Monday, December 21, 2009

Singing Mary’s Revolutionary Song

The Nativity is a longstanding symbol of the Advent and Christmas Seasons depicting the holy family gathered together on that blessed night. As we view the scene of the Nativity, our attention is of course drawn to Jesus. Yet, we cannot help but give some attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ponder what thoughts were in her mind that night.

Although Mary is a central figure in Christian history, she is perhaps one of its most enigmatic figures. Much of the problem in our not knowing Mary more fully is that the biblical texts do not offer us a lot of insight into Mary’s life, particularly after Jesus’ childhood. This has given rise to various understandings about Mary, most notably differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of her.

Yet, while Mary remains a mystery to us, beyond her giving birth to Jesus, there is one piece of biblical material that offers us insight into the kind of person Mary may have been. The Song of Mary, or as it is known by its Latin title, the Magnificat, is found in Luke chapter one, and may give us enough material to help us understand her and her impact on Christianity.

Mary’s song is a very personal song expressing her joy for what God was doing in her life. It is a song that comes from deep within her as she responds to the mighty promises of God. It is a song she sings as a result of her hope in what God is doing both in her and through her. Indeed, it is because of the joy that wells inside her that she cannot help but sing this song.

But at the same time that Mary’s song is a song of personal spiritual fulfillment and hope in the promises of God, it is also a very revolutionary song. Indeed, it is a politically dangerous song for Mary to sing at her time and at her place in life.

She is a young peasant female who sings as an unlikely and unauthorized prophet, declaring the coming of God. Outside the religious power structures of formal Judaism, this young peasant female sings a song that is a radical shift from the religious messages of her day, and her vision of God is starkly different from that held by the religious establishment.

Her vision of God shaped her understanding that God was turning upside down the normal power structures of her society. Her song announced that the proud and powerful would be cast down from their high places, and the lowly would be lifted up. The hungry would be fed, and the rich would have nothing. She understood that God was coming to alter the economics of her world by redistributing wealth and to overturn the normal politics of her world that were based on status.

This may give us some insight into the kind of person Mary really was. For her to sing a song that is so dangerous and so subversive, one that is focused on justice for the poor and oppressed of her time, meant that she hungered for justice not just for herself, but for all her people. She witnessed daily the pain and struggle of the marginalized and oppressed poor around her, and she found in God’s visitation of her a sense of hope that things were moving toward God’s justice and peace.

Mary may have understood, however, that it would be through the good acts done by God’s people that the values of her society would radically shift. In other words, because she knew that she and her community could not directly challenge the religious authorities or the Roman powers, she instead believed that through radical living by doing good to those around them, God’s justice would prevail. It would be through living out the ethics of the rule of God in living together as a faithful community that God would reverse the values that shaped her secular society.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. For what we find buried in Mary’s song is the message of her son, Jesus. Though I have no strong evidence for this, I believe that more than any other person who shaped Jesus’ central message of justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, it was Mary’s world view that had the greatest impact on him.

Although we might piously think that Jesus came into the world programmed to know what God desired, I suggest that Mary shaped his way of thinking about God and the world more than any other source. Given what we find in Mary’s song, we cannot help but consider her impact on his thinking, his message, and his actions.

But all of this raises a significant question for us this Christmas Season. While we sing the popular carols of Christmas, do we dare to sing Mary’s song? And if we chose to sing Mary’s song, can we envision and enact a new economy that embodies simplicity and generosity, and a new culture that is characterized by welcoming strangers and loving our neighbors and our enemies? How would this alter our American values so that we would instead embrace the values of God and of God’s son Jesus?

Mary’s song is not just her song, and she should not sing it alone. It is a song followers of Jesus are to sing throughout all generations. More importantly, it is a song we are called to live in defiance of the norms of our culture until God’s revolutionary hope for the world is fulfilled.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Incarnation of God Redefines Our Human Existence

The season of Advent is almost over, and the anticipated arrival of Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, is coming. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, for centuries Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.

Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, like the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus.

Moreover, a later 4th century movement that originated with a bishop named Arius also did not hold to a divine understanding of Jesus. But for the most part, earlier Christians believed Jesus to be divine.

The problem for many of these early Christians was accepting that he was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we also struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus was existed in a human body. The problem is whether we accept his humanity.

In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

There are obstacles to our accepting Jesus in his humanity, and I think two are significant. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and dreadfully evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from accepting Jesus’ humanity.

The key to solving this, I think, is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, our bodies are good. This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good; we are still made in the image of God. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God became not only human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle.
Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loves the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Greed that Steals Christmas

The Christmas Season is once again upon us and that means that we will again have the annual chance to view some of the old-time favorite holiday specials on TV. Whether one prefers “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” or “The Year without a Santa Claus,” these and other programs have become yearly symbols of the season.

Yet, perhaps the most famous of these programs is the 1966 Dr. Seuss classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The story is so familiar to us that we can perhaps recite the plot from memory and even quote verbatim some of the famous lines spoken by the narrator, the Grinch, or Cindy Lou Who.

But as we think about this holiday season, we must be reminded that though the Grinch is a fictional character who could never really steal Christmas from the people of Whoville, there is another, and indeed more subtle and more powerful enemy of the season of Christmas than the Grinch. It is greed, and it seems that it does not take a holiday from its power to create the desire for us to want more, to buy more, and to neglect Jesus call to give up all we have and give to the poor.

Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper use of them, and indeed his message speaks clearly to us during this season of “Black Fridays”, crowded malls, and overspending. Indeed, Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. At the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.

Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down. But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept if we see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.

The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy, that is when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God. We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. Santa and a cuddly baby Jesus become our gods, marginalizing the Jesus that warns us against the dangers of trying to serve both God and mammon. One will always come before the other in receiving our devotion.

It is this vertical plane of greed we may find convicting, but nonetheless manageable. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy?

Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.

The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings. Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments to love both God and our neighbors are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.

Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more.

For sure we give gifts to others at Christmas and many of us give things to those less fortunate than ourselves. But is this enough? Does this express the true meaning of the season we call Christmas, the time we reflect on the incarnation of God? Should not Christmas be the one time each year when we overturn the norms of our culture that beg us to buy more, so that we can imitate the authentic meaning of Jesus emptying himself?

If we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.

Moreover this view of possessions and the proper use of them can also save us from the horizontal direction of greed. When we see the central value of possessions as meeting our basic needs, we can find the strength to repent of our lives of hoarding and self-indulgence and we can be free to practice lives of generosity through which we seek God’s justice for the poor.

A fictional character like the Grinch cannot steal the meaning of Christmas. But the very real force of greed can lay hold of us and cause us to lose sight of what this season really signifies, emptying ourselves of anything we cling to in order to be more faithful followers of Jesus and more generous sharers of God’s blessings.