|Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
By David Grant Smith
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule…” [NRSV]. When hearing this passage from the prophet Micah, it’s easy to call to mind the old saying “Big things come in small packages!” We live in a world in which that which is small or diminished is often dismissed as being irrelevant to the greater good. But this proclamation of the ancient prophet provides a counter-cultural perspective—that which is smaller and seemingly insignificant is often that which contains the most potential.
It seems counter-intuitive to think that something (or someone) weak, small, young, or unimpressive could yield great potential, but this is often how God works. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible took notice of (and special interest in) the weak, the sick, the poor, the elderly, the foreigner, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. Much of what the prophets had to say to the powerful can be summed up in the understanding that how any society treats its most vulnerable people is a measure of that society’s spiritual health. Speaking this kind of truth to the powerful and wealthy of a society didn’t make the prophets very popular in their day, of course. But their legacy of holding up the smallest as being the most powerful became the prophetic context into which Jesus eventually preached his message several hundred years later. The message stayed the same from the prophets on down: God has a special way of working great things in and among the most vulnerable people of any given context.
It’s one thing to affirm the potential that lies within those who are most often dismissed. But it’s quite another thing to work with those who have such great potential, and to coax it out of them. It requires great discernment to see that potential in others in the first place; and it requires tedious work to help them see it in themselves, and to help bring it to life. It can also seem like an unsurmountable task—especially when we ourselves are the “small/insignificant one” in whom the great potential lies! Whether the potential lies within ourselves or someone else, the process of helping it grow into its full Self can be tedious and difficult—just like one “who is in labor…” working to bring new life into the world.
Between the potential and the final product lies countless moments of process, many of which seem to be as difficult as being in labor. But the final product, when working together with God and God’s lure toward those kinds of qualities that reflect God and God’s purposes, is a concrescence of trajectories, which is best described as creative transformation. In the case of the one who will come out of Bethlehem to become a ruler, the creative transformation is someone who will stand, feed, and provide security and peace—no doubt for those who carry great potential, but who have been dismissed by others because of their vulnerability.
One lens through which this passage from Micah might be read, interpreted, and preached, might be the lens of paradox. This Sunday’s readings are ripe with paradoxical imagery in which the writers are inviting us to see the world turned upside-down (or, rather, turning the world back to “right-side-up” as God intends for it to be). The theme of paradox, and the idea of seeing the small in terms of the great potential which lies within, are part and parcel of the thrust of Advent, in which we are invited to reorient ourselves—inside and out, as well as inside-out—so that we might make ourselves more readily available to God and God’s purposes in a mindful, intentional, and open manner.
These verses from Psalm 80 are one of two possible responses to the reading from Micah that the Revised Common Lectionary provides for this week. The alternative to this Psalm is the Song of Mary, or Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55, which is also offered as an extended reading of today’s Gospel reading). Comments about the Song of Mary are offered below, treating it as part of the longer Gospel reading option.
This psalm is a lament and a complaint against God. It is written from a perspective which asserts that God is the cause of the communal suffering: providing tears for bread and drink, making them a derision, and many more images of suffering in the verses of the rest of the psalm which aren’t used in today’s lectionary portion of it. All the while this assertion is being offered, the poet of this psalm is praying that God would restore them, show them light, and save them.
Does the same God who shows light also cast us into the darkness of derision? Does a loving God cause suffering? This is the question that is at the heart of many faithful peoples’ struggles with God and with faith. We as process people assert that God doesn’t cause suffering. Rather, we acknowledge that what causes suffering are things like disease, war, sin, poverty, storms, and violence of many kinds—none of which are God’s will for us, and over which God doesn’t have control. Process theology doesn’t hold with the idea that a loving God would cause suffering. But we do assert that in the midst of suffering God is there with us, suffering right alongside of us.
As we slowly creep our way from autumn into winter, here in the northern hemisphere we are finding ourselves in the days that have the least amount of daylight. As we approach the end of Advent and the celebration of Christmas, we recall that the Early Church intentionally placed the celebration of Jesus’ birth during the darkest week of the year, as a witness to God’s presence in and among us as light in the midst of darkness. Psalm 80, of course, has nothing to do with Jesus or Christmas. However, it could be a tool for us to be mindful that not all people find in this season the “comfort and joy” which the season seems to demand of us.
For those faith communities that observe “longest night” services, or other liturgies which are offered for those who find this time of year to be so difficult, Psalm 80 may be a worthy companion for that journey. As we struggle to understand that God isn’t the source of our difficulties, we can find hope that God’s loving omnipresence and saving light are always with us, even if and when we can’t see it. Even if a faith community doesn’t have such a worship service for acknowledging the difficult task of facing the holidays when our insides don’t reflect the “fa la la la la” all around us, Psalm 80 might be a good thing to hold before a congregation on a Sunday morning to speak about some of the struggles which faithful people have at this time of year; and it will be imperative to hold forth the idea that to struggle in such a way requires great faith, and that it isn’t a sign of weak faith to engage in that struggle with God.
In dealing with texts like this, it is important for the Christian preacher to be careful to not make any assertions that the ancient practices of the Jewish faith are somehow made obsolete or rendered inferior because of what we as people of faith believe to be true and relevant to us in the person of Jesus. The author of Hebrews isn’t being altogether dismissive of the Jewish faith and the practice of sacrifices and offerings. Rather, the author is urging the followers of Jesus to not fall into a mindset of doing religion according to commandment and tradition alone, but to move into a life that embraces (as Jesus and the prophets before him did) religion as an expression of the relationship we have with God and each other.
