which also is not included in our reading). This would fit the historical circumstances in which Micah found himself in the 8th Century B.C.E. See Isaiah 36-37.
However one might date these prophetic words, they reflect Israel’s hope that God would finally raise up a ruler fit to be a king in the proper sense. Christians have long asserted that Jesus constitutes the fulfillment of this hope, but we cannot afford to slide too easily from Micah to the New Testament. Such an identification of Jesus with the one “who shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (vs. 4) raises more questions than it answers. What sort of security does Jesus provide? In what sense does he stand in “the strength of the Lord”? How can one rightly say that Jesus has “become great to the ends of the earth”? vs. 4. Clearly, Jesus is not the sort of king that would make mincemeat out of the Assyrians (or Romans) and re-establish the Davidic dynasty of old or one like it. What, then, does it mean to call “Lord” and “King” someone who was born out of wedlock in a barn and died the death of a criminal? These are the questions with which the gospels and the letters of Paul struggle.
I want to move directly into the gospel lesson for Sunday because it seems to address some of the questions raised by our identification of Jesus with Micah’s promised deliverer. I also believe that this narrative is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of verses 46-55 used as this Sunday’s psalmody. This remarkable visit between two women touched in a profound way by the Spirit of God sets the stage for Mary’s remarkable hymn. Elizabeth, you may recall, was infertile and so bore societal “reproach.” Mary also was carrying a child and it is tempting to draw the conclusion that she bore reproach also as the pregnancy was obviously out of wedlock. Both women would then have been subject to human reproach, albeit for different reasons. Both women also have been divinely vindicated. This provides a delightful literary symmetry that would work nicely in crafting a sermon, but I fear that we might be reading too much into the text. It does not appear that anyone regards Mary with moral distain as a result of her pregnancy. Unlike Matthew’s gospel, Luke does not tell us of any ambivalence on Joseph’s part. Neither does Mary express any sense of shame or give any indication that she has been subject to moral sanction from any quarter. Thus, the thrust of this encounter appears to be Elizabeth’s affirmation of Mary’s vision and recognition of her unborn child as the one whose way her own son has been sent to prepare.
Most remarkable is, once again, the vulnerability of the promised savior. The helplessness and fragility of this fetus stands out in stark relief against the world dominating might of the Roman Empire. From this vantage point, the cross seems inevitable. A confrontation between this savior and the Empire could end in no other way. What is less obvious and what Luke strives to reveal is that what appears to be inevitable defeat will turn out to have been victory. The cross, Rome’s instrument of terror by which it maintained the pax Romana (peace of Rome), is soon to be snatched from the hands of the Empire to become the symbol of a very different sort of peace-the peace of Christ.
Something else is worth noting here. The gospel of Luke contains a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry from Adam through the line of David up to Joseph. Luke 3:23-38. Yet Luke takes pains to emphasize that Jesus was not the natural son of Joseph. Consequently, Joseph’s Davidic credentials appear to be irrelevant. If anybody’s genealogy matters here it is that of Mary. But we don’t know anything about her ancestry. So why does Luke include it?
One reason might be that the gospels are not “books” in the sense of having a single author writing his or her own material from start to finish. The gospels consist of parables and sayings from the preaching and teaching of the early church that were subsequently woven into a narrative or “story.” Because the gospel writers were working with material from several different sources and trying to fit it into a coherent story, there were naturally inconsistencies, seams in the narrative and places where the story does not flow naturally. That all may be so, but I think it glosses over the issue with a little too much ease. The gospel writers may have been relying upon material that was handed down to them, but they were doing more than simply stapling pages together. To the contrary, they exercised a high degree of originality and creativity in their use of stories, parables and hymns that came down to them. They took an active part in shaping the tradition to enhance the story they were trying to tell. I doubt that Luke would have intentionally allowed such a great discrepancy to stand unless he had a reason for it.
My belief is that the genealogy over against Jesus’ miraculous birth makes the same point John the Baptist elaborated on last week. “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Luke 3:8. So also, God does not need the line of David to raise up a savior for Israel. Out of sheer grace, God adopts the line of David-as he once did David himself. Jesus’ status as Savior and Lord does not stand or fall on his Davidic credentials. It stands rather upon the redemptive and grace filled work of God. Out of mercy, compassion and in faithfulness to his covenant with the line of David, God freely adopts that line identifying God’s self with God’s people Israel.
This remarkable hymn of Mary, known as the Magnificat, is woven directly from the worship tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. The closest scriptural parallel is the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was unable to have children and sought the help of the Lord. Hannah’s song is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving in response to the birth of her child, Samuel. Both hymns praise God for looking upon the humble state of the petitioners and hearing their prayers. Both hymns transition from thanks for personal deliverance to praising God for his compassion for the poor and for raising them up. The theme of the “great reversal” that will be seen throughout Luke’s gospel is reflected in Mary’s song: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.” Vs. 52. God’s exaltation of the humble maidservant Mary prefigures the career of Jesus who lifts up the outcast and the sinner. Also prefigured is the day when the reversal begun in Jesus will be complete. Just as John will one day bear witness to Jesus, so Elizabeth now testifies concerning the messianic destiny of Mary’s Son.
The hymn opens with the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” Vs. 46. This is most likely the Greek rendering of a Hebrew expression, “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” See, e.g., Psalm 146:1. The “soul” here is the “self.” Thus, the psalmist praises God with his or her whole being. One could also say that the self becomes a lens for magnifying the glory and goodness of God through the act of worship. It is likely that the hymn is a Jewish one adapted to Luke’s literary purposes here. There is nothing to suggest authorship within the early Christian community. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary On Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 79. Though I would hasten to add that the earliest church, being a movement within the larger Jewish community, probably shared, adopted and adapted for its own use worship material from the synagogue. Thus, it is hazardous to attempt hard and fast distinctions here.
It is critical that Mary’s song be understood within the context of Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. It is not for general consumption. This is not a song about some general social revolution. The salvation spoken of here is very specifically understood as the vindication of Israel’s hope in the covenant promises of Israel’s God. The raising up of the humble and the leveling of the proud takes place within the covenant community when the terms of covenant existence are observed. This covenant life is what makes Israel a “light to the gentiles.” The conclusion of the hymn says it all: “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.” Vss. 54-55. As gentiles, we enter into this covenant by the door graciously opened for us through Jesus.
What more can I say about Hebrews than I have already said? As I have pointed out in previous posts, I have never been convinced that this epistle argues for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, though it has been so interpreted. I believe rather that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. Judaism dealt with this event by refocusing its worship more deeply in the life of the synagogue and in the study of Torah. Disciples of Jesus turned to the redemptive suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as celebrated in the worship of the church.
The quotation attributed to Christ in verses 5-7 appears to have been cobbled together from a few Hebrew sayings found in various forms in Psalm 40:6-8; I Samuel 15:22; Psalm 50:8-15; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6. It is not surprising that the quotation is not precise. The author appears to be working from memory rather than in the stacks of the library. For example, in Chapter 2:6 s/he introduces a citation from Psalm 8 with the words, “It has been testified somewhere…” We need to remember that in this age, centuries before the invention of the printing press, books were available only to a tiny fraction of the population. Reading was a rare skill and a useless one to common people with nothing to read. Consequently, one’s Bible was whatever had been committed to memory-and that typically constituted a lot of material. This is evident from the letter to the Hebrews which is saturated with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (though not with citations!).
The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.