Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent Four: Hope Descendant (Luke 1:36-56)

“What planet are you on?”

This phrase is not necessarily about the question mark at its end. When somebody poses the question to you, they mean to say something to you more than ask. Such a question might come when you’ve said something that the other person finds a bit misguided, off the beaten path or not really tethered to reality.

“What planet are you on?” can be said in jest. More likely, the question can be thrown at you in the heat of the moment while arguing differing views. Indeed, if you have it said to you, there’s a good chance the other person has heard something that they simply cannot believe in.

Belief….It’s part of the challenge of being a religious person, yet for some, it’s a matter of absolutism (all in or faith loses all worth). A fundamentalist is quite comfortable on this side of things. For others, the experiences of life bring doubt where one has to choose whether or not to honor the questions that disturb or disrupt our trust and ardor. Here, we will find the majority of believers, sorting out where faith and life intersect, diverge and sometimes conflict deeply.

I honor when doubt enters into a situation, as it strengthens a faith able to navigate the world’s uncertainties. Doubt asks us to consider carefully how faith is a matter of the heart and mind and how we can shortchange ourselves by not wrestling with the questions and refraining from letting life in the real world be seen with honest eyes, not obscured with your head in the clouds.

How one navigates the heights and depths of faith may be a different experience for you and me in small and great ways alike. Each of us encounters hardship and triumph, uncertainty and certainty at a different pace and differing circumstances. Nonetheless, a faith that insists on seeing only in part keeps us from living faithfully while we live out our days in the present and wait faithfully God’s promised future for the old to pass away for the New Creation promised to us.

Unfortunately, too often Christianity has wrestled with visions more about “the End” or not engaging as thoughtfully the present day challenges, implying that the world somehow has a disposable shelf life that does not matter in the end. After all, we live in an era where humanity can wreak havoc indeed on a global scale. With nuclear weapons and a world of natural resources overtaxed by unchecked (and particularly American) consumptive habits, we are at a point where we cannot stop thinking about consequences.

We can wreak much havoc on the fragile web of life and humanity. We should not dismiss the responsibility that comes in such an era, though it seems we live otherwise more often. How can a word worth following ask us to take leave of the world and stop addressing the much more pressing questions of our daily existence, where so many are without basic human needs being met. How can faith become so disconnected with “pie in the sky” futures that no Christian engagement happens with the matters of food insecure households, who are often also the ones struggling to have adequate heat, shelter and healthcare access?

With Mary, we are invited to sing these words of faith as well. Indeed, you could say that the beginnings of faith can be in learning this song and letting its power move within us. We hear her song as a spiritual and a protest song all mixed into one. It has that same edge as an old song from Bob Dylan called “A Song for Woody”. Dylan was deeply influenced by singer Woody Guthrie, whose music spoke to the deep pain of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era as surely as Dylan’s songs engaged the tumultuous 1960s:

Hey hey Woody Guthrie I wrote you a song
About a funny old world that's coming along
Seems sick and it's hungry, it's tired and it's torn
It looks like it's dying and it's hardly been born.

So arises the Song of Mary in the midst of difficult times and economic disparities. Mary lives in the midst of a country under outsider rule (the Roman Empire) with its economic disparities (only a select few owned land and had the majority of ancient Palestine’s assets while most lived at or below subsistence level) and social and religious differences (only men determined by rigorous standards to be without health or religious defect had the most standing in society and at Temple). Here a peasant woman whose pregnancy is suspect and likely to be a shameful matter for her household is belting out a song about how “everything’s gonna be all right”.

Does such a text inspire faith or fuel skepticism? Is this a text to believe in or a bit of the Bible that we should appreciate yet not count on as a vision able to come to full fruitfulness?

Does the song of Mary (often referred to as “the Magnificat”) too up in the clouds or really talking about the world we live in? What planet is the gospel on when it offers such a teaching as this one?

In the face of a world inattentive and unjust, and in spite of religious faith sometimes distanced from reality in favor of a narcissism religious fervor, Mary’s Song as told by Luke’s gospel is a word of challenge passed down the generations of those who read and seek to live out the gospel’s message. Mary imagines a world that is unlike the world she knows best, yet her faithful “Yes” to God in bearing the Christ child is not a mere song and dance routine. We are given a great word that summons us to lean forward into the world being reimagined and reprioritized by Jesus’ message, made known through his teachings, parables, healings and miracles.

In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Mary’s canticle praises God for the kind of salvation that involves concrete transformations.” Johnson challenges centuries of historic and hagiographic interpretations of Mary by drawing us closer to Mary in her historical context: a peasant woman living in the margins of society in whom God entrusts bearing the very Hope of the world. Mary’s song becomes the voice of the otherwise voiceless, proclaiming God’s just blessing for all while declaiming the “powers that be” that perpetuate an unjust world. Johnson claims,
People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope that Mary proclaims. (Truly Our Sister, p. 269)
Such words just before Christmas ask us to be mindful of what this holiday is all about. It’s not the tree and the merriment (though they are delightful traditions). We are coming to Christmas Eve not necessarily for the Christmas carols we can sing without opening the hymnal. We come to reaffirm our faith in Jesus, the son of Mary whose birth is part of the greater story of his life, death and resurrection. From this faith, we hear the good word rising up to encourage those who despair and those who hunger, those who have no welcome and those who yearn for even a taste of God’s good and just world that is surely coming. And in hearing this good news, we dare further to let it transform how we live out the faith of Christ, born in lowly circumstance and yet the One who rules in ways that the world has yet to match with all its vast empires and aspiring potentates.

I recall the creed (the statement of faith and belief) offered by the Christians among the Massai, a tribal group from East Africa. These Christians live a life where they just keep moving along, nomads who have no fixed abode and keep their existence frugal without much need for establishing dwellings or urbanizing.

As some of the Massai people practice Christianity, a creedal statement arose among them in the 1960s. In turn, the creed became much admired among many Christians around the globe as a statement blending the Massai’s life with their faith in the gospel way of Jesus Christ. They confess:
We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari, doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together

in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.


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