thinking theology

Archive for December, 2015

A Woman Not So Sweet

The veneration and interest in Mary has varied from denomination to denomination, but her role continues to perplex and intrigue us. In islam, there is a more detailed reference to Mary in the Quran than we have in our canonical gospels. The antiphons to Mary have been chanted since the 13th century in Christianity. They contain ideas that we are in the process of amending, but they are a link to the humble faith and trust in Mary of earlier generations. Here are three of the four in a somewhat revised form:

Loving mother of the Redeemer, that passage to heaven,
gate of the morning, and star of the sea, assist the fallen, you who cure, lift up the people:
you who bore to the wonderment of nature, your holy Creator,
Virgin before and after, who received from Gabriel
that joyful greeting, have mercy on us sinners.

Hail, Queen of the heavens, hail, Lady of the angels,
hail, root of Jesse, hail gate of heaven, from whom light has come into the world.
Rejoice, Virgin most glorious,
Above all most beautiful; hail, O most highly honoured, and entreat Christ for us.

Hail, Queen, mother of mercies, life, sweetness, and our hope, hail,
To you do we cry, exiled children of Eden.
To you do we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Be therefore, our advocate; Turn your merciful eyes to us.
And after this exile, show to us Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb,
O clement, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary.

I have been reflecting on what it means “to magnify” the Holy One. When we magnify anything, we not only enlarge it; we also are able to see details that we would have missed. On the other hand, if we look too closely, there will be some interesting blurring of the edges.

Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for how we think about the mother of Jesus, who was not necessarily young, or poor. In fact, the rewritten song of Hannah that Luke has Mary declaim, would indicate a person of learning, of strength and of vision. Mary is not being rescued by God in any sense. Nor does she sound like a victim. Rather, she sees a role for herself in nurturing and bringing to birth a renewed hope for justice in the world.

When asked about the divinity of Jesus, Marcus Borg replied that Jesus’ divinity was no different than the spirit that abides in all of us, except as he realized and lived it. John Dominic Crossan said that to speak of the divinity of Jesus is to imagine how God would look as a human being.

But it is about Mary we are speaking and it is Mary who magnifies the Lord. I think that what we have had an intuition about all along is the way in which Mary represents how everyone can respond to the call for a peaceful, healthy, responsible society. Mary magnifies the yearning of the Holy One for just action, compassionate regard for others, for lives that have meaning and are recognized as worthy. It is Mary who mothers Jesus, nurturing him, scolding him, supporting him even through the final struggle.

While we are constantly encouraged to be more Christ-like, that may be a goal achievable only in community. Whereas Mary’s radical yes may be a response that all Christians can fulfill in the details of our lives. We don’t have to be saviours, or stars or world leaders. But we can all say yes to being inclusive, tolerant. We can all say yes to the empowerment of the poor. We can all choose the path of compassion and peace. And so Mary magnifies the true natural order, a world in which we no longer need to be conquerors, but dreamers, healers, lovers. We can live lives in which details are important, whether it is the extra bag for the food bank or the understanding smile for the harassed salesperson.

We can all say yes, albeit in a shaky voice sometimes, when we are determined to weather the struggles of life, knowing that our suffering unites us with the experience of every human being, including the mother of Jesus. And there is the blurring that enfolds us in community, the love that sees holiness everywhere, and humanity beyond stereotypes or judgement.

In the details there is a star, and in the blurring, the galaxies lighting up the universe. Each of us in particular, brilliant in our own way; brilliant also when we are caught up in a slowly spinning cosmos, powered by love and engineered in mystery.


You Brood of Vipers

You might wonder after reading Luke 3:7-18, what good news John the Baptist has for people now and even then. We have become accustomed to hearing this passage as God hurling fire and brimstone, but that is not true to the text. In fact, John does not say what wrath is coming. although he would have heard mutterings of insurrection often. Luke’s narrative was written after both the uprising in and then the destruction of Jerusalem so the writer would have known precisely what wrath was coming. It was the wrath of Rome, a nation that demanded silent obedience and unswerving loyalty to its ideals.

The first interesting idea in this narrative is John’s notion of call. It is a commonplace to say that the people of Israel understood themselves as chosen, but the prophets saw that as conditional upon adherence to a communal code of ethics, not rules precisely, but a spirit of justice and kindness and honesty. So lineage alone would not save the people. It is a return to the essential understanding of the relationship with God that is required; then God will fill everyone with the ruach ha-kodesh, the holy spirit.

The first step in reconciliation is an acknowledgment that the community has forgotten its origins and values. Simple ritual purity is not enough and might even delude people into thinking that their lives were in control. Repentance, that is open awareness of reality is the first step; then ritual cleansing. Since most people were not wealthy enough to have their own mikveh, a ritual bath in running water, they came to John, who was waiting for them in the river, before entering the Temple.

That was not the end of the requirement that John set before them, however. Restitution depended on means and circumstance. The more affluent were challenged to share their assets with the poor, tax collectors wee discouraged from exploiting their position. Soldiers, probably conscripts, were told to minimize the damage that might be required of them.

And finally, what we have learned to hear with dread, the image of God’s winnowing fork, a pitchfork for tossing wheat until only the grain remains and the dust from it is blown away. or burned to throw on the fields as fertilizer . This is not about winnowing people, but about systems, governments, authority. It is about how the ruach ha kodesh, the holy spirit, will stir up the courage of people to bring about a new way of life. It is about reclaiming freedom from servitude and returning to the community of justice and mutual support.

The internet has provided people with a new tool for effecting change. At its best, sites encourage people to actively voice a call for change, for mercy, for justice, or for action. In our time, there is no excuse not to because at the very least, we can press a key that sends out affirmation or challenge. At the very least, the rights of others can be supported from our armchairs.

The angel says to Mary and to all of us, Don’t be afraid and that’s good advice. There will be chaos and upheaval whenever orderliness masks corruption or oppression. We will be challenged to think more compassionately, to act more generously, to put aside our own ideas so that we can learn new ones. And sometimes it might feel like we are being tossed, but it is how learning happens. You can always tell when you are on the edge of a big discovery about yourself or something else, because it pinches you in places where you thought you were comfortable.

Change will come and it might feel like wrath or it may feel like freedom. To some extent we choose how we experience the coming storm.