Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Prophecy Of St. Mary

From Luke 1:
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 leaped 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 leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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 forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
While the declaration of Elizabeth - "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus" - has become part of the devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church, the Magnificat of St. Mary enjoys far broader acclaim. It is a part of our Advent celebrations, a way of declaring our hope for the life of the baby Mary currently carries within her, and the promise of God's reign and what it portends for all the earth.

Except, read with even more than passing care, most people notice that Mary is speaking in the present tense. Her declaration is not that God will do all these things - feed the hungry, displace the powerful, raise up the lowly. God, she declares, is doing these things.

How should we react to a declaration such as this? Most anyone looking around will notice the proud aren't scattered, the rich aren't sent away empty, and the powerful are still seated on thrones pretty much everywhere.

The Church has dealt with this mystery, conundrum, or even fanciful nonsense (depending on one's point of view) in a variety of ways. It has been spiritualized, stripping the statement of its prophetic power, decontextualizing it. More often in recent decades it has been read eschatologically and incarnationally; in the birth of Jesus we have these new realities coming about. Which, one would think, begs as many questions as it answers.

I do think it necessary to keep the spiritual and eschatological dimensions in mind, as part of the whole. Insisting on only one level of meaning to any Biblical passage renders it inert, a lifeless thing that drains it of power. It is a bit of a blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, I would think, because it substitutes whatever fleeting concerns any particular interpreter (including the present one!) has for the deeper, life-giving, life-affirming power that is within the passage itself. Instead of listening to the text, we are telling it what we want it to say. Not a good thing at all.

Which is why I would suggest that there is a way we can take this ambiguity at the heart of the text - a declaration of present Divine acts that don't seem to be happening at all - and use it as a judgment upon the Church. We are the body of this Christ whom Mary carries in her womb. We are the hands, the feet, the very mouth that, in the power of the Holy Spirit, speaks the Word of Truth and Life to a world weaned on death and lies. If we read the Magnificat and declare it anything other than an expression of how we, the Church, are to live in this world, then we are not being the Church, we are not living out this prophetic call of St. Mary to the Church and world from the other side of the Incarnation.

The list of present realities Mary declares are, I am suggesting, the ways we Christians are to see and move and speak and live in the world. We are to live so that the hungry are fed. We are to live so that the proud are scattered. We are to live so that the mighty are cast from their thrones. These are Kingdom realities, the reality Christ has come to inaugurate in his person and passion and resurrection. Part of expressing our faith in Christ is ordering our lives so that these proclamations are our realities; these declarations are the world in which we live. Prophecies are not a statement about some future time. It is always a statement about what God is doing, here and now. Expressing our faith in the baby Mary will birth includes living these realities, together.

It takes new eyes, to be sure. It takes hearts no longer wedded to the hope and promise of power, or gold, or favor. It takes lives ordered by God's Law of Love and forgiveness, wrath expressed in grace, judgment expressed by the bleeding, dying Son of Man on the cross outside the city gates. The whole Gospel is proclaimed here, and Mary is to be thanked and honored as a prophet of God not only for bearing the Son of God within her frail, teenage body; she is to be remembered for declaring for all the world to hear who this God is whom her Son will call Father, and what a world, ordered by this God, looks like and in which we are to live.

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