THAT BEYOND EXPLANATION
Luke 1:46-55, Luke 1:26-38
Advent 4 18th December 2011 Year B
Some things are beyond words. No matter how well we are able to use words there are just some things that they just can’t catch. The identification of God with the world to such a depth that God chooses to enter that world as a human being with all the vulnerabilities and trials which that brings is one of those things words cannot catch. Not even the words of our Scriptures are able to do so. It is an interesting story to place side by side the nativity stories of our only two sources for them, Matthew and Luke, and by so doing find that they share nothing in common. The narrative is entirely different describing entirely different events. This is understandable when, as I have suggested one knows that they are trying to place into words that which is beyond that category of definition.
Our infancy stories are late in the emerging Christian tradition. The earliest writer in the Christian Scriptures, Paul, knows nothing of them, nor does the earliest gospel, Mark. They are written at least 80 years after the actual event they describe. They cannot of course know what really went on. After all Jesus was just another child born to the poorest of the poor; those at the very bottom of the social and economic heap. Births to those types of people were not noted in the ancient world for that world noted only the births of the elite not the birth of those like the one here. That the gospel writers cannot know what actually took place at the birth of Jesus is ironically the actual miracle. One commentator writes that the real miracle of the entry of the divine into the world in human form was not that God chose to be born human for this was a common enough occurrence in the stories of the ancient world, but that God chose to be born human where God did into such poverty and powerless. The place into which Jesus was born rather than the birth itself is the real miracle!
Knowing nothing of the events to do with the actual birth of Jesus, our two gospel writers wishing to describe it make use of the common symbols and myths which surround divine births in the world of antiquity and make use of them in describing Jesus birth. Divine births to virgins with associated symbols of astronomical happenings with stars, the appearance of heavenly messengers, priests and wise ones making prophetic utterances, and an ever present opposition to the birth by enemies were common enough motifs in that world, associated with such divine births. The writers thus make use of these in describing Jesus’ birth. To get caught in the literalism of these descriptions is to miss the real depth of the story. We need to move past those literalisms.
The biblical scholar Marcus Borg speaks of pre-critical naivety, critical thinking and post-critical naivety and applies them to the Christmas stories in particular. Pre-critical thinking is that thinking we possess when we are children. The world is beautiful and full of magic and we simply believe in that without ever asking the question, ‘does that really happen?’ Critical thinking comes when the magic starts to drop away. We can no longer believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Likewise we work out that you cannot follow stars across the sky, especially given they are moving at over 1,000 kilometres per hour relative to the earth, nor do they suddenly stop and not move in the sky. We start to perhaps quietly laugh at people caught in superstitions that would have them wear a rabbit’s foot or avoid 13th floors of buildings. There is a loss in all this and we still hanker for the magic of pre-critical thinking. That hankering is particularly seen at Christmas when with a mixture of sentimentality and suspension of belief we revel in the magic of the Christmas story. Critical thinking as such has its place, a very important place, but it is not the finality of our human existence. In post-critical thinking we understand there are things beyond critical thinking. We believe for instance in love, commitment and sacrifice when critical thinking might say they are too dangerous or unproved. We understand that great art, literature, poetry and music move beyond rationality. Post-critical thinking is that thinking as ‘described by an Amerindian leader who of his people’s origins said, ‘Now I don’t know if it really happened this way but this story is true.’ Truth can go far deeper than mere facts. When we arrive to this point we can really begin to understand the magic of the Christmas stories. We learn to read the stories for the deep truths to which they point rather than being caught in the mere literalisms of them.
To what does that story we read today point? First, to whom and where is the birth? The angel Gabriel comes to Nazareth in Galilee. How can it be that the messiah will be born in such a place? There was nothing to point to this. Everyone knew the messiah would be of David’s line. Does not even our gospel today speak of him coming out of David’s line and inheriting his throne? As such surely the messiah cannot be born in a place without any tradition in the Jewish story. How can one come out of this little village of Nazareth, up north in Galilee when everyone knew the divine story centred on Judea? Of Galilee the orthodox of Judea were unsure. Who knew what practices really were carried out by those remote from the Temple establishment? So extraordinary and outrageous was this that our two nativity stories end up placing Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, each of them in a very different manner, though everyone knew the truth that he was a Nazarene.
In Nazareth those chosen to be the instruments of the divine birth are Mary and Joseph. I have said the classical symbols of divine virgin births are chosen, but surely not to people such as this! Joseph and Mary were the very poorest of the poor. Those who held even a little land had some wealth. Those with less wealth were bonded labourers or serfs working someone else’s land. Those without even that support were, like Mary and Joseph, further down the social and economic pile. Little wonder Jesus would later pray, ‘give us our daily bread.’ That’s the very most people in such a situation could hope to have. So far out of the expected realm is this birth that there was always a scandal about it with snide comments, ‘as for this fellow we don’t know where he comes from (John 9:29). Later opponents of the Christian story would allege that the real truth was that Mary had committed adultery with a Roman soldier.
Luke links Jesus with David. ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will rule over Judah forever.’ The Jewish biblical tradition is full of idealized pictures of David’s reign. They looked back to David through rose-coloured glasses as one who had reigned in a manner which not only brought power to Israel but also justice and equity. His successors so failed to match that to the extent that only his son ruled a united Israel before the kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Finally after the exile of Judah to Babylon the Davidic line came to an end. The hope for another David became tied to the coming of a future messiah out of David’s line. Jesus is understood by the early Christians, and especially so in Luke’s gospel, as being that Davidic messiah who comes to bring the Davidic reign of peace, justice, equity and compassion.
This hope finds its realization in the words placed on the lips of Mary at the point of the annunciation; ‘God has seen the low estate of his handmaiden…he has scattered the proud… put down the mighty from their thrones, exalted those of low degree, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away.’ These truly are inexplicable actions!
Not that God should enter into the world but that God should choose to enter the world on that underside of history is the true Christmas miracle. God is not incarnate, as were other divinities of those days, in power and might, identified with Caesar, but rather as one come to establish, out of David’s line with all its hopes, a very different style of kingdom, symbolic of everything that Caesar’s was not. The Christmas question is as to whether we identify with Caesar, also called divine or with this Messiah so different. In that choice everything rests. As we choose to identify with this sort of Messiah we receive the true blessings of Christmas. John Queripel