The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Luke addresses his depiction of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to a character named Theophilus. Our storyteller begins with these words: “Many others have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events which have been fulfilled among us, exactly as those happenings were passed on to us by the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word. I too have investigated everything, carefully from the beginning and I have decided to set it down in writing for you, noble Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things which you have been instructed.” As I have told you many times before, pay close attention to the names. Ancient storytellers are well known for selecting the names of their characters with great care. The character Theophilus is a case in point. Theophilus comes from the Greek words which mean “lover or lovers of God”. Our anonymous gospel-storyteller is addressing his account of the life and times of Jesus to everyone who is a lover of God.
In the ancient world, a miraculous birth story was part of being a famous person. Jesus was a famous person and so Jesus needed a birth story. Birth stories were used by storytellers to set their heroes apart from all the others. Luke’s birth story certainly set Jesus apart from all the other would be messiahs of his day. For starters, Luke weaves his story from the perspective of Mary, and there’s something about Mary that we modern readers tend to miss. Today, more often than not, modern depictions of Mary fail to mention the revolutionary character of this ancient protagonist. Mary is no bit player in this story. The role of Mary is revolutionary! Over the years generations of listeners and readers have taken the author’s depiction of Mary and created an image of Mary that is marginal at best. But there is a dark side to our images of Mary. The popular image of Mary paints her as the ideal woman, the ideal woman no woman could ever live up to. The image of Mary is that of both virgin and mother, meek and mild, obedient and perfect. She is impossible as a role model of course and totally unreal.
This idealization of Mary is a major factor in the Santa-fication of Christmas. The ideal popular image of Mary fails to reveal the true nature of the Christ child that she bears. In order to see Jesus, we have to move beyond Mary’s popular image and look at what the author of Luke actually wrote about Mary. It is in the words of the Magnificat that the author reveals the revolutionary character of Mary. The Magnificat is the song Mary sings when she meets Elizabeth. When read in its original Greek it is clear that Mary bursts into song. The text of the song is a revolutionary text full of historical meaning that would have been clear to its first century listeners, but the radical nature of this song has been lost as successive generations have set it to music and prettied it up as best they can. But in the first century, Mary was seen as a revolutionary.
Our anonymous storyteller, does not intend her to be “mother Mary meek and mild.” The references in the Magnificat, would have resonated loudly in the ears of a first century audience living under Roman oppression. They would have recognized these references as heroines of Israel and heard the words of this birth story as a call to rebellion. The song of the Magnificat is written in the style of two other songs from the Hebrew Scriptures that would have been so familiar to the gospel-storyteller’s audiences. The song itself is set up by our gospel-storyteller when, Elizabeth addresses Mary as “Blessed…among women.” This was not a normal greeting. There are only two other texts in the Scriptures where this phrase is used. In the Book of Judges, Deborah, who was herself a prophetess and a judge of Israel sings, “Blessed among women be Jael, and Deborah’s song goes on to tell us who Jael was and what she did. Listen to this ancient precursor to the Magnificat as it is found in the book of Judges: “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women she is most blessed. Sisera asked Jael for water and she gave him milk she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s’ mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.”
Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army. Deborah the ruler of Israel promised her general Barak, that Sisera would be delivered into his hands. So Barak summoned up his troops and went into battle. As the Isralites seemed to be winning Sisera fled to the camp of his ally Heber the Kenite—who was married to Jael. Jael invites Sisera into her tent, offers him hospitality, and after a meal of milk and curds he falls asleep. While Sisera the enemy of the Israelites lies sleeping, Jael bashes a tent peg through his skull. And for this Jael is heralded as a great heroine of the people as Deborah sings her praises calling her blessed among women.
The second woman in the Scriptures who is hailed as blessed is Judith. Judith is also a heroine of Israel. Her story takes place as the Assyrians are laying siege to the town of Bethulia, where the Israelites have almost run out of water. Judith leaves the city, allows herself to be captured by the Assyrians and she is taken to their leader Holofernes. Judith pretends to be fleeing from the Hebrews and offers to betray them to Holofernes. Holofernes welcomes Judith and offers her hospitality. Judith then seduces Holofernes. After taking him to bed, while he is sleeping, Judith chops off his head with his own sword. She tucks his severed head in her food bag, escapes and returns to the Israelites. When she returns Uzziah, one of the elders greets her with the words, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth.” Later at a party given to celebrate her victory, Judith sings a song to God in which God’s support for the oppressed is proclaimed, just as Mary proclaims that the rich and mighty will be brought down.
Our gospel-storyteller makes other references in his birth story which would have been equally clear to his first century audiences. Today the angel Gabriel is usually portrayed as a white effeminate male in a flowing white gown. But this depiction is not one that would have been recognized as Gabriel in the first century. Back then Gabriel was understood to be the angel of war and he was associated with metal and metal workers. The mere mention of Gabriel would have conjured up images of a fierce warrior clothed in amour, ready to do battle on the side of the Israelites. The name that the warrior angel insists on for Mary’s child is Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew, Joshua. Joshua succeeded Moses, conquered Canaan and established the twelve tribes of Israel in the promised land. Joshua from the Hebrew which means YAHWEH is salvation. Joshua was a hero and a warrior. Our gospel-storyteller makes a deliberate link suggesting to his readers that Jesus will follow in the same mold as the hero of old.
