Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sounds Of The Season

From the silly

To the traditional

To the Baroque

To the brand new

Whatever fills your heart with joy, whatever sound helps lift you up from the humdrum to the heavenly, may you allow music to accompany over the next few days as you enjoy family and good food and friends. May you also remember a tiny baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, that most unlikely sign of the arrival of the Blessed Son of God.

Merry Christmas to all and each of you, to those you love. May you find peace and happiness and most of all patience in the upcoming year.

Friday, December 23, 2011


I know it's two days before Christmas and I should be sucking down eggnog and going through my wife's sugar cookies faster than she and the girls can bake them, but I've decided to buck the holiday trend - how many times can I tell the same story before I want to kill myself? - and write about something that has troubles me for quite a while. Our political class, as many have noted, haven't seemed to outgrow high school. Of course, our pundits aren't much better, treating the campaign for the Presidency as a run for Student Council, only less interesting and certainly less important. The recent spate of politicians, in particular in the Republican Party, act as if they either never got over high school, or are exacting revenge on those who troubled them so in their years of acne and decadence.

While the rest of us were growing up, going to college, getting jobs, getting married, these folks never - quite - left the hallowed halls strewn with the books knocked from the hands of the nerdy kids. The echoes from the gymnasium keep them up at night. If they sleep, some awake in flop sweat from a nightmare that features the voice of their gym coach screeching, "Dodgeball!!"

Sarah Palin, for instance, we were told, was the star of her high school girl's basketball team. She was called "The Barracuda" which, I believe, had little to do with her skills on the roundball court. After all, when was the last time you saw a barracuda do the perfect fade-away 3-point jump shot? I'm guess the nickname had more to do with what was, in all likelihood, her being one of the small coven of girls who control the social life of most middle class high schools. Being referred to as "Barracuda" - a large, nasty, aggressive, predatory fish, a kind of salt-water relative of the Wall-Eye - would not be something most people would carry with them in later life, indicating, as it should, a streak of nastiness and even viciousness that is hardly belied by one's physical assets. Yet, wear the moniker proudly, ex-sorta-Gov. Palin certainly has. Which, it would seem, is all we really need to know, isn't it?

Remember that annoying kid all the older kids detested, and occasionally punched in the face, because he was always showing off how much he knew, usually quoting Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven? Well, that annoying kid is still quoting Isaac Asimoc and Larry Niven, and really, really needs to get punched in the face, but damn! He gets laid a whole lot more than folks who aren't nearly as annoying! Somehow, he managed to con enough people that he actually knows stuff to give him money, too. Thus, Newt Gingrich continues his life as high school nerd-in-chief. Which may well be the highest title he carries the longest, considering even disgraced former House Speaker is kind of going out of style.

Remember the President of the church youth group? She seemed to have this odd, not-quite fanatical acceptance of the strangest ideas the church was pushing, combined with an almost eerie drive to see her ascendance as head of the Youth Fellowship as Providential. Now, all these years later, running for President, Michelle Bachmann still believes all those really weird things her church was pushing, only that fanatical acceptance has deepened, reflecting in the odd blue light emanating from her eyes that ensures, if nothing else, she can find her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night without flipping any switches and waking up her husband in the next room. Fixated upon a few simple ideas, none of which actually have anything to do with reality in much the same way she wrote heated letters to sponsors of TV shows and ran paper drives convinced there was money in all those newspapers collected over the years, she shrinks in our national rear-view mirror unbowed by criticisms because, as she has been for so long, she is convinced beyond doubt of the rightness of all her beliefs. Facts, reality, the common life of real people all around her are as nothing to the conviction in her heart that she may well be the only one standing between the country and the disaster looming around the corner.

I suppose I'm being a bit unfair, because I haven't featured any prominent Democratic politicians here. At the moment, the only really prominent Democratic politician is Pres. Obama, and he has none of the qualities of a superannuated adolescent yearning either for revenge or the simple continuity of the glory days of yesteryear. The three folks featured here, however, not only leap to mind, but seem to revel in either continuing their former lives, or reaping revenge upon those in their past who wronged them for whatever reason. Since our punditry seems to believe we, as a people, enjoy wallowing in discussions like this, I thought it best just to signal how I see some folks on the national stage.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Tale Of Two Holidays

Ever since I was a child, I recognized there are two holidays on December 25. On the on hand there's the celebration of the Incarnation, the day we Christians gather to worship the Bethlehem babe. Historically not all that important, the Christ Mass was only made a date in the 9th century or so, mostly to keep things in and around Christendom regular. It also helped keep those who were straddling the fence from falling back in to paganism by taking over the winter solstice holiday.

