Love?

Texts: Micah 5:1-7, Luke 1:39-55

Thank God for Elizabeth and Mary.  Thank God for those women, as they existed – if they existed as individuals – and as they are construed in Luke, and re-presented in music ever since.  Thank God for the old crone birthing John the Baptist, and for the teenager conceiving Jesus.

 In W.H.Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being”, Gabriel says to Mary: 

Mary, in a dream of love

Playing as all children play

For unsuspecting children may

Express in comic make-believe

The wish that later they will know

Is tragic and impossible;

Hear, child, what I am sent to tell:

Love wills your dream to happen, so

Love’s will on earth may be, through you,

No longer a pretend but true.

 

I confessed that I have never been good at recognizing early pregnancy, or responding to new babies presented to me by their families. I have learned by trial and error to avoid several specific faux pas: ‘you must be so happy’, ‘he must be so pleased’, ‘at your age’, ‘they look just like’ and ‘oh, you’re not’.  Context matters, and to ‘assume’ is to ‘make an ass out of you and me’.

 Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men had great self-improvement tips for guys like me, including washing, bathing, toilet seat etiquette, and listening:

 ‘Lower your voice. Try listening. Here’s how it works: when someone else is talking, pay close attention to what they are saying. Maintain eye contact. Do not interrupt. When he or she is finished, pause and reflect on what was said. Try saying nothing at all. Notice how what you have heard is stimulating thoughts, concepts, feelings, and ideas in your head. This may lead to something brilliant. You will then be able to take those ideas, claim them as yours, and become famous!’

 This Sunday’s focus is not limited to physiological phenomena in one woman predicted in Micah, then Elizabeth and Mary as reported by Luke.   Fertility, fecundity, infertility, barrenness, conception, gestation, pre-natal, peri-natal and postnatal care are loaded words for each of us hearing them.  How do you use this language to inform and express meaning about ‘love’?  

You’ll believe that if you see it?

You’ll see that if you believe it! 

One of the great characteristics of any church community, is intergenerational mixing. At school, in our workplaces, or our retirement, we are segregated into ghettoes by age ranges, but in this place, we mix it up, and keep if up over time.  

Here, we watch to see what is already conceived in those too young to know their potential, and share struggles, which are labour birthing new things. We don’t limit newness to the young – often it is the aged who conceive new things best, disabused by experience of the fallacy that there is only one right way.  We notice it particularly at this high holiday of sentimentality, over decades of days. 

Here, one generation is being Elizabeth, conceiving something new, recognizing the conception of another in Mary, and celebrating what is so different from her own experience and conception: 

Blessed are you among women,

and blessed is the fruit of your womb…

And blessed is she who believed

that there would be a fulfillment

Of what was spoken to her by God.

 

You’ll believe that if you see it?

You’ll see that if you believe it! 

The infancy Gospel of James, one of the ‘Lost Gospels’ we visited last Advent, goes back to virgin Anna and her husband Joachim, the miraculous conception of their child Mary whom they then dedicated as a temple virgin until she bore Jesus.  We give Luke more weight, with the suspect 12 year old Palestinian girl.  Modern liberals reveal our sentimental suspension of our critical faculty on this. 

What we try to inform and express in these stories is hard to reconcile. John the Baptist and his movement was all about baptism of repentance for sin, through asceticism and desert purity. Contemporaneous charismatics and Jesus people

were all about spirit and celebration, often city slickers themselves.  We merged the factions into one movement known in time as Christianity. 

Christopher Lasch wrote in his Culture of Narcissism that: 

Even when therapists speak of the need for ‘meaning’ and ‘love’, they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements.  It hardly occurs to them… to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. 

‘Love’ as self-sacrifice or self-abasement, ‘meaning’ as submission to a higher loyalty – these sublimations strike the therapeutic sensibility as intolerably oppressive, offensive to common sense and injurious to personal health… mental health means overthrow of inhibitions and immediate gratification of every impulse. 

