Mary’s Song. A Christmas Journey..

Mary gets pregnant and she sings.

When my wife got pregnant, she quit smoking.

Maybe all women do something significant when they find out that their body has begun to replicate and much of the time, according to brief survey done today among five women around me who had, like Mary, been pregnant (though not immaculately), that thing is usually to get quickly into some form of community with other women. This is, after all, one of those things in a woman’s life that a man, no matter how empathetic, metrosexual, or even gay he may be, cannot- try as he might- understand in the way another woman, with a womb, can.

Mary went to be with her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant under very very odd circumstances. Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, was her baby’s father, but she was a senior citizen- beyond menopause, beyond all hope for having a child in a culture where having a child or, even better, childREN, was a religious necessity for being cool in the eyes of YHWH. So, that Elizabeth was pregnant after also having her pregnancy announced ahead of time by Gabriel, was a pretty big deal. About as big a deal as anyone except Mary could even begin to imagine.

Mary went to be with Elizabeth and while she was there she sang, according to Luke, a song. It’s not the kind of song that Elizabeth or Mary would sing to their soon-to-be-born sons, nor is the kind of song that would stick in someone’s mind if they overheard Mary singing it. But it did serve a couple vital functions, primarily- I must admit, as I see it- for the narrative of Luke. For those first century readers of this gospel of Luke, Mary’s song linked the Jesus story even more securely to the Hebrew monotheistic traditions which many in Luke’s primarily Greek audience would have already been comfortable with, even if they weren’t Jewish. From Luke 1:

46And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”

It is helpful to me when reading songs in the Bible- be it Hannah’s song, any of David’s songs, or, in this same chapter 1 of Luke, Zechariah’s song, to put some tune behind the words. Yes, it sounds odd and it doesn’t work out rhythmically at all, but for the sake of history, go back and add a song. “The Hallelujah Chorus”, or “Happy Birthday”.. it doesn’t matter but it will be historically helpful. It will give you a feeling for history. It will.

The song places Jesus very much in the Jewish tradition. As YHWH was faithful and merciful to Israel beginning with Abraham, God is now continuing to be faithful and merciful with Israel through Mary and her child. Mary is grateful to God because she is Jewish and because this is something vital and important to the people Israel.

image

An unusual interpretation of the Virgin Mary by the Polish-born children’s book illustrator Jan Pienkowski in All Saints Chapel, Marsworth, Buckinghamshire, England.

Mary sings the song in response to Elizabeth’s admiration of Mary’s faith. Mary consistently deflects attention off herself onto Jesus, even here, in the beginning. It is reminiscent of John the Baptist’s declaration made after he baptizes Jesus: “He must increase; I must decrease.” According to Luke this is a Christian ideal- diminishing to self and exalting Christ- that began with Mary. It is a tradition which sometimes, in some circles, among some believers, continues today.

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Joseph, chagrined. A Christmas Journey..

fewMatthew 1: 18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

image

carved Santos figures, “Mary and Joseph”, Guatamala, early 20th C.

According to Matthew, Joseph had a choice. What to do about his fiance Mary who was now pregnant, without his participation? Stop right now if you’re imagining how it went with your cousin/brother/neighbor who went through the same experience just a few years ago.  Mosaic law was a whole other animal than the rage and hurt faced by that guy you know.

First of all, Joseph and Mary weren’t just caught in a personal dilemma, nor was it a matter of sorting through various civil rules or cultural standards in any way we can relate to today (unless you’re a very conservative Muslim). Mary’s pregnancy forced  Joseph, his family, and her family into dealing with Mosaic law. Along with not eating oysters, mixing cotton and wool in a garment, or breaking up a fight by grabbing one of the participants by the testicles, getting pregnant before marriage was a wrong, wrong, wrong spiritual move. And unlike the other spiritual sins just listed, this one could get a girl dragged by the hair to the edge of town and stoned. Which happened then, even as it happens today. (And we hear about it happening, once in awhile, in a few countries like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia among some of those who practice fundamental interpretations of Sharia law but, in fact, it probably happens more frequently throughout in other small factions and communities of Islam, where  reporting to the outside world rarely happens.)