On the other hand, there's this massive commercial celebration, a glorious orgy of buying, in which an entire country seems to believe a month is dedicated to snow, elves, pretty paper, lights, and some guy breaking and entering each and every house. Even down south, Christmas cards feature snow, snowmen, fireplaces, the usual northern folderol.

What the two of them have to do with one another is, by and large, becoming less and less clear with each passing year.

I have nothing against either celebration. Obviously. We are a parsonage family, after all, and the preparation for the arrival of the Christ during Advent, and the celebration of the birth on Christmas are spiritual and communal plot-points, ways we all get in to the whole Jesus story. Beyond that, since we Christians are always standing in the shadow of the cross, the manger/cradle should serve as a reminder of the rocky bed on which Jesus' corpse lay after his execution. No good home for him at any point in his life, it would seem.

I also enjoy all the things our secular national celebration has to offer. Gathering with friends and family. Decorating. The lights. The tree. We could tone down some of the commercial aspects of the day just a wee bit, not least decorating stores and such, say, after Thanksgiving instead of after Halloween. I love egg nog, and sugar cookies, and even holiday music, in moderation of course. Gift giving is such a treat, watching people's faces light up when they open a package and have received just the right gift is wonderful. Sitting together as a family, snacking and listening to quiet music together as presents are unwrapped, candy and treats and nibbled, and all laugh and celebrate together all help make memories; I know, because I have many fond memories of Christmas from my childhood.

I just wish the two days could be separated somehow.

Whether the confusing orgy of capitalist over-consumption combined with sentimental gatherings of family and friends remains "Christmas" or is renamed "Adam Smith Day", as I have suggested to some on occasion, remains to be seen. I think the Christian churches in the west should at least take a partial cue from Orthodox churches and celebrate the Incarnation on Epiphany, January 6. That is, after all, what the 12 days of Christmas are all about, the time from 12/25 to 1/6. My grandmother and her cousin used to exchange gifts on Epiphany. I see no reason why others shouldn't.

We can keep the lights and the tree and the gatherings and Santa and the reindeer and the stockings and, of course, the candy, on December 25. Then, on January 6, Christians would gather, quietly, in their respective houses of worship, and sing quiet hymns and read prayers and hear the Word about this marvelous discovery, this unveiling of the Son of God in the baby born in Nazareth, and reflect on the road this baby has in front of him. A road we, too, are to travel. It should be no more than seven or eight weeks until the beginning of Lent, when we turn our faces toward Jerusalem, after all.

So, this year, we will have three services between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On Sunday, after church, we'll all come home, put our pajamas back on, gather around the tree, and exchange gifts. On Monday, my wife's family will come 'round and a second day of exchanging gifts and eating and being together will ensue.

Off to the side of the room, largely forgotten, is a small Arabesque, molded porcelain tchotchke. My wife hates it, but I adore it. Hidden inside are the figures of a man, a woman, and a baby in a small feeding trough. They are barely visible within the rather ornate (my wife thinks "grotesque" is a better word) stylized "stable". Which is as it should be. By and large the world ignored the events of the first Christmas. The unveiling of who this baby is, what he is to do come later.

We celebrate two holidays in our house. One, the raucous joy of family and capitalism, is certainly a source of joy. The other, quiet, almost forgotten, rests in the corner of our hearts, almost forgotten. This is, I think, as it should be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Ghost Of A Tale

Apart from the Nativity story itself, no narrative captures the English-speaking world's romantic associations with Christmas quite as much as Charles Dickens' small work, A Christmas Carol. Having visited an orphanage in the late summer of 1843, Dickens originally planned to write a tract, hoping to enlighten the rising bourgeoisie to the plight of the poor. After a couple failed attempts and some urging from a wealthy benefactor, he tried his hand at a short novel. It was written and published quickly, in time for Christmas that same year.

It would be difficult to imagine the holidays without this marvelous story. It has been dramatized so many times, in so many ways, not least because, despite occasional literary transgressions, such as the comparative deathly similitude of door nails and coffin nails, it is nothing more or less than story. Scrooge is, perhaps, the greatest villain in English literature because there is little to complicate his villainy. Epitomizing the actor's truism that the devil has the best lines, Scrooge's part of dialogue evinces not only his demeanor, but, as one critic has noted, a kind of dark humor aimed squarely at the idiocy of a world that, for a few days in late December, seems to lose track of reality.

