Wednesday, December 21, 2016 Wednesday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
This morning at 2:44 am PST we have had the winter solstice, which is when the sun reaches its most southerly extreme relative to the celestial equator. In practical terms in the northern hemisphere this makes for the shortest day of the year, and marks the beginning of the astronomical winter, although with recent snowfalls it is clear we are well into the meterological season of winter.
In terms of the gospel reading it is not December 21, but March 25, as we have Luke’s account of the Annunciation. Since we celebrate Jesus’s birth on December 25, we celebrate his conception nine month’s earlier, on March 25, when Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” As the English Language Liturgical Consultation version of the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary”. In the lead up to Christmas we read our way through Luke’s infancy narrative in chapters 1 and 2, and today we get this story.
Some people have great problems with this passage. The late radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly, who taught at the Jesuit affiliated Boston College, argued that “In the Annunciation the male-angel Gabriel brings poor Mary the news that she is to be impregnated by and with god. Like all rape victims in male myth she submits joyously to this unspeakable degradation” Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, p. 74). In less extreme language others have also described issues with the passage. My own thoughts are that this is not a rape fantasy, but that the issues raised by scholars like Daly are less to do with how Mary is actually portrayed in the gospel and more with what later generations did with the passage, making it a justification for the exaltation of virginity, and the stereo-typing of Mary as meek, submissive to patriarchy, and quite unlike ordinary humans.
If we stick to the text and the portrayal of Mary in Luke and the other gospels we find someone who is faithful but who ponders these things “in her heart”. I like the picture above of a young woman who is dealing with the imponderables of pregnancy and where it will lead. As a male I cannot and will never know what this is like, but I have watched the wonder of expectation and birth, which is at once so ordinary and so wondrous. You never get the children you expect, and the signs and portents which Mary received only multiplied this reality.
In the end what we have is not someone who is submissive but who cooperates with the divine. To suggest that this is submission in an oppressive sense is to miss the creative and re-creative aspect of the Incarnation in which, to use yesterday’s words from Revelation, “All things are being made new.” Amongst those things are the relations between male and female, perhaps seeing it less as essentialized binary opposites as continuums on both the biological and sociological levels. The Incarnation is not abour reinstating what already is in the broken, fragile world, but it is about redeeming and renewing it through metanoia (a transformation of the mind) and living in the New Jerusalem. Inasmuch as Christ lives in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have entered into the role of Mary.
‘Whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.’
Truly, with stammering lip
and with alien tongue
he will speak to this people,
to whom he has said,
‘This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose’;
yet they would not hear.
Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them,
‘Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little’;
in order that they may go, and fall backwards,
and be broken, and snared, and taken.
Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter’;
therefore thus says the Lord God,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
‘One who trusts will not panic.’
And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
you will be beaten down by it.
As often as it passes through, it will take you;
for morning by morning it will pass through,
by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.
For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it,
and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.
For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim,
he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon
to do his deed—strange is his deed!—
and to work his work—alien is his work!
Now therefore do not scoff,
or your bonds will be made stronger;
for I have heard a decree of destruction
from the Lord God of hosts upon the whole land.
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred and forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The 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. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then 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.