Sunday, December 4, 2011

Subversive God

It recently struck me that, for years now, I've been suppressing the entire Advent season from my consciousness. The process started when the easy-listening station that I tune into now and then began switching to all Christmas music, all the time earlier and earlier.  The day after Thanksgiving is already way too soon for my taste.  But two weeks before Thanksgiving is ridiculous, and one week after Halloween is absolutely intolerable. I hope the hobgoblins eat them next year!

The whole Christmas shopping scene is something I dread. Garish ads promising me that my relatives and friends will love me more if I buy them this or that expensive gadget, stores over-packed with mass-produced merchandise, and the atmosphere saturated with Christmas carols degraded to the state of noise pollution. 

I hate the drill so much that I've been blocking out the entire four-week period before Christmas, robbing myself of an entire month of my life each year.

Fortunately, the Spirit has stepped in to rectify the situation and restore that month to my life. Today and last First Day (that's Quaker-speak for Sunday), as I settled into the silence of meeting for worship, I heard the stories from the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel reverberating in my heart.

Today it was Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said:
   “My soul glorifies the Lord
  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has been mindful
   of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
   holy is his name.
 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
   from generation to generation.
 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
   but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
   but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
   remembering to be merciful
 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
   just as he promised our ancestors.”
  Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
                                                                                                     Luke 1:39-56
If it's of any importance to you, gentle reader, I no longer take these stories as literal, factual history. I realize that they constitute legends, interpolated by the author (whoever he was) into his community's story of the life, teachings, and deeds of Jesus. Some of these legends are patterned on the myths surrounding the birth of Caesar Augustus. as though to say: our guy is as great --and maybe even greater-- than your guy.  But that's OK.  These stories do not need to be hard facts. As Bible scholar Marcus Borg says, "I do not think they are historically factual, but I think they are profoundly true."

It occurred to me this morning that this is the story of a baby shower!

For starters, only women are present: one who is rather advanced in age (her story, was told in verses 5-25) and her much younger cousin who has come to visit. Two disgraced women at that: one who has been labeled "barren" (always the woman's fault, apparently) and the other pregnant out of wedlock.

Neither of them is Church Lady material.

Their lives are about to change profoundly.  Maybe Elizabeth is worried that her aged body might not be able to produce enough milk for her baby. Maybe she is wondering how many years of her child's life God will allow her to enjoy before it's time for her own life to close. Maybe Mary is wondering if Joseph, so gracious and accepting at the moment, will throw this miraculous conception up to her face the first time they have an argument. These pregnancies may have been made in heaven, but the earthly mothers sure have some heavy things to ponder while knitting baby booties. So they get together to support each other and to celebrate a bit too.

Elizabeth has had the stigma of barrenness lifted from her.  Best of all, after helping sisters and cousins and neighbors care for their babies, she will finally have a little one of her own to rock to sleep. Mary gets reassurance --and maybe also a little material help-- from her cousin who, as wife of the High Priest, was probably a little better off financially. We're told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months. In other words, she assisted at the birth, stayed a while to help her cousin, and got some practice in caring for a newborn. Elizabeth no doubt sent Mary home with a nice pack of baby supplies.

But enough of this baby showering.  There's some pretty dramatic imagery in this story.  There's a Mighty One who with his arm is casting rulers from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.  Poor people are getting fed and rich people are getting turned away. This Mighty One even knows who is proud "in their inmost thoughts."

Not even Santa Claus can claim to do that.

But what's really different about this Might One, as opposed to the mighty with a small "m," is that he keeps his promises. Rulers and their broken promises. Some things never change. This ruler even remembers to be merciful. That's the kind of ruler people will praise God for.

And just who is spouting all this talk about a ruler both Mighty and Merciful? A 14- or 15-year-old unmarried mother-to-be.

Yet Israel is under the yoke of the Roman occupier.  Soldiers are garrisoned all over the country and even force people to carry their military gear. The inhabitants are falling so deep into debt from taxes that many are losing their land. With her people in such dire straits, surely Mary foresees the birth of a couple of warriors who will one day show the Romans who's boss.

Fast forward to the adult lives of the future sons of these two women (unfortunately, future daughters never seem to be the subjects of prophecy...but then Gloria Steinem wouldn't have had any work to do).  Neither will be a warrior. Both will die a violent death at the hands of the mighty-with-a-small-m. Abject failures in the eyes of the world.

So...why such rapture from this young mother-to-be?

The clue, I think, is that Mary speaks in the present perfect tense.  God has performed mighty deeds, he has scattered the proud, has brought down the rulers, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the poor with good things, has sent the rich away, and has helped Israel. The time of peace and justice promised long ago is here right now.

With righteousness he will judge the needy,
   with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
   with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
  Righteousness will be his belt
   and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
   the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;
   and a little child will lead them.
 The cow will feed with the bear,
   their young will lie down together,
   and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
   and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
 They will neither harm nor destroy
   on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
   as the waters cover the sea. 
                                                                           Isaiah 11: 4-9

But come on! What was in that cup of coffee Elizabeth gave her cousin?

Mary sees a Kingdom that bears no resemblance to the one celebrated by Virgil. And she knows that she, little no-account Mary, is literally and figuratively pregnant with the force of that transformation. As are we all. God is indeed infinitely more subversive than we give him (or her) credit for. Mary's son will one day declare, "the Kingdom of Heaven is within you," and Mary is already shouting, "Yea verily!" 

George Fox knew about the subversiveness of God when he told the military recruiters that "he lived in the Life and Power that takes away the occasion for war." Remember what he got for it? Six more months in prison. But by cooperating with that Power and truly living peace in his body and soul he brought the Kingdom to Yorkshire.

Like her son and like her cousin's son, Mary sees the upside-down Reign of God as already here, that once and furture Kingdom where peace abides, where the hungry are fed, where the lowly are lifted up. This is happening already and will happen wherever there are those who selflessly follow the word of her Son.

OK, time to be truthful. (Darn that Testimony of Integrity!) I don't seriously believe that the mother of Jesus foresaw any of this. She probably did not conceive her child any differently than women have throughout the history of motherhood. Nor did she have a cousin who conceived and gave birth to a son long after menopause. It's not hard to see where that story came from. I think that the author of Luke put those words into the mouth of a poor teenage girl and her cousin long after the beloved Teacher had suffered death at the hands of the mighty-with-a-small m. He did it to exalt the lowly in his is own literary way and to create examples of those who were last in this world but first and most important in the Kingdom restored,  subjects who felt the power of a God who was truly bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh and whose loving, gracious will could be accomplished only through them, subjects who were blessed because they heard the word of God and kept it.

So, let the merchandise pile up around me, let the carols blare. I pray for the strength to cooperate faithfully with that transformational power. I can feed the poor. I can bring cheer to someone who is downcast. I can remember to be merciful. I can make the Reign of God manifest here and now.

I need only let the Mighty One do great things for me.

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