In other words, this wasn’t the kind of problem that would merely cause the neighbors to gossip, or prompt the local judge to make  the “wayward girl” wear a red A across herr chest. This was the kind of sin that could cause YHWH Godself to regard a person for the rest of her life with an angry scowl and a slingshot full of punishment.

Decisions, Decisions, indeed! Matthew describes Joseph as chagrined, chagrined but noble. He was noble in that he didn’t give into his chagrin and do the “easy thing,” which would have been to let Mary be stoned. (I remind you, don’t try to project the way we might think about such an incident as 21st C. Americans. These were people that had a place just outside of town reserved for stonings. They happened regularly for a whole variety of spiritual and civil crimes. It was a BIG DEAL, yes, but not the kind of incident that would cause Nancy Grace to scream indignantly [and correctly] on cable TV for months and months).

Joseph and those close to him- because this kind of decision would have been an extended family decision- decided not take the easy way but, instead, “[they took] care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.” Or dead.

Most likely that meant keeping her under the radar of the religious legalists- the ones who love- LOVE!- the black ink of rules much more than the red blood of humans. It meant, to some degree, becoming a family of religious outlaws- purposefully breaking the Mosaic law in the way Jesus himself would often break Mosaic law when it interfered with the lives of humans. In that way, Joseph foreshadowed the kind of decisions his step-son would become famous for making.

Jesus didn’t die with his mother at the stoning ground before he was born, as could very well have happened. He did die at a similar killing ground, though, about 33 years later when the religious legalists colluded with the civil authorities to shut him up.  His season in the sun that preceded Golgotha was, apparently, planned and coordinated by Jesus’ acknowledged heavenly father. But let’s be sure to always give his earthly step-father his due, too.  Joseph stopped the horrifying from happening before the story ever had a chance to begin.

***

From just two weeks ago, the stoning of a 13 year old rape victim. Who will ever know? Perhaps she was pregnant with Messiah, too:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7708169.stm

First Steps. A Christmas Journey..

Liminality is a seldom used but much needed word. It comes from the Latin word limina, which means threshold.  The place of liminality is a crossover point, a threshold to step across, a door to go through. It involves the movement from one state of being to another- the movment from single life to marriage, for instance. That period of engagement is the threshold to marriage; steps have been taken away from being single toward marriage. The time of preparation, from the time that agreement is mutual to those moments before the marriage vows are completed, is liminal time.

*Knock* *Knock*

Who’s there? asks Mary

The Angel Gabriel.

The Angel Gabriel who?

OK, you know the rest; but what happens between Gabriel’s  *KnockKnock* and the acceptance of the Angel’s message by Mary, is liminal time. It is very much like the still point in dance- that moment when the dancer completes one movement and prepares, in stillness however briefly, for the next movement.

Luke: 26-38

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David… Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.

[liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality, liminality]

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
    I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
    just as you say.

https://i0.wp.com/www.sai.msu.su/wm/paint/auth/greco/annunciation.jpg

The Annunciation”, El Greco, about 1615

Mary had to agree for the contract being proposed by Gabriel, between her and God, to be completed; she had to take a step across the threshold. In doing so, she knew her life would never again be the same as it had been the day before. Liminal times demand decisions.

Our own liminal moments occur with incredible frequency. We are often moving across, through, and over thresholds that cause everything to become new. It’s not like we have to become pregnant with the Messiah, or even to get married for all things to become new (although both those things will do it!). We are often presented with opportunities (large and small) for education, for meetings with new people, the chance to visit new places, or to participate in new experiences. All of those events are filled with liminal possibilities. But they are not all opportunities or chances that are easily entered into. Many  have curtains of fear- imagined and real- draped across them, and which must be crossed. People don’t go to school because they’re afraid they’ll run of money. People don’t get married because, “Who will take care of Mom and Dad?”  People will stay at mundane, mind-deadening jobs, because they dare not risk losing a guaranteed paycheck. The dance for them, stops. The still point becomes a period, the end of a sentence that could have become a paragraph, even a chapter in an epic saga!

So, in liminal fog, a suspended animation, so many/ too many people choose to be safe. They stay where they are, though unhappy; they refuse to look beyond the fence, because the grass over here is good enough; and they miss the mysterious smorgasbord of Life in favor of the already familiar meat loaf special.  They choose to miss being pregnant with Messiah. They choose to miss being part of all things becoming new.

*Knock* *Knock*

Gabriel, Archangel. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1:26-38

26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”

38“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “Let it be.” Then the angel left her.

I’m not a student of angels. They flit, they appear, they’re gone. Because they are nebulous and because not much is known about them, they are the easiest divine targets onto which humans can project their religious wishes and whims. Thus, we have the purely human concocted concept of guardian angels. (Everyone who is alive at this moment has a guardian angel. Can you argue with that statement? Neither can I; all I can do is smile as politely as I can and ignore it.)

Gabriel was an archangel, an angel from the top of the hierarchical angelic heap. Archangels are given the big jobs biblically, and Gabriel drew one of the biggest jobs of all: telling Mary that she was going to have a baby. “And such a baby it will be!” (I’m thinking of Gabriel as kind of a Larry David, by the way)

But, just in case that upsets your comfortably established image of Gabriel, just below is part of an altarspiece painted by Fra Filipppo Lippi. He paints Gabriel and Mary in the setting of the European Middle Ages which is also absurd by about 1400 years and 1500 miles. But, of course, it somehow  nicely “fits” our sensibilities about “Bible times”, yes? (Gabriel’s on the left. I know, he looks more like a housewife from next door but, then, who says archangels must look like Dwayne Johnson?)

 

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“The Annunciation” by Fra Filippo Lippi, circa 1460

Perfectly trusted by God, chosen by God, and ready to serve God, Gabriel is a divine ideal, a man so perfect he cannot be allowed by men to be a man. For humans wanting to move toward divinity the angels serve as intermediaries- roadside parks on the way to the Grand Canyon! No matter how close we come to them, angels will be just a little bit beyond us. In the religious narrative, they are good goals: they are both approachable and beyond our reach.

But Gabriel, in all European art of this period, is always shown in his super-humanness as crouched or bowing in front of Mary! No, we cannot be like Gabriel no matter how hard we try, but Mary- it seems- is like Gabriel without trying at all! She simply is. “I am that I am,” could be her name, too.  She didn’t need to aspire to worthiness, and she didn’t need to ritualize her way to godhood. She didn’t have to be good enough, righteous enough, or educated, pretty, or well-dressed enough. She just had to be. And then to be willing.

38” ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘Let it be.’ Then the angel left her.”

After Mary said that, what else was there for an archangel possibly to do but leave?

***

Now, enjoy Paul McCartney singing ‘Let It Be’ as you think about all the above

Words of Love..

 

“When genuine friends of God..repeat words they have heard in secret amidst the silence of the union of love, and these words are in disagreement with the teaching of the Church, it is simply that the language of the marketplace is not that of the nuptial chamber.” (Simone Weil, Waiting for God)

This is important. Because the Great Sausage Grinder that carries so much weight in the American Church doesn’t allow much gristle to make it into the morning’s meat patties. Or any fat whatsoever, or any extra spices. Or much taste. Bland is the standard; that way, aberrations are easily discerned.

Screw it. Pass the pepper, and the sage. Throw on some onions, and add some fat- some chicken fat- fried!-  greasy and crackling. Grind it all down again, one more time with fresh basil, and garlic and cilantro, and a spoonful of sugar..just because. Now grill that sausage over hot-fired mesquite, sprinkled with Jack Daniels, and slathered with a puree of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and oregano.

Good.

God.

Now, eat:

“I was afraid it

would screw up my art

and I would end up

writing sermons

instead of songs.”

(James McMurtry)

“Humankind has not woven the
web of life. We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.”
(Chief Seattle)

Even after all

this time

the sun never

says to the

earth

“You owe me.”

Look what happens

with a love like that.

It lights the

whole sky.

