On from Young, 2011

Advent Study: Week 4

The Gospel for Week 4 Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

26 In the sixth month [of Elizabeth's pregnancy] 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.

Responding to the text
What are your emotions after reading this? Boredom, confusion, anger, fear, curiosity….?

Question: What does it mean when readers burst into extended poetry?

The Key Question for Week Four:
How do we read the text?
This reading drags us right back to the nature of interpretation.

One level of interpretation of this text is clear: the birth of Jesus, in Luke's eyes, is a beginning, a sign that already God

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.

We are to interpret Jesus as the fulfilment of God's desire for justice. He is the fulfilment of all Israel's hopes: "He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

The birth announcement is also an example of Midrash similar to that employed at Jesus' baptism. We said near the beginning of this study that

Moses went down to the water of the Red Sea, and the waters parted. Joshua went down to the Jordan, and the waters parted. But when Jesus went down to the Jordan, the heaven was opened! (Luke 3:21)

In the case of Jesus' birth, we could say that Sarah had been old and without children, but God acted to bring to birth in her the "father of many nations." (Genesis 17, 18) Hannah had no children, but God gave her a son who became a great prophet of Israel. (1 Samuel 1) Elizabeth was old and without children, but God gave her a son to "make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:17) Mary, by contrast, is young, is a virgin (the text repeats this three times) and yet is given a son who is to be called "God saves."

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. (Luke 1)

When Mary "sings" the Magnificat it is strongly based around the words of Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2. We are meant to remember Hannah and the other mothers.

If we have any sensitivity to issues of justice, the Magnificat (Latin for Blessed) is an inspiring text.

But how do we read it when the very basis of the text is a virgin birth, which we now know to be a biological impossibility for human beings?

If this week's reading were, in fact, the manual for our dishwasher, we would stop reading. We would not read on to the Magnificat, because the book was clearly in error, and not to be trusted. How do we hold to the hope of the Magnificat in the face of the non sense (in 21st century terms) of the virgin birth?

Question: How do you deal with this tension? (There is no right answer.)

Principles
Where does a biblical story sit among the great stories of humanity? The bible is not unique; it is the universal human story embedded in culture. The great stories— the myths— reflect some of the essence of our humanity. For example, Walter Wink said of the Babylonian creation story that, "its basic mythic structure spread as far as Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany, Ireland, India, and China." 

Wink goes on in that article to say that the Genesis adaptations of that myth are written to contradict its vision of the divine. The Bible sits within, and argues with— 'it riffs upon,' the universal stories.

The Virgin Birth: A Universal Story
The Virgin birth is one of the recurring underlying stories of humanity. Miraculous births are a common place. We have already mentioned Isaac, Samue,l and John the Baptist. We can add 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. It is part of the divine plan for Israel.

Virgin births stories are associated with Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome), Helen of Troy, Oedipus, Alexander the Great, Augustus… 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. What do they 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." (Beyond Literal Belief pp100)

Are we twice-born?
The notion of being twice-born is common in religions. It's seen most clearly in Christianity in John 3: you must be born again. What causes us to see more deeply? What divine miracle makes us aware of the spiritual dimension of life? Where did this 'birth' from clever animal to some-One deeper come from?

Question: In a world which is focussed on the surface of things, which finds its meaning in the consumption of material things, what caused you to see below and within?

Question: What do you hear in Meister Eckhart's sermon?

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)

Mythopoesis: Writing our own story
Mythopoeisis or mythopoeia is a word from the Greek "myth making." Poetry is a making which derives from the same origins. Mythopoeisis is used today as a description of a literary genre where "The authors… integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction." Tolkien's great work, The Lord of the Rings, is a prime example.

But mythopoeis could also be a description of our own discipleship. It is to 'write' our own life story as we listen to the great universal stories of humanity, and, in particular, to the great stories of our Christian faith.

Our society seeks to impose stories upon us. Media overflows with propaganda from those wishing to sell us goods which will (allegedly) provide us with happiness to those wishing sell us a political vision so that we will vote for them? Which vision will you choose… or will you write your own story?

It is naïve to think we can produce a story out of nothing. Those who try always reflect the culture around them, and the great universal stories or myths bubble up into their own story.

Religion provides a tried and tested story. Living the discipline steers us on well-worn and proven paths and warns us of the dangers and pitfalls of life. Our own western culture lives too much in the surface of things and has become unconscious of its stories.

Perhaps in becoming conscious of the stories by which we live, and by "writing and living" our own we open ourselves more fully to the advent of the divine within us.

Theology is mostly fiction......
but then, isn't seeing any of the earth
the telling of a story?

Pilgrim..... what story will you tell?
which tale will be your guide
and your sustenance through long nights
round small fires?

Leave the centre of life's plateau
where evil comes on its own terms.
Go out to the edges and live.
Depart from the prison of insecure certainty....

Leave the lie
Travel across the breaking ice
Seek a God
Make a story.

I was lost in a white waste land.
My fictions dissolved around me
I froze,
Lost on a breaking sheet, thin underfoot.

But I could feel the ice move
and after a time
I could see edges again.

Theology is mostly fiction...
but, I thought,
"Stark on ice perhaps I will be exposed to whatever is.
There will be no hiding behind pastel landscapes;
no safe deceptions."

I want this.
I have always felt the ice moving.

Theology is mostly fiction...
yet it gives me edges
as it dares explore grinding ice. ('Jane Thomas')

Question: What is the story you will tell?

•••

The Seasons of the Year

Advent (Source)
A season of preparation, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, in which the Church recalls its hope and expectation in the coming of Christ, past, present and future. (The colour is violet or purple.)

Christmas: The Christmas-Epiphany season includes Christmas Eve/Day and the twelve days of Christmas. It recalls the stories of the birth and infancy of Christ. The Church in this time celebrates the wonder of the incarnation; the season concludes with Epiphany. (Not to be confused with the Christmas season which begins in the stores in mid to late September and ends on Christmas Day, to be followed by the Boxing Day sales, The New Year's Test and Hot Cross Buns.)

After Epiphany: A period in which the Church reflects on the manifestation of Christ to all people. The Baptism of the Lord is the first Sunday of this period. On the last Sunday, we hear the readings for the Transfiguration of the Lord. The length of this period varies depending on the date of Easter. (People often abbreviate this to Epiphany)

Lent: A season of preparation and discipline that begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes at sundown on Holy Saturday. During the forty weekdays and six Sundays in Lent, the Church remembers the life and ministry of Jesus and renews its commitment to him in Christian discipleship. The season is the traditional time to prepare for baptisms and confirmations to be celebrated at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday, or during the season of Easter.

Easter: The great fifty days of Easter includes eight Sundays beginning with the Easter Vigil and concluding on the Day of Pentecost. The season celebrates the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

After Pentecost: A period of time that varies in length depending on whether Easter is early or late. In this period, the Church recalls its faith in the Holy Trinity. It seeks to relate its faith as a people of God to Christ’s mission in the world. It commences with Trinity Sunday and concludes with the feast of Christ the King. (Often shortened to Pentecost.)

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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