Sunday, December 10, 2017

Mary's Advent Visit with Elizabeth

from United Methodist Memes on Facebook
Here are Advent thoughts that I've shared before. In our lesson today from Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:26-56), Gabriel visits Mary and announces that she would be mother of "the Son of the Most High" (vss. 26-38). The text continues that "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" (vss. 39-40).

To paraphrase that On the Town song "New York New York," Nazareth is up and Judea is down--quite a way down, over eighty miles. One wonders if Mary traveled with a caravan or by herself. A map that I found online shows a possible route from Nazareth over to the River Jordan, then down the river banks to the Jericho area, then over to Jerusalem which is just north of the Judean hill country.

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.’ (vss. 41-45).

Several things we can gain from this story, including the lovely words of the Ave Maria, Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” When I wrote about this passage elsewhere on this blog, I wrote about Elizabeth's gift of the Spirit. In those days before the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered only certain people to prophesy, and when Elizabeth heard Mary coming, she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 41). By the Spirit’s power, Elizabeth preached the Gospel of Jesus before his birth! She recognized Mary as Jesus’ blessed mother. She interpreted her own physical discomfort as God’s sign.

In other words, Elizabeth was a prophet, in a long line of Hebrew prophets which, most believed, had ended centuries before. One wonders: if the Spirit came to a person who previously had been perceived as disfavored by God (as childlessness was then believed to be), doesn’t the Spirit now comes to all kinds of persons, whether favored or disfavored in society? What might the Spirit be up to in our present, distressing world that might startle us and give us hope?

Our lesson also includes the famous Magnificat, set to music by so many composers, when Mary herself preached the Good News.

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 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."

Our pastor preached on this passage today, and she noted how many echoes we find between the Magnificat, and Jesus' teaching when he visited the synagogue in Luke 4.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Landscape: Guzhavin

Mikhail Markelovich Guzhavin (1888=1931), "Wild Flowers in a Field" (1927).  From Twitter: History of Painting‏ @AHistoryofPaint Dec 1

First Sunday of Advent

On the Christian calendars, today is the first Sunday of the Advent season, the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and also the first day of the liturgical year. Advent, in turn is the Western Christian season of waiting for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus and anticipation of his future return.

Traditionally viewed, Advent is a time of longing for Christ. We symbolically anticipate his birth but look toward his second coming. Then at Christmastide, we celebrate and honor his birth as well as the revelation of his divinity (Epiphany, or Theophany in the eastern churches).

But in actuality, we expend our celebratory energies during Advent, culminating in the multiple Christmas Eve services. Afterward, many of us begin to take down and box up our holiday decorations, and many pastors (at least in my own circles) take well-deserved time-off during some portion of Christmastide. Right in the middle of Christmastide are New Years Eve/Day, a pair of secular holidays mixing festivities with resolutions for self-improvement.

Rather than feeling guilty about the way we observe Christ's birth, I wonder if we should simply recognize that our holidays have evolved to this point. Advent and Christmas are, already, a complex assortment of traditions: Christian, non-Christian religious, and secular/economic. The Christian liturgical year begins on the first Sunday of Advent with the anticipation of a big, festive season, and then we can move into our new year with a fresh sense of Christ, even if we're a little tired  and let-down for a while.

This prayer from St. Anselm’s Proslogion reflects the "seeking" quality of the Advent season.

"Insignificant [person], escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him.

"Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: I seek your face; your face, Lord, I desire.

"Lord, my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to find you. Lord, if you are not here where shall I look for you in your absence? Yet if you are everywhere, why do I not see you when you are present? But surely you dwell in ‘light inaccessible.’ And where is light inaccessible? How shall I approach light inaccessible? Or who will lead me and bring me into it that I may see you there? And the, by what signs and under what forms shall I seek you? I have never seen you, Lord my God; I do not know your face.

"Lord most high, what shall this exile do, so far from you? What shall your servant do, tormented by love of you and cast so far from your face? He yearns to see you, and your face is too far form him. He desires to approach you, and your dwelling in unapproachable. He longs to find you, and does not know your dwelling place. He strives to look for you, and does not know your face.

"Lord, you are my God and you are my Lord, and I have never seen you. You have made me and remade me, and you have given me all the good things I possess, and still I do not know you. I was made in order to see you, and I have not yet done that for which I was made.

"Lord, how long will it be? How long, Lord, will you forget us? How long will you turn your face away from us? When will you look upon us and hear us? When will you enlighten our eyes and show us your face? When will you give yourself back to us?

"Look upon us, Lord, and hear us and enlighten us, show us your very self. Restore yourself to us that it may go well with us whose life is so evil without you. Take pity on our efforts and our striving toward you, for we have no strength apart from you.

"Teach me to seek you, and when I seek you show yourself to me, for I cannot seek you unless you teach me, nor can I find you unless you show yourself to me. Let me seek you in desiring you and desire you in seeking you, find you in loving you and love you in finding you."

