Saturday, December 20, 2014

Psalms of Advent: Magnification, Joy, and Loss of Control

    The wonder of a late fall sunrise, Jesuit Retreat Center,
    Wernersville, Pa.
    With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.
    He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones  and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. Luke 1: 46-55
    In just the first chapter of Luke, we have the only birth psalm of the third Gospel that is not spoken by an old guy. Mary, who is "overshadowed" by the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:35 becomes the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy, that of "maidservants" receiving the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:38, Acts 2:18  Mary, who waits with apostles for the Holy Spirit in Acts, becomes the thematic hinge for Luke's two-piece work, Luke-Acts.   
    But when it comes to the words of this psalm, which takes as its title, Mary's soul which in other versions, MAGNIFIES the Lord, like mother, like son. Researchers in faith development once concluded that most enduring faith is the kind a child gets from a mother, even more than from father. It is all about what is actually believed and lived.  
    It shouldn't surprise us that Mary had the key role in Jesus' faith. (Luke 2:58) So much that Jesus, again in Luke, will teach Magnificat values in Luke 6, where he says, almost antiphonally:
    Happy are you who are poor,
        because God’s kingdom is yours.
        Happy are you who hunger now,
        because you will be satisfied...
     But how terrible for you who are rich,
        because you have already received your comfort.
      How terrible for you who have plenty now,
        because you will be hungry.
    In both places, the poor and hungry are filled, the rich and filled are emptied. The lowly are lifted up, the powerful, along with the self-exalted, are "pulled" down. Think of Psalm 146, where the plans of even princes and kings vanish the day they die, where the Lord gives food to the hungry and lifts up those who are bowed down.

    The imaginary and false self with all its pretense that we have life, God, and others under control, is "scattered," like the enemies of God in Maccabees. Meeting this God means the pulling down of the hopes and joys that fill our lives for a few minutes or hours or a few days, then leave us drained. Until the next thrill comes along. The alternative is to let God fill our empty souls, even as we let go of the fake, short- term fillers. 
    This declaration of praise from Mary is her response to God's tender mercy and mother love- the source of a joy that  resounds in the "depths" of who she is. It is enough to overthrow all our illusions of control. For a second, I think of anything that neither I nor life can guarantee, and I'm freer to rejoice and live in the present with the One who is alone is real and whose mercy never runs dry.    

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Psalms of Advent: Benedictus, Dawn of God's Tender Mercy

 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
  the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
  and in the shadow of death,
  to guide us on the path of peace.
Luke 1: 78-79

The dawn breaks
The third in Luke's trilogy of birth narrative psalms is Luke 1: 68-79. They're the words of the priest Zechariah, the expectant father of the one who would become John the Baptizer.
They are the first words spoken by Zechariah after Gabriel rendered him unable to speak. Zechariah did not initially believe the angel's words about his aged wife Elizabeth bearing a son, one who would have an amazing mission. 
Maybe the heavenly messenger realized too late that Elizabeth was the better first option. Was the concern that Zechariah would say or do something that might endanger the mother or the soon to arrive son?
But Zechariah teaches us something when it comes to men and compassion. The late great Congresswoman from Texas, *Barbara Jordon, once spoke of men not really getting compassion because men are not physically set up for it.
She was taking about a mother's love for her children. The Hebrew Bible uses compassion in different ways, the most common is the kind of mercy a king grants a subject. But the second most prevalent meaning is the kind of mercy a mother has for a child. This mercy is not in the head or heart, but visceral, the kind that exists in gut, womb, or even bowels.  
God's womb-love? The inclusion of "tender mercy"  (NRSV) or in the CEB, "deep compassion" shows that Zechariah and of course Luke, know all about it from the Hebrew Scriptures and even more from the ministry of Jesus. You could make the case that the many faceted and unique Lukan parables (all of Luke 15 comes to mind, for example) cannot be read and understood apart from God's womb mercy. 
I love these words of Zechariah because they seem to indicate that I, too, can both learn and receive something amazing in God's tender mercy. It's God's love and compassion that makes my life possible and worthwhile. There is nothing more to be added, there is nothing to be deleted.  
* "I believe that women have a capacity for understanding and compassion which a man structurally does not have, does not have it because he cannot have it. He's just incapable of it."



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Psalms of Advent: Nunc Dimittis, Simeon's Departing in Peace

What does God want to give me?
Am I open to receiving it? 
Now, master, let your servant go in peace...
 because my eyes have seen your salvation.
You prepared this salvation
   in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
      and a glory for your people Israel.
---Luke 2:29-32 CEB
With this little Lukan psalm, we approach one of the many paradoxes of the season: the more we push our ego agenda of needs, wants, should-s, and have to-s on ourselves and others,  the less peace we experience. 
The promise of blessing in our going out and coming in (Psalm 121) becomes painfully unattainable when all we allow ourselves to hear is the cacophony within and around us. How many times must I  be asked the progressively annoying question, "Are you ready for Christmas yet?"

James has it right: "You don't have because you don't ask. You ask and don't have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings." The promise for Simeon and for us is enduring peace, peace born of the Holy Spirit, as we surrender our false expectations for having life on our terms.

We are not necessarily good at waiting for what we want and even less patient when it comes to what God wants. The wonder of Advent is not our patience, but God's. Holy Spirit is now, of this moment. God's advent is already here--the prime question is, where am I?
As far as I can see, righteous Simeon remains the only man who was truly ready to welcome the Redeemer, the Christ, the Messiah. He didn't need one more thing. His spirit was full- out of surrender, empty and open to receiving the gift of God, the Christ. So much so that he could both "lie down and sleep in peace."
Now, let your servant depart in peace. Could it be that using Simeon's prayer each evening as a simple Compline, or completion of my day, will help me unload, empty, and wash away whatever is most false within? 

Oldies but Goodies