Mary's Psalm: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 12 December 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 12 December 2010 (Third Sunday of Advent, Year A)

Isaiah 35:1-10Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55James 5:7-10Matthew 11:2-11

Because I came to the text of Luke’s nativity relatively late in the game (that is to say, after I had taken a few months of freshman Bible survey at Milligan College), I’ve always thought of the Magnificat as a revolutionary song.  It’s rife with the sort of language that make Psalms laments, praising YHWH as the One who gives food to the hungry, who throws down the powerful, who takes the tight ranks of the proud and scatters them.  This is no song to inspire lofty thoughts of disembodied afterlife bliss that somehow negates the nastiness of the sublunary world; this is the celebration of one who knows that YHWH is the God who, by means that Mary probably is incapable of imagining, will bring salvation and justice to this world, and Israel will be once more the epicenter of that justice.

I do not apologize for defending the Greeks in my classroom and on the Internet–I do think that too many people–in my own time and before–have in bad faith made hay of stereotypes rather than reading carefully the texts of those old philosophical masters, and I would hope that, where I reduce genuine complexity to easy-to-dispel flatness (I suspect that I do so, for instance, when I talk and write about the Victorians), that people would likewise correct me.  That said, in my own sustained readings of the Greeks and the Romans, I have noted that Plato’s conceptions of God and the gods (and Aristotle and Cicero tend to follow him) have a decidedly ahistorical character.  For them, a deity that was going to revise the way that large patterns of life probably didn’t get it right the first time and therefore wasn’t much of a deity.  For Plato, the gods seem to leave the organization of society to mortals, and for the Stoics, there was more of a sense that the old ways were somehow divinely sanctioned, and the mortal’s duty was not to stage revolutions but to serve the existing structures well.  In no case did the changing of constitutions, as best I can tell, reflect that the gods or God was (or were) punishing those who had established those constitutions–such divine punishments were for the afterlife for Plato.  And with Homer, the differences between some gods’ preference for Troy and others’ for the Achaeans seem nothing other than arbitrary–there’s little sense that Aphrodite has a sense of dikaiosyne that could override her preference for the Trojans any more than the armies of Agamemnon appeal to an overarching standard of justice or righteousness to argue that the gods ought to favor them over Troy.

By contrast, the Psalms and by extension the Magnificat reveal a relationship between YHWH, God, and human agency that produces a very different sort of poetry.  Mortals (or Sons of Man, if one prefers the Hebrew construction) in the Psalms (and in Exodus and in Genesis and in Matthew… but I should focus here) make petitions to God, put guilt trips on God, threaten God’s reputation if God doesn’t follow through on promises, and otherwise assume that YHWH operates within the same framework of righteousness and goodness that gives shape to human life.  This is neither capricious Zeus of Homer nor the indifferent gods of Epicurus or even the overarching pantheistic Logos of the Stoics but another character in the story, one who always remains analogous to human existence (“My ways are not your ways…”) rather than univocal in ontological terms but nonetheless receives the petitions and addresses of the faithful without nearly as much qualification as one might expect.

Perhaps predictably, when the Enlightenment gave way to high Modernism and the resulting mindset began to govern the reading of Scripture (perhaps it’s high Modernism that I flatten), words like “anthropomorphic” and “primitive” began to attach themselves to those passages where YHWH’s moral life seems most intimately connected to human existence, and the old Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of God persisted even as their vision of the good human life gave way to utilitarian and nationalist ethics.  Does Moses “seem” to talk YHWH out of destroying the Hebrews?  That must be the wishful thinking of the less-enlightened.  Does YHWH “seem” to become angry at the idolatry of Israel?  Since a God who changes must become worse, in which case God is vulnerable to becoming less than God, or become better, which means that God was not previously God, then any appearance of change must be for the benefit of the dull-minded.  And so on. 

But in the face of the immutable God’s persistance, the text of the Scriptures continue to beckon, and those voices whom we call Bible continue to praise God not as a God who can never make the world otherwise but as God who will.  Prayers continue to Heaven for healing and for justice, for patience as well as for courage.  And the faithful of God again and again return to the songs, both Psalms and Magnificat, for another season at least keeping up that tension between the static God of Plato and Aristotle and the God-who-redeems of the Bible.  May all of our prayers reach that God who would best hear them.

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