First century audiences would have been very familiar with the parallels being drawn. Mary is being clearly established as a revolutionary heroine, in a nationalistic and violent tradition. The Magnificat is a song of rebellion which proclaims the downfall of the prevailing order. The Magnificat is a rallying cry to overturn the established order of wealth; a tune intended to rouse the people to revolution. Our anonymous gospel-storyteller, writing some 80 plus years after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, knew exactly what kind of Messiah his oppressed people were waiting for. Two thousand years ago in the dusty streets of Jerusalem, revolutionary ideas passed from house to house. The bitterness of Roman bondage had robbed the Jewish people of their ideals but not their Messianic hopes and dreams. Jewish eyes continued to peer through the darkness, lifting their heads towards the night skies. The plaintive cry of Israelites begged the question: “When will this dark night be over?” In their despair, the idea of revolution was born. It was linked to the coming Messiah.
The promised saviour whom they were counting on to free them from oppression. The saviour they longed for to lead them to freedom, to establish justice and create shalom. That was the kind of Messiah the Jews living in the first century wanted. The anonymous gospel-storyteller knew his audience well. So, he plays to their expectation of a Messiah who will lead them in battle. His audience want a military hero to free them from Roman oppression. The author plays along for three chapters. We modern readers have a nasty habit of reading little pieces of the story and assuming that we know something about the story. Just imagine reading the first three chapters of any novel and then assuming you know what the story is all about. You’ve got to read on. Read on to chapter 4 where you will see the Messiah’s character take a shocking turn. Wandering in the wilderness tempted by Satan, Jesus refuses the power that is offered up. Jesus is not the Messiah people were expecting.
Mary is a woman, who has a vision of what God will do, but she misunderstands God’s purpose, just the way, Jesus’ own disciples misunderstand what God is up to. Mary’s song is the song of a heroine of Israel, for blessed is she among women. Mary’s song echoes the words of the Hebrew Scriptures “My soul magnifies the Most High, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, who has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who revere God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm, and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.” A revolutionary song, a battle cry, to take up arms with the Messiah. That was Mary’s song of rebellion. Mary’s call to revolution! Her song was fulfilled in ways that Mary could not have dreamed possible. The kind of saviour the people wanted, the kind of saviour that even Mary must have envisioned is not the kind of saviour who would ever save the world. There is something people needed far more than political freedom or material prosperity. We need, we long for, we yearn for the kind of Messiah, who knows what it means to be human; who knows our suffering; our struggles, our loneliness, our pain and who is willing to be with us Emmanuel, God with us. Read the rest of the story, if you don’t believe me. Read what the author of the gospel of Luke says and pay attention to the way he says it. The author has a truth to tell. Our messiah refuses to be a military saviour. Our messiah is no tin pot Santa Claus, who will save us from ourselves.
Christmas is the time to celebrate Emmanuel, God with us, our God who is LOVE is with us. The Mighty One has done great things for us. And now, we are called to bear the LOVE that IS God, we are called to scatter the proud and bring down the powerful from their thrones, to lift up the lowly. To help fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich away empty. It would be so much safer to just leave this story at its literal level and forget about the author’s intentions. At its literal level this story is so much less threatening, so much less demanding, but in the end the literal story has so much less truth.
Oh yes, remember, to pay attention to the names, ancient storytellers reveal so much in the names. The name Mary comes from the Hebrew Miryam. There are two possible definitions of the name Miryam. The first is “sea of bitterness” and the second meaning of Miryam is “rebellion”. Mary herself emerges out of a sea of bitterness, crying out for rebellion. There really is something about Mary, but it isn’t what we have been led to expect. In the midst of bitterness, Mary had the courage to say yes to a dream of DIVINE justice. Mary had the courage to let something grow inside of her. She had the courage to harbour the Child in her body.
Do we have the courage to harbour LOVE in our bodies? When the power of the MOST HOLY overshadows you will you have the courage to trust the promise of a new way of being in the world? Will you have the courage to be a bearer of LOVE to the world?
That’s the terrifying challenge that this story offers. This story challenges us to be at LOVE’s disposal, for the sake of the world. But be warned, LOVE-bearing is more than a little inconvenient: it can be heart breaking and even lethal. Bearing LOVE to the world means letting some of our CREATOR’s passion for the world become flesh and that can be costly.
When LOVE sends a messenger to you, will you have the courage to say “Here am I, the servant of LOVE; let it be with me according to your word.” Will you have the courage to join the legions of Mary in a revolution to bear LOVE to the world? Let it be. Let it be, according to your word. Amen.