Advent 4: 24 December Luke 1:26-38
In one of the most beautiful scenes of Luke’s infancy narratives a heavenly angel meets a young woman, Mary. It almost calls for music and ballet. The ancient world is celebrating not so much a birth as a life, but in doing so transposes the mystery and wonder of that life into its first moments. The Christmas stories are not really about a baby; they are about the person of Christ. To miss that is to miss their point.
Modern minds, schooled in the mechanisms of reproduction, must suspend their disbelief and enter the fantasy of the story. A virgin girl conceives, is overshadowed by an angel. The miracle begins. In this life God is to be found. She will receive the seed and bear the child. Undiluted divinity will flow through his life. We are light years away from talk of chromosomes and genetics, but we are celebrating the immanence of the God whom we, too, may meet in our moments of intimacy.
There is no need – and no firm historical warrant – for inverting later anti-Christian propaganda to the effect that a Roman soldier had raped Mary. We don’t need to rape the story to express solidarity with the violated, much as it would create a rich and powerful myth of Christ’s beginnings. Nor should the unreality disturb us of imagining the credibility of teenagers explaining pregnancy by angelic encounters today. In the story we are dealing with narrative artistry’s way of telling profound truth.
It is also a distortion to read the passage as disparaging human sexuality, as though virginity is somehow purer than a life fully engaged in sexual intimacy. There are angels around in moments of ecstasy and the divine Spirit is regularly linked in biblical tradition to conception and birth. Even the language used here contains echoes of such stories, especially later in the Magnificat which recalls Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam 2:1-10). The caring lover or mother can be as immaculate as any virgin.
Luke sets the story amid the cries of the Jewish people for liberation from Rome’s oppression, Rome’s forced ‘peace’. In Isaiah 7:14, ‘A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and you shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us’, Isaiah in his day offered a sign of deliverance for Judah from the threatening alliance of its northern compatriots of Israel with the Syrians. Here the sign has been recycled to point to coming liberation from the Romans. The Greek, which uses ‘parthenos’, ‘virgin’, either fits the story well or gave rise to it.
The world of Luke’s infancy narratives is consistently one of faithful people crying out, often in nationalist terms, for liberation, awaiting a Messiah. A ‘son of the highest’ who would ascend David’s throne, was a hope which featured strongly among the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls and elsewhere. Mostly, Christian interpreters gloss over Luke’s use of these aspirations or spiritualise them, so that in Jesus’ ministry we are told to see their complete fulfilment. There is some truth is this; the one who in Luke 4:16-20 will announce his mandate using Isaiah 61:1 does bring a new kind of peace. But the yearning for liberation is not thereby dulled. On the Emmaus road the hope remains alive and is not negated (Luke 24:21). In Acts 1:6 it achieves prominence in resurrection dialogue: ‘Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Jesus’ response does not rubbish the yearning, but cautions only about its timing. According to Luke, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom includes the good news of liberation from oppression: freedom! It remains the vision and sets the agenda.
The romance of the story becomes water in the sand if we cannot connect it with the yearning of all people everywhere who cry out for justice. It becomes, indeed, too often a comforting indulgence for the oppressors, a story to supplement our excesses. In the eyes of Mary we need to see the innocence and vulnerability of a twelve year old girl caught in a web of poverty and deprivation. We may catch a glimpse of her in TV reports from the ‘two thirds world’. We may think of village girls forced into urban prostitution, to survive maybe 10 – 15 years with AIDS rather than die of starvation at home, or catch the hapless glance of the child labourer looking up, numbed, amid the glue fumes of the shoe workhouse.
When Matthew’s community transformed ‘Blessed are the poor (the destitute)’ (Luke 6:20) into ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3), it might have been a first step in avoidance of reality, as it frequently became. More likely it arose from the realisation that the meaning of participating in God’s reign for everyone is to have a mind and heart that can enter into solidarity with the cries of the poor. Then Mary’s response becomes a profoundly spiritual litany for living: ‘Behold, the Lord’s maid; let it happen to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).
The familiar – for us who are now so used to the Christmas stories – is the unfamiliar: the ‘servant of the Lord’ is not a male hero, but a woman, just a poor girl. Divine grace cuts through prejudice to uphold the dignity of the least and expendable. It meets us in our vulnerability and our humanity, when we know we cannot be the world’s Messiah but can simply be what we are. Then there is room for pain and there is room for joy. Then we can enter fully into the fantasy of the Christmas story and know its profound reality.
Epistle: Advent 4: 24 December Romans 16:25-27
See also The Christmas Stories - exploring their background and meaning
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