As a child, I wondered if there wasn't, possibly, something less spiritual and more psychological about the events of that long-ago Christmas Eve. Did Scrooge in fact encounter his dead partner, glimpse a world of suffering spirits, then follow three iconic Spirits through the wayward paths of his life, and the lives of those close to him? Or, perhaps, was Dickens - as with all great writers - using this as a metaphor for a simmering conscience, perhaps pricked by an earlier encounter hat reminded him of his seven-years-dead partner, which opened a flood-gate of memories in his mind, which he had to filter using spiritual imagery? At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter, for the result is the same. Transformed by his experience, Scrooge emerges that Christmas morning a new man.

The most moving, most powerful, lines in the entire work belong, in turn, to Marley's Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Present. When told that he was always a good man of business, Marley responds with a speech that bears repeating:
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"
There is something so fundamental about these words, simple, clear, lucid, and dare I say obvious it is amazing they even need to be said.

Yet, spoken often, and not only at Christmas, they do. In an age when we are told by some that concern for the common welfare is an alien idea at war with our best traditions, it bears repeating that, in fact, our concern for others is the heart of our common life. Selfishness is not a virtue to be inculcated for any reason.

From the Ghost of Christmas Present:
"Spirit," said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before,"tell me if Tiny Tim will live."

"I see a vacant seat," replied the Ghost, "in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die."

"No, no," said Scrooge. "Oh, no, kind Spirit. Say he will be spared."

"If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race," returned the Ghost, "will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

"Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! To hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust."
What more needs to be said?

The beauty of the story lies beyond the emotional appeal of a lost soul finding its way back to life with its fellows, or the seasonal romance of the story as a whole. I think this is a rare instance in which true beauty, as the ancients understood it, has been placed before an entire people. Not only in its parts, but in its whole, there is beauty here. The humor, the terror, the sorrow, the playfulness, the joy are all there and add up among themselves to something so marvelous, it continues to speak to us nearly one hundred seventy years after it was first published.

While not wishing anyone to forget that Dickens wrote this marvelous tale to remind his fellow Britons that there existed within their midst a dirty, starving, trampled mass, and that the word "DOOM" was scrawled across the forehead of Ignorance in particular, I would commend it just for the sheer joy of the story. While nearly impossible to separate the story from the many times it has been dramatized (my own personal favorite is the 1980's version with George C. Scott, looking more like William Gladstone than Ebeneezer Scrooge), the story is vivid enough to create a whole world, indeed a Universe filled with spirits and ghosts who can whisk us off across the wide world with a mere brush against our hearts, if we wish. It is also short enough to be read in just a sitting or two. If you haven't in a while, find your dusty copy on the shelves, or just click the link above; since it is in the public realm, it is available to read on-line without an e-reader. It will brighten your holiday, and perhaps open your eyes to our on-going battle with those who continue to worship at the idol "profit" that has displaced the far more human love for one another that Scrooge himself, in an earnest passion to provide for himself, experienced.

This Christmas, I hope to awaken much as Scrooge himself did, prancing and dancing around my bedroom, proclaiming my joy and giddiness as I attempt to dress myself and fail marvelously. And, of course, God bless us. Every. Single. One.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name

Yesterday, I mused somewhat briefly on the passing of journalist Christopher Hitchens. In particular, I focused on what I saw as a telling sentence fragment regarding the necessity of safeguarding one's dignity.

In contrast, consider the following from Vaclav Havel, who also left us for good and all this past weekend:
I had arrived in the countryside outside Prague at a place called Okrouhlice to visit artist friends. After a feast by a bonfire, I led a friend who had had too much to drink down a dark path toward a house nearby. In this total darkness, though completely sober, I suddenly fell into a black hole surrounded by a cement wall. The fact is, I had fallen into a sewer, into what can only be called, you'll excuse me, shit.
My attempt to swim in this fundamental mud, this strange vegetation, was in vain, and I began to sink deeper into the ooze. Meanwhile, a tremendous panic broke out above me. Local citizens flashed lights, grasped one another's arms, legs, offering limbs, articles of clothing to grab; a chaos of impossible rescue techniques followed. This brave fight for my life went on for at least thirty minutes. I could barely keep my nose above the dreadful effluvium and thought this was the end, what a way to go, when someone had the fine idea of putting down a long ladder.
Who could have known I was to leave this unfortunate sewer only to end up in the president's office two months later? I was not, after all, to have the distinction of becoming the first playwright to drown in shit at Okrouhlice.
What of Havel's dignity remains after confessing, with an air of surprise at what seems to be its uniqueness, that he was sober? What of Havel's dignity remains after confessing that bare weeks before the events that would catapult him on to the world stage he nearly drowned in shit?

