Monday, December 21, 2015

Mercy, Joy, Hope

Our readings today remind us of the importance of Mary the God-bearer in the unfolding of salvation history.  This “lowly servant” from Bethlehem, “one of the little clans of Judah,” expresses in her person and in her song the central thematic arc of Scripture: God will be faithful to God’s promise to bring the creation to its fulfillment.  She consents to participate in the realization of this promise, and in so doing she brings new life into the world.  This new life fills her – and all who are willing to receive Jesus – with joy.

What is striking to me about Mary is her very ordinariness.  She is a young peasant girl from the backwater of the Roman Empire.  There is nothing in her pedigree or social location that would single her out as remarkable or especially suited to bringing God’s promise to life.  Yet, her very ordinariness is the marker of continuity between her and the previous history of salvation. 

God always seems to work in unexpected ways.  King David also came from the little clan of Judah, and was the youngest and smallest of his brothers.  Israel itself was constituted by runaway slaves – Hebrews who fled Egypt – and was a tiny, inconsequential nation continually buffeted and absorbed by larger imperial powers:  Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman.  God chooses what is ordinary in this world to give expression to God’s power.   That power is love and it takes the form of justice.  And so it is the little ones, the victims of coercive violence, the expendable people, who realize God’s promise through nonviolent, creative responses to injustice.  It is those who serve life in the midst of death who show us the face of God. 

So it is with Mary, and with Elizabeth.  Their relationship is a microcosm of the kingdom of God coming with power into the world of oppression and death.  Luke is careful in his narrative to remind us that the new life these women are bearing will be born in the context of a cruel empire, an occupying power.  He is very intentionally drawing our attention away from the centers of command and control, from the “deciders,” the purveyors of death and destruction, so that we might focus instead on the place where life truly is nurtured. 

Luke is reminding us where the signs of God’s presence are found: Not in imperial palaces; not in legions conquering foreign lands with shock and awe; not in coliseums where violent spectacles pacify the masses and glorify the wealth of the patrons who sponsor them.  God’s presence is found in the bodies of ordinary women: one barely old enough even to bear children, the other already considered old in her late twenties.  God’s presence is found in their willingness to risk the struggle to give birth in a world where death is easy and life is cheap.  God’s presence is found in their understanding of their own value, and their indefatigable hope for their children, and for the world. It is here, through them, that God is coming into the world with power.

That power is merciful, it is joyful, and it is hopeful.  It is interesting that in her distress as an unmarried girl with an unplanned pregnancy, Mary hurries to her cousin, Elizabeth: not to Joseph and not to her parents; but to the one person who will embrace her with mercy rather than judgment, to one who will sympathize with her situation and affirm that God is at work in it.  Mary turns to Elizabeth, because she sees the life Mary carries as God’s gift rather than a source of shame.  Here, God’s power already is at work in this simple act of mercy.

Notice, too, that there is no rivalry between these women.  Elizabeth might have resented Mary’s intrusion into her celebration of a pregnancy she had long desired and thought she would never enjoy.  She might have seen Mary as trying to one-up her, to throw her youthful fecundity into the face of Elizabeth’s belated fruitfulness, to steal her thunder.  There is something very powerful in the simple act of taking joy in another’s good fortune, not to mention the power in affirming the good in what others might see as bad or, at the very least, ambiguous.  Elizabeth doesn’t just offer mercy; she rejoices with Mary!  She is filled with the Holy Spirit!  God’s power is manifest in joy.

This is the joy of Miriam leading the people of Israel in the dancing after they escaped from Pharoah’s army.  It is the joy of Hannah who sang praises to God when her own barrenness gave way to the birth of Samuel.  It is the joy of David who danced with wild abandon – naked, no less – before the Ark of the Covenant!   
God’s power is manifest not only as mercy, condescending to offer favor from on high as from a distance; but also as joy, in the intimacy of one who had come close to us and delights in us, who overshadows us with the Holy Spirit.

And so Mary can not help but burst into song herself.  Her song is a song of hope.  Just as Mary has experienced God’s power as a merciful and joyful Presence, without and trace of rivalry or resentment, so she sings of the hope for a world in which the rivalry and resentment between oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor, majority culture and minority culture, will be no more.  The rivalry which leads to domination and death will give way to the promise of abundant life.   Mary is able to sing of hope, because she trusts that her experience of God, coming into the world with power in her own life, in her own body, in mercy and joy, desires that same mercy and joy for the whole world. 

We are all God-bearers in this season of Advent.  God is coming with power in our own lives, our own bodies.  Coming to those of us who are ordinary.  Coming to those of us whose lives have been barren.  Coming to us in our poverty, our hunger, and even in our humiliation.  Coming, so it may seem, either too soon or much later than we wished, but coming nevertheless.   And when God comes, we will discover infinite mercy.  Joy unspeakable.  And hope for the world. 

From Mary's sweet silence
Come, Word mutely spoken!
Pledge of our real life,
Come, Bread yet unbroken!
Seed of the Golden Wheat,
In us be sown.
Fullness of true Light,
Through us be known.
Secret held tenderly,
Guarded with Love,
Cradled in purity,
Child of the Dove,
-       Advent Antiphons - Sr. M. Charlita, I.H.M.

No comments: