Day Twenty-Six of An Advent Calendar: Visitation & Magnificat

Thursday, December 22, 2016     Thursday after the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 29.13–24
Revelation 21.22—22.5
Luke 1.39–48a, (and Luke 1.48b–56, if desired)
The text of the readings follows after the comments.

tidings

“Tidings” (1973) by Romare Bearden (1911-1988), Seattle Art Museum

Continuing to read from Luke, we go with Mary from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth, her relative, and to stay with her and Zechariah for three months. When Mary arrives the unborn John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb, somehow knowing that the future Messiah was being carried by Mary. The late Raymond Brown titled a little book on the infancy narratives “An Adult Christ at Christmas“, which suggests that whatever we read about Jesus in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke are really not about Jesus as an infant, but about his life as an adult. If we read these stories literally we will miss the rhetoric that propels the readers away from little baby Jesus to the adult crucified on the cross. In this case the reaction of the fetal Baptist previews the reaction he will have when Jesus comes to him at the River Jordan.

Mary, inspired by the Holy Spirit, proclaims praise to God in the parallelism so well known to us from the psalms and other Hebrew poetry. Just as the the movement of the unborn John presages his meeting with Jesus, so the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, indicates the future, adult Jesus. In the Anglican Church many of us know this piece as one of the two canticles sung at Evensong. And so often I think we miss the expectation of radical justice that is within these words.I know that as a teenage chorister singing Stanford in C I had only a dim appreciation of what I was singing – no one had ever bothered to explain it to me or any of the other choristers. Yet even in the words of the Book of Common Prayer (1549 words still) their subversive nature rings out:

He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

These words echo the prophet Isaiah seven centuries earlier, as we read in today’s passage:

the meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off.

Whether from Mary or from Isaiah, this is not good news for the rich and powerful, the arrogant and oppressive, it is judgment upon them. And while Mary sings of these things as having already happened (for you Greek fans, the verb form is an aorist), she is describing something that is really going to happen in the future. Arguably, it is yet to happen – there is still gross inequality, the rich still exploit creation and disregard the poor, and humility is regarded as a minor virtue. It is what the prophets looked for in the coming of the Messiah, and what the early Christians expected with the Second Coming of Jesus as the Son of Man.

And yet, in a sense, in the Incarnation, even in the pregnancy of Mary, the victory had already been won. Just as Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s transformative renewing of the world, so is his incarnation. Like Revelation, time here is ambiguous, and the Magnificat describes God’s justice as something that has happened, is happening, and is going to happen. Will we allow ourselves to be swept up in this mystery?

One of the most beautiful settings that catches the mysterious nature of this is Arvo Pärt’s from 1989. I have loved singing it, and if you haven’t heard it, have a listen to the Erebus Ensemble’s rendition.

Isaiah 29.13–24
The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
and honour me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
so I will again do
amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
‘He did not make me’;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
‘He has no understanding’?

Shall not Lebanon in a very little while
become a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?
On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:
No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,
no longer shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
the work of my hands, in his midst,
they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
and those who grumble will accept instruction.

Revelation 21.22—22.5
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

Luke 1.39–48a (1.48b–56)
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
(for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.)

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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