Nothing contrasts these two men and the very different trajectories their lives followed than these little snippets. One had the courage of a life spent quietly, thoughtfully, writing poems, plays, and other pieces that held his rulers up to the contempt of the world. He spent quite a bit of time in jail, yet continued to write, saying what so many of his fellow Czechs knew to be true. He could make them laugh, both at themselves and at their rulers, something more deadly than the most strident polemics.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, Christopher Hitchens took up the sordid mantle of defiance against the terrorists. Which, one would think, was hardly a display of courage. Yet, he marked this "decision" by breaking with many on the Left whom, he seemed convinced, were insufficiently outraged by the wanton murder of thousands and the glee of far too many at the destruction wrought that sunny September afternoon. When the Bush Administration decided to attack Iraq, Hitchens, a long-time advocate for Kurdish rights against Iraqi and Turkish violence against them, hitched his wagon not only to that particular Administration's plans, but to an entire ideology that represented everything Hitchens had spent his professional life fighting. He did so without a glance backward, without a regret or thought he might be selling himself far too cheaply.

Havel never lost the ability to chuckle at the irony and absurdity of the world. He also never mistook the various ways we might appear undignified for the reality that it is only worldly powers who wish to strip far too many of our fellow human beings of the signal dignity that comes with being human. Whether being jailed repeatedly for refusing to remain silent, or being called "collateral damage", and having various officials shrug at their deaths, it is this indignity that should be the focus of our rage. I cannot imagine Hitchens writing with obvious good-humor at an event in which he comes up smelling like shit. Havel, on the other hand, understood that sometimes in life we all fall in deep pools of shit.

At the end of their lives, each of these men carried a definite odor about them. One, having fallen in to a sewer, has the aroma of sweet perfume about him. The other, sad to say, against his insistence to the contrary, merely stinks.

Rest in peace, Vaclav Havel. And thank you.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Nobody Wrestles With Somebody

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
Ever since I first saw the news that Christopher Hitchens had finally succumbed to the esophageal cancer that had been killing him slowly for a couple years, I have been trying to decide if I should say anything about him. That, of course, led to the next question: If so, then, what?

I remember the first time I saw Christopher Hitchens on television. It was about six months after I had read a column of his in The Nation, before I subscribed. The image has been burned on my brain, and the image I last saw - gaunt, unshaven, the dual horrors of cancer and its current "treatment" rendering him nearly unrecognizable - seem like book ends on a life that ended too soon. He seemed a journalist out of some old central casting director's idea of "Journalist". British, he would have looked better dressed if he didn't also have that central casting aura of dishevelment about him. His speech was ever so slightly slurred, indicating a familiarity with John Barleycorn that was once a requirement of the species. When I discovered he also chain-smoked, I thought to myself, "Of course he does."

He was also, dare I say it, not-quite-beautiful in a way few men ever achieve. Even the slight swelling he started to take on as years of dissipation caught up with him but before the cancer took its unholy share seemed to add a cherubic quality. It was easy to look at him and think, "Man, this guy is too good looking."

Reading Hitchens was a joy. Only one other writer has filled me with the kind of thrill I felt when I read Hitchens, and Larry McMurtry is a very different kind of person, and writer, from Christopher Hitchens. Which indicated, at best, a catholicity of taste on my part that each of the others might appreciate. In any event, reading Hitchens was a joy, for me at any rate, because he read as if writing was, for him, effortless. After seeing him on television a few times - once with his brother Peter, as different a person as could be imagined, I might add - I would read Hitchens' columns in The Nation, stories in Vanity Fair, and the occasional book (I only own one, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a magnificent tome for any maturing international lawyer wanting to make a name for herself) and in my head I could see him at a desk. The desk sat in front of a window. On his right was an overflowing ashtray with one burning and several smoldering cigarettes. On his left was a glass running with condensation. On the other side of the glass was a bottle of gin, three-quarters empty (I think because Hitchens was British, I pictured gin; I have no idea what he quaffed). He would sit there, his fingers flying over the keys of an old electric typewriter, the stacks of copy piling up like the butts in the ashtray. Whisked off to an editor, they would need no work, no tinkering. Not even a spell-checker, and certainly not a fact-checker! His writing, for me, was so beautiful, I could actually hear his voice when I read, something no other author has done for me.

It has been enough, for now, to mourn the loss of a kind of craftsmanship that is too rare these days. Not that I really believe my romantic image of Hitchens effortlessly pouring copy out his typewriter; a style as signature as his only comes from years of work, and hours of writing, then erasing, then writing again, then pulling the paper out, swearing as you crinkle it in to a ball and throw it away. The consonance of his written work with his speaking voice meant, for me, that it was possible to say something, say it beautifully, and say it as yourself. If I took anything from Hitchens, it was this possibility. Not so much to write, but to speak, using words, as an individual whose voice was one's own.