What if this congregation includes Bethlehem in Ephrathah, Elizabeth and Mary,

having already conceived next things?  What if each can recognize the other, better than I can say or show?  The child within you kicks in recognition, and we celebrate one another, too often dismissed as crones or children, as filled with potential.  That’s ‘Emmanuel’ talk: God with us, here and now, as we pray it 

God forbid we break faith with Bethlehem-Ephrathah, patient in sidelined humility.  God forbid we break faith with Elizabeth, giving the Baptist to the world.  God forbid we break faith with Mary who trusted fulfillment of the promises of God, God’s preferential option for the poor like her, over the rich like us.  This is true love and true meaning, not just Maslovian ‘self-actualization’. 

Footnotes: 

I invited you all to join me at an afternoon screening at the Apollo Theatre:  “Anna and the Apocalypse: A Christmas Zombie Musical” did not disappoint, and I predict it will be a favourite in the future, with memorable tunes and lyrics.  As I commented this morning’s blog post about Zechariah, our religious tradition is endlessly capable of cultural adaptation.   Is our religious community as able? 

I also introduced the Micah reading by repeating my rant throughout this Advent about misuse of Hebrew prophets in Advent as if they simply predicted the birth of Jesus.  We keep hearing Micah 5:2-5a, without curiosity about its context.   

Micah, contemporary of the first Isaiah in Judah, lived in Judah when it was a vassal or client state of a superpower, Assyria.  He remembered an earlier imperial rule from Egypt (Jeremiah, another peer, actually favoured Egypt and died there rather than in exile in Babylon).  We know, as did the editors and readers of Micah from only a century later when imperial Persia conquered all. 

Can you imagine living in a client state of a superpower – say, the USA?  Perhaps you could still remember your colonial past – say, in a British Empire? Could you already anticipate another rising power, like China, perhaps?  Routine news would feature humiliation of your nation, caught in the squeeze,  like Canada honouring an extradition demand by the USA, for an alleged crime in their law of a Chinese company breaking American sanctions on Iran? 

The prophet Micah, and his editors, was not just predicting Jesus.  Micah was addressing the pain of Assyria shaming Judah’s rulers, and promising that even if Judah couldn’t beat Assyria, God would have a final word, using other agents.  That turned out to be Cyrus of Persia (‘My Messiah’ in Second Isaiah), in our terms an Iranian empire overcoming an Iraqi one.  What’s a client state to do? 

Centuries later, did Elizabeth or Mary have such clarity about situating themselves socially, as a crone representing an aging faltering tradition, and a child representing an emergent proletariat in Palestine?  They sure knew the Hasmonean Greeks made a mess, that Herod as client of Rome had built some big monuments and two of his sons were Roman governors.   

The community that crystallized the text of Luke in Syria with benefit of hindsight knew that the hot-headed young men, rebels claiming the heritage of Maccabbean resistance to Greeks.  They included Zealots, Sicarii known for their knives (Judas Iscariot?), and their ‘Jewish Wars’ cumulated in Roman levelling of the Second Temple in 70CE, and exclusion of all Jews from the city. 

As we try to figure out what, if anything, that has to do with understanding the beloved Christmas bible readings of Micah and Magnificat, I’ll leave you with today’s prayer for grace, intended to prepare us to hear and to listen: 

God of Micah,

God of Mary and Elizabeth

God of Bethlehem in Ephrathah

 God of somebody else,

somewhere else

some other time

 God of the good old days…

God of the utopian future

tell us the old, old story,

give us your Christmas hope

And make it live –

For us, here, now -

for you know we want it.

 What about us – here – now?

What do you have to say and to show to us?

What do you have to do with us?

Open our eyes, our ears, our hearts –

Give us a word again

And make it live –

for you know we need it.

 We’ve been running hard –

and running scared

In a losing race with the big stuff

Harried, hurried –

rushed and rattled –

it’s never enough

 We feel as old as Elizabeth

We’ve got no excuse

We’re just unproductive,

Infertile, not fecund, barren

We’ve had lots of time

Plenty of warning

And this is it.

 We feel as young as Mary

We’re not prepared, equipped

To bear burdens – to be blessings

To be your partners – your people

Maybe someday – but not yet

We’re barely betrothed,

not that committed here

Yet, this is it.

God of Micah,

God of Mary and Elizabeth –

God of Bethlehem in Ephrathah

 God of somebody else,

somewhere else…

some other time

Be with us – here, now –

as you were then them, there, then.

Give us a word to hear,

to echo, and make us live.

Bless us – and we in turn

will be a blessing in your world.

Amen.