Wednesday, December 19, 2018

December 23, Advent 4: Living Between the Times: Expecting

Micah 5:2-5a, Song of Mary, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

In our gospel story today we get a glimpse of the Virgin Mary between the times—between the time of her getting pregnant and the time of her giving birth. She’s in the intermezzo of expecting. She’s expecting the promise inside her to come true.

This event we call The Visitation. It follows on The Annunciation, when the angel announced to Mary that she would bear a son. She said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and then also that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. That extra news was the incentive for her Visitation.

Mary races to visit Elizabeth. You can imagine her desire for the confirmation. She probably had not told anybody yet. Pregnancy is something you keep secret at first. And she can imagine her trouble when the news gets out. Pregnant before wedlock. A sinner, a slut, or just a victim, but we blame the victim. Doubtless Mary could sense from the start what she would be up against to carry this child, so for confirmation she races to visit Elizabeth.

Elizabeth will be showing by now, while Mary is not yet far along. But Mary does not have to show for Elizabeth to know—from her own baby leaping inside her. A prophet already before he’s born—John the Baptist, the forerunner, the announcer. Elizabeth gets prophetic too, by the Holy Spirit, when she blesses Mary, twice. And Mary answers with her own prophetic song. Both mothers are prophetic. Those two boys will take after their mothers more than their fathers. These four persons make a little prophetic community. In fact, it’s the first Community of Jesus ever.

I love the emphasis on women in the Gospel of St. Luke. The first prophetic song in St. Luke is Mary’s song, her Magnificat. From the Latin for the first line: Magnificat anima mea dominum. In Greek: Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον. Literally, “Magnifies my soul the Lord.”

The Greek original and the Latin translation are both compact, but the modern English versions are wordy and diffuse, and they underplay the femininity and the sexuality. In the last line, she does not say “descendants.” What she says is “seed” (literally “σπερμα”), and you know what that means. She’s singing about her uterus no less than about her soul. She is singing about her womanhood. She is young and pregnant, and she’s got God inside her body like a little seed. Was that scary or thrilling or both?

It’s an assumption among scholars that Mary could not have written this song—that St. Luke must have put these words in her mouth, like a librettist for an opera. But hold it, why not? Because she’s young? Because she’s a girl? Maybe she’s smarter than the scholars are! What other sort of woman would God choose to home-school the Messiah? At least we can say that the Holy Spirit that dwelt in her uterus could also dwell in her mind! I’m going with Mary as the singer of this song.

She sings that God made her great–with child!–and so she magnifies God right back. That’s daring talk. As if a girl could increase God’s greatness. Who does she think she is! Well, she’s been empowered by her obedience to God. She says, “All generations will bless me.” Yes, we will, world without end, because of what God has done in her, but isn’t it presumptuous of her to claim it?

Not according to St. Luke. She can claim her own experience as a demonstration of all the rest that she’s singing of: God casting down and raising up, God filling and emptying. And when God gets done with all of this, especially with her, then God is even greater than God was before, if not mathematically, then historically. God is great in her, she is the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the church.

The last line of the canticle has a paradox. She says that God “remembered the promise God made to Abraham and his seed forever.” But there was no seed of Abraham in her. She conceived her child as a virgin. No sperma. So the seed of Abraham that she mentions must be herself. She, and not some man, is the bearer of God’s promises. This was daring. So greatly does she conceive herself.

I love the Blessed Virgin Mary. So do Muslims, did you know that? We Protestants should love her more, and Roman Catholics should love her more as flesh and blood. Her devotion to do God’s will cost her greatly, but it meant no diminution of herself. Just so, you are made greater when you make God great. I don’t mean greatness of wealth or reputation. I mean the capacity of your soul. How much God asks of you, and how much you gain by what God asks of you. That’s my only take-home today: You are magnified when you magnify God.

She sings that “God has remembered.”  Why that? That feels like an old-person thing to say. Why, when you’re a young woman just getting used to the idea of being pregnant, which is challenging enough and then scandalous on top of it, and your mind is all on the next nine months, why would you sing that God has remembered? Maybe I would get it if I had ever been pregnant!

I guess the point is that you can feel remembered even before the fulfillment, even before the promise is delivered. You can feel remembered when you get the earnest before the payoff. You can feel remembered while you’re still expecting, while you’re living in between the time of the promise announced and the time of the promise delivered. You can say that even though you don’t have it yet you know you’re not forgotten. This is the experience of a great deal of the Christian life.

Promises and memories behind you, incompletion before you, and beyond that it’s all unknown. The world. Your own life. Your health. Your loved ones. If you’re pregnant, what your child will be, and how will her life turn out in the end. If the future feels uncertain, the present feels uncertain too, and as you get older even the past gets less certain. “Am I remembering right?”

God remembers. God remembered Noah. God remembered Joseph in Pharaoh’s prison. God remembered Israel in Egypt. God remembered David. God remembered the Jews in captivity in Babylon. God remembers. Why else do we pray every day? Not that God ever forgets, this isn’t philosophical logic here, but the gist is that God bends God’s attention to God’s promises.

I invite you to believe that God remembers you, that God has made promises to you, and even though those promises are not yet fulfilled, God remembers you and reminds you in so many ways that you are on God’s mind. And in your waiting and your expecting, God actually makes you greater, greater than if you were not expecting. The arc of God’s promise is long, but it bends towards remembering.

Which is why it’s remarkable that God’s remembering gets enfleshed in a little baby who has nothing at all to remember. Isn’t that odd? And then his life will be short, just over thirty years, just getting started. What he had to remember was what his mother told him and what he read in the sacred scrolls of Israel’s memory, all the promises of God that were set out in the Holy Book and waiting to be kept.

He gathered that remembering and made it his own life. In the words of our Epistle, “See God, I have come to do your will, in the scroll of the book it is written of me.” From that literature he remembered all the years of longing and expectation of his people, and he offered himself to keep those promises in body and soul.

But the first years, while he was still young, his mother had to do the remembering for him. We know that she pondered so much in her heart. And I’m guessing she taught him what she knew, and from her own experience, for she did the same herself, though not in death, but she offered her body to the pain of labor and the sacrifice of pregnancy, the sacrifice that every mother makes to that beloved parasite inside her body, her sacrifice to the future of the species.

His mother did first what Christ said later, in the words of the Epistle, “animal sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. Then I said, ‘See God, I have come to do your will.’” From his mom he learned not just to be a prophet, but also to be priest, because she offered up herself. And a priest because she begins the gospel liturgy with her song. A priest, a prophet, and the queen-mother of Israel.

We do the expecting and God does the remembering. For living in-between the times. Keep your expectation on the love of God. I invite you to choose for love. Choose to be expecting of love, especially the love of God that we remember in this Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our infant Lord.

Copyright © 2018, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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