Joy and Sorrow

Week of Sunday Dec 23 - Advent 4
Gospel: Luke 1:39-45

The Psalm for this week is The Magnifcat, which I have included in the text below.

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.’

We are reading this text in the week after the Connecticut massacre. This tragedy is one of many Advent tragedies. In Australia, this week, a 9 year old girl was left to ring the police after her mother and her partner were killed, and her baby brother kidnapped. In China 25 people were injured in a school when a man went berserk with a knife. War rages in Syria, Egypt lives in fear of what may come, and in remote villages across the planet, children die almost as a matter of course. There is no TV eulogy for them.

And two women in an occupied country rejoice as their children grow within them.

Nothing will undo what has happened. God is not the kind of God who can stop all the killing by saying a word. In this world, if we are to be us, and to know our joys and our delights, and be human, then we must pay the cost of living. The cost of living is death; often brutal death, untimely and unjust.

This is the world.

The safe and cosy world of our childhood imaginations, if we were lucky, has never existed. White privilege dreams of better times now lost, and rants about its wrathful God. Those lost times never existed, either.

This is the world.

Yet into this world, God comes.  That is the good news that makes the unborn child leap for joy. Matthew will bring Newtown, Connecticut into his Gospel with his Slaughter of the Innocents. In Luke the horror is muted for now; a sword will pierce your soul, (2:35) but the children of Mary and Elizabeth will still die brutally.

But God comes. It pleases God to come.

In the hill country, in the centre of ancient Judea, God fills Elizabeth with the Spirit. She sees what is to come and cries out in a great (megathe) voice. John, not yet born, sees what is to come, and leaps for joy.

And two women in an occupied country rejoice as their children grow within them.

- - -

There is a lovely television advertisement where two pregnant women lie together, each placing a Malteser sweet on their swollen bellies. The game involves which baby kicks first and knocks off the lolly. The holiness of God is not something separate from us, invading us. It is in the nattering of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the playing of games together. It is in the joy of a woman as she knows what grows within. And in the awe of not knowing.

Is this just pathetic words and hopeful imagination, this talk of God coming to us in a child? Is this not a weak and hopeless God? “We can see where you are going with this, Pastor— soon you will say God suffered with the children!”

What is pathetic, and infantile, is the god who rages and petulantly withdraws his protection.

"We have systematically removed God from our schools," Huckabee says.  Really?  Any god who lets himself get pushed around so easily can't be much of a god, and any god who withdraws from the scene to make a culture war point isn't worth worshiping.  Mike Huckabee's is a shallow and magical religion with a petulant and little god. (John Petty)

And such a god is a monster. If it could really stop this kind of thing in the way the religious hucksters of the world imagine, why doesn’t it? Only a monster would not; the sort of god unworthy of worship, and the sort of god which should be resisted.

What is magnificent and inspiring, is that we should find a spirit within us which is more than chemicals and probability; that we should find we are not alone; that we should find that the energising forces which drive us, and lift us up into awareness, can only be described adequately as “Thou,” and as “Love.” And this barely begins to describe that which has embraced us in every part of our being, and which comes to us again and again.

This, too, is the world.

It is this Spirit which cries out through Mary

 ‘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.’

It is this Spirit which hopes for the taming and the healing of all that is uncompleted about us, and our world. This Spirit raises up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. It is the Spirit which tends to those who are devastated by all the killing.

Mary does not make this song up. It is rich with allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, not least the song of Hannah (1 Sam 2).

It is Mary singing the tradition of her forbears. It connects her to them, and to us, as we all recognise the same Spirit of God in our hopes and longings.

- - - 

And so we bury the dead, and weep, or stand numb, as our very being feels shredded with pain beyond what we can comprehend. This is what must be done.

And we can cry out, even rage, at the puny God whose arm has not protected us. Mary will do no less when her son dies on his cross.

But this is the story of a God who stands with us and suffers with us. This is what God plans to do and to be, says Luke. From the beginning. Jesus was “sent” for this. Like Hannah, like Mary, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, all the people who met him found the Spirit of God standing with them. We can join this story, or go another way.

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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