The Stuart Highway, near Kulgera NT 2016

Every pure and virgin soul

Week of Sunday December 20 - Advent 4
Gospel: Luke 1:39-55

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Luke is not intending to present us with a miracle which contradicts biological truth and necessity. We make a category mistake if we believe he is even thinking about biology. He is presenting to us the intervention of God in our world; the filling of people with holy spirit. It is all to set the stage for Jesus' birth and subsequent ministry.

He has written his "orderly account" so that we who are friends of God; that is, are who Theophilus, "may know the truth concerning" who Jesus is, and what he signifies. The ordering of that account is full of allusions, deliberate parallels, and deliberate contrasts. (Luke 1:1-3)

The angel named "man of God," (Gabriel) comes to an elderly Priest named Yah remembers, or Zechariah. The priest is told his wife, who is Elizabeth, like Elisheba the mother of Aaron and mother of all priests, (Exodus 6:23) who cannot have children, will bear a child. The child will "turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God with the spirit and power of Elijah." The priest is unbelieving and, at the word of the angel, is unable to speak until the birth of the child.

The angel named "man of God" then comes to a girl named Mary, the name of the sister of Moses, another mother of the nation. Mary, who like all prophets feels unworthy of the call of God, nonetheless says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." She believes him and is thus able to speak as the first prophet of Luke's world, singing the Magnificat.

The children join the list of those miraculously born. Abraham and Sarah could not have children; God intervened and Isaac was born. Elkanah and Hannah could not have children; God intervened, and Samuel was born. Mary is too young to yet have children; God intervenes, and Jesus is born.

John's name signifies Yahweh has been gracious.
Jesus means God saves.

In the text, the "meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is a surrogate meeting for the first meeting of John and Jesus. Elizabeth speaks for John and Mary speaks for Jesus. Elizabeth bows and defers to Mary…" (Paul Nuechterlein) John leaps for joy in the presence of Jesus. (cf 2 Sam 6:16)

John, like Samuel,

will never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17)

But Jesus

will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end… the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:32-35) He is Lord. (1:43)

The last pieces of the drama are put in place as Mary returns home. John is born, and Zechariah sings— at last—

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; (not the Son of the Most High)
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways… (Luke 1:76-7, 80)

And Jesus is born.

But Mary, with the Holy Spirit come upon her, (1:35) even before his birth, has already seen some of what will be. She sings a variation of the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) which celebrated the significance of the great prophet Samuel.

"God is my Saviour. He looks with favour on my humiliation."  How these words must have spoken to a devastated and humiliated people living in "the times of the Gentiles" (Luke 21:24) after the destruction of Jerusalem! In the suffering after Jerusalem Luke told people to "stand up and raise their heads, because their redemption was drawing near." (21:28) Mary says this salvation has already begun: the Mighty One has done great things; he has scattered the proud; he has filled the hungry; he has helped his servant Israel.

The great reversal of the status quo is under way.

We will sing Rory Cooney's Canticle of the Turning  this Sunday. The voice of Mary cries

… So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn!

Luke is bolder. Luke might sing the last line as 

and the world has begun to turn!

In our world the rich grudgingly allow some share to the poor so that the poor do not rebel. But in the kingdom Jesus brings it will be that God

51 … has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

•••

How we can in any way trust that Mary's words are true? How can we see what she sees, when we live in  a world where it seems so obvious that the powerful are neither brought down nor sent away hungry?  How can we believe any of this story when the author proposes a biologically impossible miracle as "proof" of his claims.

Mary and Luke are not stupid. To think they are somehow naively believing "all this," but that we in our enlightened times are wiser about the world, is the height of western arrogance. Luke and Mary come from the culture which produced Ecclesiastes: "So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind…" (2:17)

The culture of Mary and Luke wrote the Psalms:

 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
   How long will you hide your face from me? …  (13:1-2)

and

14 I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast; 
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death.  (22:14-15)

Luke and Mary lived in the shadow of the "Romans, who made synonyms of order and desolation…" (Marilynne Robinson). They knew the thrones of the powerful and "the humiliation of the slave," (some of the literal Greek of Luke 1:48) in ways we cannot imagine.

Would it cost us so much to wonder if they might be speaking of a reality we do not understand, and if perhaps our "superior enlightenment" is the naïve view of the world?

Paul Nuechterlein proposes a "minimalist view" about the story of the virgin birth, but it relates to our entire faith.

 No attempt to account for the meaning of Jesus' life can succeed in doing so without taking into account divine intervention. If God's intervention is inconceivable to you, then there are aspects of the Christian mystery that are out of your range…. If the mystery of that is a stumbling block, then there is a place beyond which you cannot go.

