Zachariah’s Song. A Christmas Journey..

Zachariah was a priest. Married to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. They were childless until they, like Mary, had one of those – (pregnant pause)- visits from the angel Gabriel. Then, Elizabeth and Zachariah, at the ages of 60 or 70 or so, became the proud, however old, parents of John. John who would grow up and become known as John the Baptist.

When Mary felt Jesus kick from within, she sang a song. When Zachariah saw his son, he sang a song, too. (Which may be a lesson for new mothers: remember, while you’ve been feeling that little kicker somersaulting for months; daddy’s just now holding the child,  feeling/experiencing  him/her in extraordinarily intimate ways for the first time. Forgive dad his initial blubbering.) Anyway, here is Zach’s song (remember to put a tune behind it!).

Luke 1

76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

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St.Zachariah, as depicted on an Orthodox icon, a subject worth a whole blog’s worth of discussion some day. But here’s a preview: that is gold leaf behind St. Zach, and it has been hammered into position. Each stroke of the hammer was accompanied by a prayer, a specific prayer. Literally, sometimes prayers are the sounds of a hammer.

Note that Zachariah, as written about by Luke, is associating the story he’s become a part of to the ancient and well-known Hebrew story. Just as Mary sang of her being used to continue the covenant  between Abraham and YHWH, Zachariah’s song establishes his son John as a continuation of the prophetic  tradition in Israel- a tradition that has been silent, since the days of Malachi, for 600 years!

As all prophets do, John will be preparing the way, clearing the path, establishing a route for another who will follow- in this case, Jesus. And as all prophets also seem to do, John will die for having done a good job. John’s character will, about 1900 years after his birth, play a prominent role in the opera, “Salome,” by Richard Strauss, where he was represented, in a final shocking scene,  as a severed head.

Zachariah, though, the real subject of this piece, did his job and did it well. He would have died a happy man, having had an offspring. Thus, he had fulfilled the long-proscribed roles of husband, father, and priest very well. We are, after all, talking about him even at this moment, some 1980 years after Salome danced with his son for real!

Zachariah may have been one of the minor players in the drama of Jesus’ birth, but his presence helped establish Jesus in the Jewish mainstream, past and present. What Jesus said, did, and lived his whole life was as a Jew. He learned about his faith, as did all all Jewish children, from his parents and the other adults in his world. Cousin Zach, a priest, would certainly have been one of those persons he learned much from, and Jesus would have spent much of his growing-up years with his six month older cousin John.

It takes a village..yes?  And Jesus had one, made up of real people who cared for him as a child, son, and relative first, before they ever fully knew him as a Messiah. That “village love” would have been a huge part of his decision to accept the call on his life made by God. It had been there since before he was born, and he’d grown up surrounded by it. So it was natural that Jesus went first to a family member- John the Baptizer-when he came out of his Messiah closet.

He knew he would be accepted and safe in those first moments of his declaration. Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Joseph, and Mary: what a village it was!

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

Dancing with God. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1:46-

 “And Mary said,  ‘I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”

image She is, let’s say, 16 years old. She’s not married. We must assume there’s a Mom and Dad around somewhere, and given the Deuteronomic law they live and move and have their being within, the parents have got to be upset. And her boyfriend has the legal religious right, almost obligation,  to get a gang of his buddies together and stone her. To death.

Are they looking at her? Can they see yet? She’s brought shame on her family, her fiance, her neighborhood, and herself. She deserves whatever happens to her! She does!

Dirty, dirty, shame, shame..!!

All right, now..what follows now is my imagine gone wild (but certainly within these wide-getting-wider scriptural boundaries ). I’m imagining the “wise-beyond-her-years” Mary becoming more and more aware of her predicament. She knows what it looks like to the world. Maybe she has put off telling anyone about that weird night that may have been a dream, but it wasn’t a dream, and now her belly is swelling and she knows she’ll be able to hide for awhile from the men around her.. but not from her Mama. Mother will know.

Her periods began just last year, and Mom has helped her each time to clean herself because that was important and the scriptures said that’s how a Mother and a daughter should do it. This month, Mom would be wondering then asking why Mary was late, “Let me see,” she might say, and so Mary has to tell her, show her. Her breasts are a little sore now too and while she is not afraid of her mother, she is- afraid? yes, a little/ a lot- of the men around her.  Because that’s the only way a baby could get in there- right?- but she hadn’t done anything.. had she? She doubted herself sometimes- maybe? somehow? what if?- but no!no! nonono: she knew what she knew and even if no one else believed her.. she knew.

Will he believe her? Will Joseph believe her? How could he? But he will! Of course he won’t; who will ever believe me, she wonders. So what will happen?

Mary knows she should be afraid than she feels and part of her is-really- but it’s like she has to remember that she is supposed to be afraid because there is something really weird and..it feels kind of wonderful..about this thing growing in her- this baby- a baby?- yes, a baby. She even imagined that she could feel it moving. She knew it was a boy, somebody said it was a boy, or had she dreamed it was a boy?  She feels..peaceful, and she knows she shouldn’t be feeling that way; it doesn’t make any sense to feel that way!. And she doesn’t understand why but she feels so peaceful, that it’s like some kind of strange joy that seems to run like oil from the top of her head down to her feet. She walks outside and stands between the olive tree and the back of her house and because she must she raises her arms into the air and she laughs and she dances and she dances and she dances…

because it is the only thing she can do and it is the only thing she wants to do and she can, if she must remember to be afraid later..,

maybe..

or maybe she will never need to feel afraid again..

***

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

— T.S. Eliot

Irony, Paradox, Tension. A Christmas Journey..

In a court of law, the whole story would be torn apart by even a mediocre prosecutor as soon as the words “virgin” and “pregnant” were used in the same sentence.

The defense could very well sway the jury by bringing out their main witness- Joseph, the put-upon and betrayed, but also believing, forgiving, and accepting fiance of the young “virgin mother.” 

Throw the dice. OK, 2 out of 3? 4 out of 7? Rock, Paper, Scissors? Eenie, meenie, miney, mo? Draw straws. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth; who’s lying?

Who is being good? Who is being bad?

Here’s one more really great thing about the Christmas story that not many people have considered: it makes no sense. Two completely different birth stories- Matthew’s and Luke’s- that come together only on Hallmark Christmas cards and childrens’ Sunday School handouts. Unlikely scenarios, difficult time-lines, and a cast of characters that includes a chorus of singing angels- it is through that wild potpourri of people and events that Jesus the Messiah appeared in the world, and turned that world into a new creation.

Luke 1: 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?”

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It made no sense and neither, if we admit it, does much of life. If we had a nativity story that followed a logical, consistent, and progressive series of facts, we would have every right to question all of it. When that kind of defense is put forward in a criminal court- when all of the witnesses and facts line up in perfect and straight rows, the prosecution can pretty easily show that there has been collusion and rehearsal in the presentation of a fictional defense.

Life, as we live it, is rarely an either/or set of decisions. We deal with people both as we hope they will be and as they are. We enjoy the food at a restaurant even though the service has been lousy. (Both/And) We do not throw our kids out of the house because their room is an unhealthy mess (Either/Or).

We learn to cut slack because slack is being cut for us all the time. We learn to give love and accept grace because we’re accepting love and extending grace all day long in our daily affairs. We may talk a lot in black & white, and even make some decisions based on what seems good and what seems bad, but we live in the inconsistencies of human interaction and in the chaos of a world that always being recreated.

The story of Jesus’ birth is a mess. So messy that Mark and John ignore it altogether. But that makes the story a lot like us. At least a lot like me. I’ll let you decide for yourself. That way both you and I will be right.  

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.

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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

Mary, the Girl. A Christmas Journey..

Luke 1: 37  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.

Mary was young. In the context and customs of her time, she was (almost certainly) 15 or 16 years old. There is nothing biblical that would make Joseph too much older than that, either.

Until the 18th and 19th centuries, artists were pretty much constricted by the Church to painting Mary as the Mother of Christ, period. As such, she was largely depicted as sexless, even a bit cold. After then Reformation and then later, the French Revolution broke the stranglehold of the Church in most of Europe over art and much else, Mary was freed to be represented artistically as human. And she was shown as vulnerable in her youthfulness, and even sexual in her budding womanhood. Examples:

“The Annunciation” by Henry Tanner, 1898. The angel Gabriel here is a column of light. Young Mary is alone. This painting was controversial because, like the earlier painting shown next,  it portrays Mary on a bed.

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“Acce Ancilla Domini” by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850. Despite the confidence we read into the words of Mary as they were scripturally preserved, she was no doubt confused. THERE WAS AN ANGEL- A MAN ANGEL!- IN HER HOME TELLING HER SHE WAS ABOUT TO BECOME PREGNANT! Painters felt free now to portray that surprise, that fear, that hesitation.

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“Annunciation” by John Collier (1980s?) Put into a very modern setting, the schoolgirl and the archangel’s initial encounter looks and feels..well, creepy. But we are able to see here, in terms we understand, a pretty good rendition of the age and immaturity of the girl/woman Mary. (Note the lily in front of her which is just beginning to bloom- an interesting artistic touch.)

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By the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had opened many psychological doors for painters and other artists to explore- psychological doors of the painters themselves, their subjects, and of viewers of the art. By the time  the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (yes, the same artist who did “The Scream”) painted “Madonna” in 1895, there were few restrictive religious rules or prohibitions still in effect. This painting reflects both the freedom felt by artists of this period, and freedom from the enforced non-sexuality of Mary by the Church.

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Religious art is an outward and visible means of better understanding contemporary theology. The biblical story is not a static one. It has been thought about and understood in many different ways and it is too easy for any one cultural group in a particular time to believe that theirs is the only and proper interpretation. Artists remind us that God is not suspended in anyone’s time. And they remind us that Jesus, the Word made flesh was born of a very real young woman: the flesh made Word.  He was like us because she was like us.

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