(Hafiz)

In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.
(Rumi)

Time Out..Gaza is still occupied

 

I’ll resume my discussion of tribalism and fear, but I think we ALL need to be periodically shocked (right down to our socks), by a glimpse of how despicable humans can be when they’ve got “God on their side.”

And if you can stand it, here’s a slide show. This was all happening last December while we here in the U.S. were concerned about retail sales and the GNP, and whether or not that son of a bitch behind the counter at Target would say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holiday.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wearewideawake/show/

Meet me at Starbuck’s in the morning and over a double latte and orange scones; we can argue about teabags, then head to the mall.

God, Sex, Goliath, and Other Scary Things..

What’s wrong? Here’s the answer:

(These thoughts are complicatedly interrelated as most of the thoughts in all of our minds are. I admire deeply, though, those persons that are able to simplify in ways that I can’t. Bear with me. I promise some new ideas here that will affect the way some of you see the world from this point on. Really!)

Families, Bands, and Tribes

Our species evolved and spent most its communal history in bands of families and tribes of bands. Families bonded together for security and diversification of the gene pool, and crossed the difficult barriers of geography and suspicion to become bands. The people who lived on that side of the mountain needed to get at animals on the other side of the mountain and- “oh, by the way, while we’re over there hunting can we procreate with your people?”

(Trying my best to simplify- I trust you understand. This is cultural anthropology in the smallest nutshell it’s ever been crammed into.)

The bands became tribes. Not overnight and not automatically, but as populations increased and as climate changes (like ice melt), geographical episodes (like volcanoes), and animal migrations or extinctions occurred, the advantages of cooperation over competition were hard to ignore! Now, Americans, think Ojibway, Dakotah, Chipppewa, or Apache. Those are tribes– they lived in districts, many lived in smaller bands, they spread out over a geography, and sometimes at peace and sometimes at struggle with adjacent tribes. What united them was the geography, the resources they learned to share (Apaches and the earliest horses, for instance), language, and shared DNA. A member of a tribe knew they could move from valley to valley without harm, because that was tribal land. They also knew they might have problems on the other side of the valley, over the mountain, because that was the land of another tribe.

Stories

Stories evolve among any group of people over time and every tribe on earth was abundant with them. Stories informed those who heard them how to think, how to act, and what the tribe determined was important to know. The shared knowledge of tribes through the telling of stories is why we as humans are still vital (too vital from other species’ viewpoints!). The Dakotah had stories about the Cold and Buffalo, the Aleutians had stories about shifting ice and Walruses (is more than one Walrus, Walri?), the Aztec had stories Warm Seas and Fish, etc, etc, etc.

These stories were how children learned. They weren’t “made up” stories. They were truths that had been observed, or thought about; conclusions about the world around them were made, and those thoughts and conclusions were made memorable and interesting through stories. The stories contained the most current truths available.

Now, here’s the part that has everything to do with today: One way to make sure children in a tribe knew their place, understood their role, and knew to never go over that mountain was through fear. Fear works. Has, does, and will. It’s no accident that the purveyor of bad tidings in the Garden of Eden was a Serpent (hissss!) rather than a cow or a chicken (yum!). Nor, continuing with the familiar stories of the Hebrew tribe, was it surprising that the awful, horrible, sneaky Philistines had a secret weapon (Goliath) or that the loose-living, oft-married Samaritans were trash. Both were good reasons to keep the kids who were feeling their wild oats blooming, at home, where having no other gods before YHWH was much more manageable.

More To Come

OK, I’m going to continue with this tomorrow, and I will deal with these two ideas:

1. Humans lived in tribes a long, long, long time- longer than any of us have the ability to imagine. Ideas and concepts are as deeply a part of us as our physical structure or repertoire of emotions are, and as our abilities to stand erect and run evolved, so did our need for stories and the structure with which they were told. Stories are in us. We need them.

2. We live in a time, however, when we do not need to be afraid, out of ignorance, of the people who live on the other side of the mountain. Our tribe is global now. The separations no longer keep us alive by insuring our safety. The separations now, exacerbated by fools, are going to kill us. Our stories must be re-written.