I am not quoting these words to argue for a literal reading of the virgin birth. Rather, I am reflecting my own discovery that a literal reading of life— a restriction of "the real" to the material world— created an impoverished, and inadequate reality in which I could not live.

I had to discover that the biblical texts are only accidentally literally true when viewed through the lens of my western scientific standards. They are not meant to be read like that. They are inspired art, reaching into realm of spirit which we materially grounded humans can enter only a little. They are primarily spiritual texts, not historical texts.

The Virgin birth is one of the recurring underlying stories of humanity. Miraculous births are a common place... Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist….  Jacob and Esau, (Genesis 25) Joseph, (Genesis 30:22) the child Immanuel in Isaiah 7…. (Note the Hebrew in Isaiah 7 says young woman, not virgin) This is a trope that indicates that God is involved in the birth [and that it] is part of the divine plan for Israel.

Virgin birth stories are associated with Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome), Helen of Troy, Oedipus, Alexander the Great, Augustus…

I am quoting from our Advent study at Pilgrim Church this year.  It goes on to note that

The Wikipedia article on miraculous births shows the shows the breadth of this story across multiple cultures, and any number of web sites will argue about the veracity of such claims. These are very often polemical sites arguing about literal veracity and not asking why such stories arise.

Such argument is the category mistake of the culture of the literal-material West. It tends to think that the universality of the trope means it is untrue and foolish, rather than recognise that the universality  of the story across so many cultures reflects something about the nature of our being human. "The great stories— the myths— reflect some of the essence of our humanity." The real question is not if they are literally true (the category mistake), but

What do [these stories] say about how we exist as human beings?Do they say something to us about the birth of the divine, or a sensibility of the divine, within us? Tacey says it bluntly: "God comes to birth in my soul, and not only in the soul of Jesus. That is what the myth announces." (David Tacey Beyond Literal Belief pp100) (Study Four)

He says somewhere else that the life of Jesus is the "secret life of us."

As an Australian of 2015, trained in biology and information technology, a literal reading of the virgin birth is unintelligible. Virgin Birth is an impossibility which serves only to emphasis the impossibility of the Magnificat. We have to go beyond the literal to the place where "we have the potential to encounter and have a relationship with eternal forces. This side of our lives is not reducible to rational thought." (Karen Armstrong in David Tacey, Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor Garratt Publishing 2015 pp37)

This is where the birthing mystery happens, for a "religion is like a language that one must have begun to learn before being able to grasp what is being said in it." (G. A. Lindbeck, quoted here.) How do we break in to this other (putative) dimension? How do we westerners learn the language of spirit? Where does one begin to comprehend the incomprehensible?

Only by doing: I wrote last week about the relationship between John's baptism and Jesus' baptism of spirit, which is the way we speak of beginning to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Christianity understands that John's baptism of repentance— the imperative of justice— is a gateway to rediscovering Jesus' baptism of spirit. Repentance of our material and political privilege allows us to discern again the underlying spiritual reality of the world. That is; material and political privilege always tends to blind us to spiritual reality. It replaces God. It becomes an idol. Indeed, as we say in the church newsletter this week, "The root of our spiritual illiteracy is a deep desire to control and secure the world for ourselves, without reliance upon God." The newsletter continues

When we give away what we have, so that we only have God, we are threatened with the loss of that security and independence which we have created.  Radical justice and compassion make us vulnerable, because in such a life, all we have is God. And are finally able to learn to listen.

There is something here far beyond a kind of mechanical karma where living badly leads to bad results, and living well rewards us. We use the word grace.

Even a small repentance graces us with an unwarranted return in our re-discernment of spirit. Insignificant generosities, compared to the huge injustices of the world, begin to gift us with new understanding and fulfilment in life which is quite out of proportion with our giving. (One Man's Web)

You will notice I do not know how this happens; it is "virgin birth," the miraculous second birth that sees the depth in the world.

 I have only laid out a method, and a way of approach, not an explanation. We can only surrender ourselves to mystery by trusting the story with our attention and repentance.  All we obsessive westerners can measure is what may come to miraculous birth within us.

We quote Meister Eckhart in the same study.

I affirm that had the Virgin not first borne God spiritually He would never have been born from her in bodily fashion. A certain woman said to Christ, “Blessed is the womb that bear Thee.” To which Christ answered, “Nay, rather blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.” It is more worthy of God that He be born spiritually of every pure and virgin soul, than that He be born of Mary. Hereby we should understand that humanity is, so to speak, the Son of God born from all eternity. (Meister Eckhart's Sermons III)

Perhaps such a people could be worthy, and even co-create a world where

the hungry are filled with good things…
the wolf shall live with the lamb, and…
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. (Luke 1, Isa 11)

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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