Process theology doesn’t dismiss ritual/liturgy (offerings), or even self-denial (sacrifice). But process theology does invite us to be intentional and mindful of the relationships to which our acts of worship point. It is very easy, in any spiritual or religious tradition and context, to fall into a practice of doing things simply because they need to be done. We find comfort in familiarity and repetition. And there are times when we lose track of what the various rituals of our faith stand for. In short, we get drawn into having our religion become static, or status quo, rather than being the catalyst that drives us and compels us to become participants in God and God’s purposes.
In the final part of his book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, Marcus Borg writes about the need for the Christian faith to move “from convention to intention.” This passage from Hebrews draws on that very same notion—that we will not find fulfillment in our spiritual praxis by simply “going through the motions” (or “sacrifices and offerings”), as much as we will from mindfully participating in God and God’s purposes (or doing “God’s will”).
The season of Advent is the season that simultaneously reflects on how Jesus came to us in the past, and how the Christ event is continually coming to us in each moment of our future. Advent is a time in which we can renew our resolve to continually, and intentionally, reorient ourselves in an ongoing process of being those in whom God’s will might be done.
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
As noted above, the second half of this week’s Gospel (the Song of Mary) is an optional extension of it; or it can be used as a response to the reading from Micah. One way to engage this Gospel reading would be to have the first part of it read by whomever would normally read it up through the words “And Mary said,” and then have the whole congregation become the voice of Mary, proclaiming the Good News of a world turned upside-down (or, in God’s eyes, a world turned back right-side-up!). However the text is used, these comments are written from the perspective that the Song of Mary is as much a part of the story of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth as it is about Elizabeth’s baby leaping in her womb! The Song of Mary is a proclaimed vision of that to which Elizabeth and the unborn John are giving witness.
There are only a certain number of people on the planet who can relate to the description Elizabeth gives in this little story about what it is like to have life growing within. Mothers around the globe, since the dawn of human language, have described what it is like to feel a life growing inside of oneself, as well as leaping and kicking. And blessed are they! They have had a physical experience to parallel what the rest of us only experience metaphorically, emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually. The notion of Elizabeth’s child leaping in her in witness to the presence of something greater than and beyond one’s own sense of Self is a metaphor for any of us who have had any kind of “Aha!” moment of discernment.
There are, from time to time, exact moments in time when we feel as though our lives have come into “alignment” with God and God’s purposes in such a way that we become aware of an inner stirring which gives witness to the significance of that concrescence. It may not have been quite as mystical as the way Luke’s author describes the scene in the story of Mary’s visitation with Elizabeth, but we all have had those moments of inner dawning which proclaim that we are being held in a moment of awe and wonder. And these moments are those things for which we can give thanks and praise!
Though the leaping of the child within her is a voiceless proclamation of Good News, Elizabeth finds words to proclaim the Good News of the moment in which they all have found themselves. She says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment…” This is a reflection on what Gabriel had said to Mary earlier in the narrative, as well as Mary’s words back to him, and by which she became a willing participant in God and God’s purposes: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” This is a very incarnational way to be a willing participant in God and God’s purposes—to have one’s own body bear and give birth to God’s gift to the world.
Mary and Elizabeth are archetypes of all people of faith. They each carry within them (in the present moment) life and potential which will become great (in the future). Just as the past becomes a significant shaper of each present moment, each moment—and how we respond to it—becomes part of the fabric of our future. Each of us are pregnant with immeasurable possibility. And each of us bears within us whatever it is that God is calling and empowering us to bring to the world. Each of us have God and God’s purposes waiting to be born into particular moments through whatever means of creative transformation for which God has uniquely gifted us. When we give our assent to these possibilities, and when we sense that potential leaping to life within us, we become part of the way that God is working with us to transform the world.
Mary begins her “song” by saying “My soul magnifies the Lord…” [NRSV]. This word “magnifies” is how we get the word Magnificat, the Latin name for this hymn-like text in Luke. The idea that a human being can “magnify” God has been a puzzling word for many: How can anyone possibly make God seem any larger than God already is? Yet, in a process theology understanding of the interplay between God and humanity, it is quite possible that a willing human participant in God and God’s purposes could somehow expand and magnify God and God’s purposes in the world. Mary’s assertion isn’t out of arrogance, but is a statement spoken in awe and wonder, offered in humility, amazed that she would find herself in this position of increasing God’s presence and participation in the world. Mary need not be the only one to express that sense of awe and wonder, as we are all capable of doing the same thing, of course.
The witness which Mary then gives to this holy moment in the lives of all who find themselves in this story is to proclaim the Good News in a vision that reflects one of the very central tenets of process theology: God sees the world as it is, and works with it to become what it can be. Mary labels the human polarizing aspects of the condition for what they are as well as those who find themselves at opposite ends of that human spectrum—those who are proud/powerful/rich and those who are humble/lowly/hungry. And while affirming the human condition, Mary “sings” of how the world can be—how the world can be turned over from the way it is into the way that it could be, with everyone having what they need in order to live—a vision grounded in God’s primordial nature of beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love.
Just as this Fourth Sunday of Advent prepares the way for the celebration of the birth of Christ, so each moment of life prepares the way for future moments to be born. Advent calls us to be mindful of this reality, and calls us to embrace the spiritual practices by which we can increase our mindfulness, helping us to become more intentional in our relationships with God and others, and more expectant of the potential which lies within each of us, waiting to be born into the world through acts of creative transformation. May we all be as open as Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist were to having God work in and through us to bring such moments to life.