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Friday, 16 December 2011

Mary: Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink


Readings:        2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
                        Psalm 89.1-4, 19-27
                        Romans 16.25-27
                        Luke 1.26-38

There is in some circles of Christianity a type of nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach to key moments and passages in the story of the people of God. More perhaps than any other this applies to the stories of the conception and the resurrection of Jesus. It is as if there is in some circles a psychological need to distance interpretation from the naïve openness, the innocent readiness to believe, that we perhaps all exhibited as children, but are embarrassed about as adults.

This is no new thing, reaching back to the post-enlightment period of the nineteenth century, as scientific method was applied to the doctrines and texts of faith. Sometimes the methodology was applied well, breaking down the elitist self-interest of some clergy who wielded biblical and doctrinal knowledge as an iron rod, keeping hoi polloi firmly in their place. Sometimes though it was applied inappropriately – a little like the famous passage that reduces the act of osculation – kissing – to a biological description of the muscular contortions and fluid exchanges involved. The love story that scripture should be was reduced to a mechanic’s handbook – which it was never intended to be – and then sneeringly dismissed as errant nonsense.

Ironically the same era gave birth to what we call fundamentalism, the literal or perhaps literalistic interpretation of the text. This too, like a doctor reading Robert Burns’ ‘my love is like a red, red rose’ in order to make a diagnosis of her condition, is a misreading of the ancients’ texts. And while it can sound as if I’m bleating on behalf of the only person in step, it is imperative that we find approaches to scripture that avoid these two misguided extremes. The Spirit is too energized to limit us to any one interpretation, particularly of so vast as text as the conception and resurrection stories, but there are boundaries of common sense, and too much Christian wordage passes beyond them.

The shock horror school of interpretation of the birth narratives bases its approach largely on two recognitions: in the first place that Mark, the earliest gospel account to be written, did not incorporate a birth story, and in the second that stories of virgin birth of extraordinary people were a kind of point of religious pride around the known world of Luke and Matthew’s time. With that two-pronged informational overload they surmise that they have heralded the death-knell of simple Christian interpretation – often trumpeting their superior knowledge with more glee than the late Christopher Hitchens. Unfortunately they forget that first century Christians were not all dimwits: the issues surrounding Luke and Matthew’s tellings were as complex to first century believers as they are to twenty-first century believers.

First century believers, however, did not expect Luke or Matthew to be providing a blow by blow narrative of the DNA transmission of Jesus of Nazareth. They knew that they were being told a simple truth: that in the hands of the God who flung stars across the heavens the conception of a child within the womb of an obedient servant is not arduous. The subsequent complexities of divine and human nature, and of the presence of timelessness and time in the DNA of that child, these were more complex. But these were issues to ponder over for subsequent millennia: for now it was enough to remind the communities of belief and non-belief that the Creator of the spheres is pretty much a can-do sort of God.

Luke’s and Matthew’s audiences knew, too that they were being referred back to other stories and moments in faith-history, particularly the Book of Judges. They knew that they were being told a story of God’s ability and readiness to work miracles in the lives of those who open themselves up to divine possibility. They knew they were being told a story of God’s preference for the uncluttered and unpretentious. They could even see in the subtle contrasts between Elizabeth’s and Mary’s encounter with the will of God that the latter showed an even greater ability to be a channel of the purposes of God.

A channel of the purposes of God but, despite the misapplication by history of some of the language of this and other scriptures, Mary is no meek-and-mild pushover. The language of a woman ‘overshadowed by the power of the almighty’ can be disturbing when read through the filters of modern awareness of the abuse of women in homes and churches throughout history – and it is right to pose those questions. But like questions of the DNA of Jesus, they are not questions that the text is setting out to address – in any case a glance at the feisty Magnificat of Mary that we read last week should make it fairly clear that God has not chosen a wallflower to be the home of the Incarnation.

These are stories about the ability and possibility of God. But they are stories, too, about the ability and possibility of those who open themselves up to the challenges of God – ironically Mark poses similar questions right at the original ending of his gospel-telling, as frightened women become the source of all resurrection knowledge, but we can explore that moment at another time.

Luke, though, wants us to know that Mary, mother of Jesus (mother of God as she is rightly known in the patristic traditions, for Jesus is nothing if not God), is the example par excellence of risk-taking in the service of the gospel. By seizing a unique moment in history this vulnerable, soon to be outcast, soon to be refugee woman becomes the home of God and the incubator, as it were, of salvation. A woman known personally to the earliest tellers of the gospel-story becomes a paradigm of our own responsibilities to serve God. Her experience of course is unique, but we all have within us the opportunities to seize the day of God’s call to proclaim hope and justice and compassionate love, we all have within us the opportunity to serve or thwart the gospel.

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