“Behold” the creation, with reverence.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2014-2015
By Tom Mundahl
The Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B
2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16
Luke 1: 46b-55
Romans 16: 25-27
Luke 1: 26-38
While there is no doubt of the significance of Davidic pedigree (2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16) or of the evangelical energy with which Romans concludes (Romans 16: 25-27), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary. Both the Annunciation and the Magnificat reveal the power and mystery of the coming of God. As poet Denise Levertov writes:
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
(Denise Leverton, “Annunciation” The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, New York: New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837)
As he narrates the parallel births of John and Jesus, Luke clearly favors Mary. Zechariah finds the message from the angel that his elderly and “barren” wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child more than a little ridiculous. With understandable skepticism he asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18). But the lack of faith demonstrated by his cross- examination guarantees there will be no more questioning. He is struck dumb until the birth.
What a contrast Mary provides! Far from being authorized to enter the Temple, she is very young in a world that values age, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and poor in a highly-stratified economy. All of these are intensified by her lack of a husband, a situation made all the more precarious by Gabriel’s announcement (see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39)
That this is a visit of great moment is made clear by Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). From the Rosary’s, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” to “Grace be on you, en-graced one,” the message is unmistakable: this is the one to bear the long-expected child. Unlike Zechariah, who doubts the very possibility of this enterprise, Mary’s only question is procedural: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34b).
Gabriel’s response goes far beyond any obstetric explanation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you . . . .” That this is an movement of deep meaning is made evident by the “overshadowing” (επιςκιαζω) of the Most High. This sense of the looming presence of God is present in the Exodus story (Exodus 40: 34-35), and it also occurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9: 34), where the presence of the Holy One “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions about “marking the occasion” with traditional wilderness “booths” all the more ridiculous. What’s more, the scene reminds us of the “wind from God” overshadowing the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2). Here we are dealing with the nothing less than new creation and the process of a new exodus.
This birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transfigures all notions of status. This is made evident by the basic reversal demonstrated by Gabriel’s announcement. Instead of being named the “Queen Consort” of the divine, courageous Mary calls herself “the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1: 38). This theme of reversal now explodes with the Magnificat during Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.
Luke Timothy Johnson and other commentators remind us that Luke uses a compositional technique similar to other Hellenistic historians (cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) by re-creating speeches given by major actors to move the historical narrative (Johnson, p. 43). Whether the speeches are given by Pericles or Cleon, there are few orations in this style of history that match the Song of Mary in poetic image! Not only is the Magnificat full of Hebrew parallelism, the fact that it has been set to music by believers throughout history suggests that it is, at minimum, lyric poetry. To paraphrase the old hymn, when we hear these words, “How can we keep from singing?”
Part of the impulse to sing comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 141). Of course, this stems from Gabriel’s summary statement to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). As he continues to reflect on the struggle of the earliest church to begin the birth story, Brueggemann writes: “The beginning must be just right, for there is something new here that can scarcely be articulated, and the articulation must match the reality of the newness” (p. 102). This cannot be done in prose, the language of royal decree, or even with the forms of Greek historical rhetoric; it must be done in lyric leading to song. So we have the “Song of Mary” (Luke 1:46b-55) following the annunciation; the “Benedictus,” the “Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) following the birth of John; the “Gloria,” or “Song of the Angels” (Luke 2:14) following the birth of Jesus; and the “Nunc Dimittis,” or “Song of Simeon”(Luke 2: 29-32) following the presentation. Is it a surprise that all of these are still part of the musical treasure of God’s people?
Even a piece of lyric poetry like the Magnificat contains structural elements. The poem begins with the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1: 46-49), moves to a wider statement of God’s mercy for all who live in reverence through the generations (1:50), then continues with a vivid description of the reversal of social positions of the poor and arrogant (1:51-53), and concludes with a reminder that this all fulfills promises to Abraham and his descendants (Luke 1:54-55, Johnson, p. 43). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern that “emerges from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses. For example,“magnifies,” “rejoices,” he has “looked,” ”has done great things,” ”shown strength with his arm,” “has scattered,” ”has brought down,” ”has lifted up,” “has filled,” “has sent the rich away,” and “has helped”—all serving to stress that this is, without question, God’s action. (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27)
But this narrative structure does not compromise the free nature of the lyric. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order. As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (Brueggemann, p. 104). “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
The wonder of this may be signaled by the use of the word that used to be translated “behold” (ιδου) three times in the annunciation—vv. 31, 36, and 38. The first two uses, by Gabriel, are rendered by NRSV as “and now.” While the desire to avoid language of “excessive holiness” that communicates with contemporary listeners and readers is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak? It may be that returning to “behold” may restore a bit of the necessary authority of messengers like Gabriel, and help us to recover a sense of mysterium tremendum with its sense of awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: 1958, pp. 12-24).
Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision . . . . To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls. Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.11). Joseph Sittler agrees, and goes on to claim that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological—an ontology of creation community—that requires a “beholding of actuality” (Sittler, “Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).
Sittler then to suggests: “To behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on . . . . To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” (Sittler, p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have mismanaged it” (Ross, pp. 11-12).
The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While it may not be in reaction to a personal visit from Gabriel, perhaps, as we share in Mary’s servanthood, we will be “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High and given the courage (Levertov) to serve all of creation.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN firstname.lastname@example.org
For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288