Advent IV, Year C
Lk 1:47-55 (resp) or Ps 80:1-7
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)." When he said above, "You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will." He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Luke’s readers are not without Jesus before the arrival of his gospel. Luke’s Christian community is suffused with the presence of Jesus. The Book of Acts stamps Jesus upon the Holy Spirit, so much so that it became possible to say (following Paul in 2 Cor.) the Spirit is the Lord. Luke’s readers do not need a gospel to tell them how to relate to Jesus, this they already know and demonstrate in their worship and lives.
Luke’s gospel tells the story of Jesus in the Spirit, that is, if in Acts we are given a christological pneumatology, in Luke we are given a pneumatological christology. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Creator of whom it said hovered over the creation in the beginning. And who now will hover over the womb of a virgin teenager. A new beginning. A new creation. A new Adam (humanity).
In terms of mimetic theory, Jesus’ imitation of his abba which took place in the history of his life, continued to take place in the life of the early Christians. Their imitation was not the slavish adherence to pop spirituality we see peddled in Bible Book Stores. Their imitation was a holistic imitatio Christi or as Bonhoeffer might put it, a ‘conformation to Christ.’ In the early church a theology of the cross, the Passion narrative and the implications of non-retaliation (or forgiveness) all developed together under one and the same Spirit, the Spirit sent by the Creator in Jesus’ name. Theology, christology, spirituality and the Christian life were of one piece, even as God is one.
This is Luke’s first mention of the Holy Spirit. Lukan scholars have discerned that Luke has a rather ‘charismatic’ theology. What is a ‘charismatic theology?’ It is a theology full of gratitude (eucharistia) and joy (chara) because it originates from grace (charis). Do any of these words describe Lukan theology? Sure they do. As Luke develops the birth narrative of Jesus, his focus is on the alterity of this event. This was God’s business, it was holy business. Something significant was happening here, something not to be missed. What the ‘something’ is, is a life that manifests the Creator who comes to reconcile humanity and to bring peace. The peace of God is the only true ‘new’ thing in the cosmos. It alone is ‘good news.’ It is what we long for and that for which we wait.
American Christianity is fundamentally dishonest but it is not the fault of the average Christian. That responsibility lies on the shoulders of the leadership that continues to propagate a sacrificial hermeneutic and its consequent lies. With their help, we have made our peace with mammon and retribution.
Christmas is about something else altogether. You cannot read Luke’s gospel and fail to note the emphatic theme of peace and it’s corollaries, jubilation and rejoicing. We have tied our joy to the economy, the lighter our wallets, the lighter our joy. Conversely, the fuller our wallets are (and bank accounts, 401k’s, IRA’s, pension funds and portfolios), the happier we are and the more secure we feel. We do not need to tell you how closely Christmas has become tied to the failure or success of the economy. You have seen it for yourselves for some time. At Christmas, the Church settles for a pale imitation of the joy of Luke’s community because it does not find joy where Luke found joy. There is a reason for this.
The Constitution of the United States says that we are endowed with inalienable rights: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But the first draft of the American Constitution had the words, “life, liberty and property.’ The illusive pursuit of happiness was a concession to the masses. Remember, those who had a great investment in real estate wrote this document. This is why our lives some 230 years later revolve around securing our happiness on a 50 x 100 piece of land. Our jobs, our families, our choices, our ideals and our values, including our happiness are intertwined with this little plot of land. And we do everything we can to make it our ‘Eden.’ As long as American Christianity persists in exploring the sacrificial myth it will never find joy or peace in Christmas and it will fail to understand the significance of the fact that it is through a human life that the Creator reveals his character.
An impossible dilemma seems to confront white Americans. We have great power – and we are told that we must share it or have it taken from us. We have great wealth – and we are told that it is immoral to be so rich while others are so poor. We claim that violence is abhorrent to us – and we are accused of perpetrating the very thing we disavow. We want to help people – and we are told that our ‘help’ is only a disguised method of increasing our control over them.
What seems impossible is to move from one side of the paradoxes to the other. Who, having power, can bear to give it up? Who, having wealth, can handle a perpetually guilty conscience? Who, claiming virtue, can withstand the charge of hypocrisy? Who, desiring to help, can believe his desire is merely self-serving? And yet…suppose the charges were correct? Suppose we do practice the structural violence that is implicit in all the charges? Can we really change?
And that is the question. Can we really change? Do we Christians have the courage to recognize the way the violent logos structures their thinking? What do you think of the above quote? It was published 30 years ago by Robert McAfee Brown (Religion and Violence Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973). Did we change? Has our Christian thinking become more in tune with love or more in tune with retribution? Have Christian fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicalism grown since then or has it declined? Just take a look at Christmas and you have all the proof you need in its commercialization. Where, O where, is the Holy Spirit in American Christianity today?
McAfee Brown: “ My own feeling is that if white churches are going to do no more than reflect (in pale fashion) the values of the culture around them, they do not really deserve to survive; that they are going to have to look long and hard at where their real allegiances lie, and then make some basic choices in the near future. The choices, if properly made, will place the churches in jeopardy, for they will involve tremendous risks with no assurance of success.
To be as direct as possible, I see no less exacting task for white churches than that of seeking, at whatever cost, to embody revolutionary nonviolent love." And that after all, is what Christmas is all about.