In the days since, I have been reading quite a lot of encomiums, eulogies, and malogies for Hitchens. From Scott McLemee in The American Prospect, to George Scialabba in n+1, to Katha Pollitt and D. D. Guttenplan in The Nation, to Alex Pareene at Salon there has been, as Scott wrote, a bit of grave-pissing. At least from those who once counted Hitchens as a fellow-leftist, a companion in the struggle against mendacity and simple-mindedness, his betrayal of these same values over the last decade of his life left many angry and confused. It led, for at least the first 48 hours after his death, to a bit too much wistfulness.

Charlie Pierce, lately of Esquire, calls out one of Hitchens' late-life fellow travelers, the very kind of mediocrity he spent the better part of his previous life lampooning and impaling with elegance. It is fair to say that, while it would be nice to believe Hitchens privately held someone like Ross Douthat in contempt, I think we reward ourselves a bit too much with that thought. The fact is, I think, Hitchens came to believe he really was as marvelous as his admirers told him he was, and wished to spend his time with as many such persons as possible.

There is also the class angle. I should say that this was not an aspect of the complexity I even considered until I read one or another comment on Facebook over the weekend. Then, from his haughty disdain of the Clintons to his lip-curling at various religious enthusiasms to his frequency at high-powered Capital parties made a great deal more sense. Which is not to say his former Trostkyite sympathies were not genuine; the British upper middle class provided a plethora of communists of various stripes, including Kim Philby, who spent the last years of his life enjoying Stalin's hospitality.

The epigram that begins this post, borrowed from a Facebook friend, is classic Hitchens. I believe it is either a marvelous summary of, or perhaps even a quote from, Letters to a Young Contrarian. There is nothing in the quote itself I find horrible or awful. Some of it I find laudable. One sentence, however, sticks out like a sore thumb, at least to this more than casual admirer of Hitchens: "[P]refer dignity for yourself and others."

Dignity for others? Absolutely. Part of our duty to others who are not granted dignity is to work to ensure it is recognized by others. Yet, this often entails stripping ourselves of dignity in the process. At the very least, what passes for being dignified among those who attend Georgetown and Cleveland Park parties, can call intimates of Presidents by their first names, and ensures that even rumpled, their clothes have the right labels.

At the end of the day, I believe Hitchens faced a choice: carry himself with dignity, or struggle against the forces of brutality and ignorance that may well strip him of that dignity. It makes me sad to believe, even for a moment, that he believed such a choice existed. Yet, the evidence of the previous decade, the shifting sands of his excuses for an allegiance with the social, cultural, and political forces that worked against everything he held near and dear, have led me to the conclusion that his dignity was far more important to him than his friendships. He sold, not his soul, but something far larger and more important: his passion. He sold it to the real barbarians who threatened the west. He did so because he mistook bonhomie for dignity. For that, even more than his occasional well-written screeds against the religious faith that feeds me and millions of others around the world, I am still angry with Hitchens. More than angry, however, I grieve for the loss of so fine a mind, so sharp a pen, and so passionate a fighter to the forces of destruction he labored so long to defeat.

Garbage In Garbage Out

Titus 1:15-16:
To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.
I suppose I could insist that a diligent reader check out the entire introduction to Titus, or perhaps even the entire letter - it isn't that long, after all - yet these two verses, clear enough in and of themselves, reflect not only a wise commentary upon the specifics of Paul's instructions to Titus, but something we usually associate with the phrase that is the title of this post.

And doesn't this reflect so much of what troubles the Church these days? Wouldn't it be nice to read Christians who see the world and all that is in it as a gift, something good graciously offered by God? Obviously, the moral preachments to which St. Paul give voice regarding the conduct not only of bishops and elders, but of all Christians, should be seen as the backdrop against which this more general comment is made. All the same, the specific context - that a Christian reflect a view of the world that sees purity, beauty, gratuity in the world where others see nothing but corruption and evil - is a wise insight regardless of time and place. This difference in seeing, and proclaiming what one sees, reflects (for St. Paul) the inner state of the person.

So, those who obsess, say, over the sex lives of pretty much everyone else kind of tells us what goes through their minds, doesn't it? The fetus-huggers, too, seem to be able to spare all sorts of love and compassion for a non-human lump of flesh while gleefully celebrating the deaths of other human beings without a care in the world.

St. Paul's observation here should serve as a guide for discerning the moral and spiritual worth of the words we read on the Internet, even apart from the common-sense idea that such folks are pretty much putting their issues on parade for all the world to see.

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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