From The Liturgy of the Hours: I, Advent Season, Christmas Season (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1975), 184-185.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ghost Signs: Vandalia, Illinois

Bible in a Year: Returning in 2018

This calendar year, I’ve been reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Lord willing, this project will continue a little past the calendar year, into Lent 2018. I've been interested in discovering ways that the New Testament continues and connects to the Old Testament (which was the subject of my Lenten devotional published a couple years ago)--and in discovering points of rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism. But to help me with those goals, I purchased eight or nine wonderful books at the recent Society of Biblical Literature meeting, and now I need a few weeks to study them properly. Rather than rush things just to fit the project into 2017, I'll be back with these notes at the end of December or the first of January.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bible in a Year: Luke

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying Luke. Luke is likely the only Gentile author among the New Testament writers. He wrote this book and Acts to someone named Theophilus (“lover of God”) in order to provide an account of Jesus’ life  and of the early church. But is Theophilus a particular person, or anyone who loves God?

As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. Unfortunately, we do not know what sources Luke used for the first fifteen chapters of Acts (that is, up to the point where Luke himself subtly and personally joins the story).

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

While Matthew gives us the Wise Men and Herod’s murderous rage and the flight to Egypt, Luke gives us “the rest” of the Christmas story: the stories of John the Baptist and his family, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the journey to Bethlehem and the manger, the shepherds, the angels.  We also have Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple, and the praise of Simeon and Anna. The only canonical story from Jesus’ growing-up years is found in Luke: the accidental abandonment at the Temple. Thankfully we have a positive story of the Jewish teachers at the Temple: not only did they enjoy his company but they also must have fed him and tucked him into bed at night for three days. Luke genealogy is different from Matthew’s.

There are several passages—-some of them quite beloved—that are unique to Luke’s gospel: Jesus’ first rejection at Nazareth, the stories of Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, the widow’s son, the Walk to Emmaus, the brief story of the widow and her small contribution, the saying about the narrow door, and also the parables of the rich fool, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the friend at midnight, the Pharisee and the tax collector in contrasting prayer, and others. Little wonder that Luke is a favorite among the gospels for many people, including myself. While in Dublin several years ago, I purchased a pewter goblet featuring Luke's symbol, the ox.

Here is a good outline of Luke’s gospel: In his book The Writings of the New Testament, Luke Johnson points out that Luke together with Acts occupied about a fourth of the entire New Testament in terms of chapters—though the writing style is not verbose and is a high quality Greek.

Analogous to 1 Chronicles, Luke-Acts actually begins with Adam (in the genealogy of Jesus) and through the abbreviation of genealogy gives us a vision from the beginning of biblical history to Luke’s own time, when the apostle Paul was still alive and preaching. The narrative itself covers about sixty years.

Luke’s gospel lacks the darkness and irony of Mark and also the xenophobia of Matthew (Johnson, p. 202). The Romans and other Gentiles are not portrayed so negatively, and neither are Jews (although the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes are, as usual, criticized by Jesus). Luke’s gospel seems to depict Christians as no political threat to Rome, and to depict Jesus’ life, teachings, suffering, and death as part of Israel’s history and consistent with the Hebrew scriptures (Johnson, pp. 202-203). But Luke-Acts also offer to Jewish contemporaries a chance to follow Jesus, and when many do not, Gentiles acceptably become part of the new community.

In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush points out that Luke’s theology of the fulfillment of scripture (and Matthew’s, too) has given Gentile Christians assurance of being part of God’s promises to Israel—and, in fact, the authentic kind of Judaism, to the exclusion of the broader community of Jews. Again, we are dealing with Christianity not as a major religion that looks disdainfully at its parent religion, but as a tiny sect that considers itself still Jewish and compares itself to other Jews. In her interest in showing how early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism went their separate ways, Galambush notes Luke’s gospel has been a popular source of religious validation for Gentile Christians, as well as for messianic Jewish movements (which, she points out, are not considered religiously Jewish by the larger Jewish community) (pp. 90-91).

One characteristic of Luke’s gospel is his concern for the poor (see, for instance, 6:3-4, 6:20-25, 16:22, 18:22, 21:1-3). In my study book, What’s in the Bible about Life Together? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), I reflected on Luke 6:20-25:

“If you feel disdain for poor people, avoid Luke’s Gospel. one of Luke’s themes is the blessedness of the poor, to just ‘the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3). The gospel is good news preached to the poor (Luke 1:52-53; 4:1-19)… God has special love for the por. When the kingdom of God comes, the poor will be redeemed, given pride and joy. The hungry will have food; the sorrowful will find happiness.

“What about the rich? According to Jesus, the tables will turn on them in the Kingdom if wealth is at the center of their lives and concern or the poor is lacking… A lack of money is a terrible source of heartache and worry… It’s tough to hang on to God’s promises when you’re choosing between paying for your medicine and buying food or when you made a financial decision that seemed sensible but now is failing. An abundance of money is a source of heartache, too, because in times of prosperity, we still worry… (p. 39). Luke gives those of us who are financially better-off to consider our uses of money and the devotions of our hearts.

(I'll return to these informal studies in a few weeks, after I delve into several books of Bible scholarship that I purchased this week at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.)