Last revised: January 12, 2019
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4TH SUNDAY IN ADVENT — YEAR C
RCL: Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
RoCa: Micah 5:1-4; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In many congregations the Third Sunday in Advent is usurped by a high point in the congregation’s life: the Sunday School Christmas Program. So preaching themes skip from Advent 2 to Advent 4. In 2018 this was the case at the parish I was serving.
For Advent 2C we had developed the theme of renewing church practices in light of the church’s unfaithful turn when partnering with Empire, known as Christendom. At the heart of a New Reformation must be obedience to the true God revealed in Jesus the Messiah. Worshiping gods of empire involves seeking a power to control the designated “Them.” Worshiping the God of Jesus involves an inversion of that power that loving serves those who are considered Them in imperial power structures. In short, Christendom has largely worshiped the gods of Empire.
Mary’s Song provides a window into the very different God of the Jewish-Christian revelation. In today’s context, the God whom Mary worships in her song would be closer to the God in contemporary liberation theologies — theology from the perspective of peoples marginalized by today’s unjust power structures. The week of preaching on this text I came across a posting that celebrates one of the greatest liberation theologians, James Cone of Union Seminary in New York City. The online essay memorializing Cone (who died earlier in 2018) is “The Heresy of White Christianity,” by Chris Hedges, whose title also points to the fact that the imperial theology of White Christianity is heretical in the ways we are outlining. Here are the notes from the 2018 sermon.
Reflections and Questions
1. Bethlehem of Ephrathah: “who are one of the little clans of Judah.” There is such an emphasis on being little here. David himself, who made Bethlehem famous, was the littlest of Jesse’s eight sons. When Samuel goes to Jesse’ house, he is still grieving over the downfall of Saul as king — who, by the way, was very tall. We read in 1 Samuel 16:7:
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
In 2003 I served in a parish that many pastors find themselves in, an older congregation that’s shrinking. Grace is the ELCA parish closest to the city center of Kenosha (pop. 90,000). It was still a mostly white congregation in a neighborhood that is mostly African-American. Grace, with the help of sister congregations in Kenosha, has started an Urban Outreach Center that largely serves those in the neighborhood. We are perhaps the littlest of the Kenosha congregations at this point. Is there Good News in this passage, and on this day, when we reflect on how God often chooses the littlest? If we are a congregation with a big heart, can’t our ministry, with God’s help, thrive? Link to the 2003 sermon on this theme, “The Little Come Up Big.”
2. How does the emphasis on God not seeing “as mortals see” relate to the basic insight of mimetic theory that the true God sees from the perspective of the victim, while human perspectives are always shaped in the cauldron of collective violence, that is, from the perspective of the persecutors?
3. Bethlehem of Ephrathah is the littlest of the clans of Judah. Judah/Israel is the littlest of the nations among the Middle East / Mediterranean. They reached their zenith under David and Solomon and then slipped into being trampled under foot by everyone else’s empire: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, Roman.
How does this relate to the survival of the perspective of the victim? There’s a severe practical issue of the latter’s survival. Victims are shunned or murdered, making it very difficult for their perspective to survive. Wouldn’t it take the sense and identity of being chosen by a God who doesn’t see as we see, who stands by even the littlest?
It is into this history of chosenness, despite being trampled upon by others for centuries, that the Messiah is born in the town of the littlest among the littlest. Is his destiny then to overturn things? Yes, but again, not as mortals see! He isn’t going to overturn things with military might, with a collective violence against God’s enemies. No, he is going to take the perspective of the victim to its destiny of becoming the victim as one shamed and executed on a cross for all to see. But it will be God’s raising him up on the third day that will change history. It will be God’s raising him as the power of forgiveness, instead of vengeance, through which the perspective of the victim will now survive forever, becoming a powerful force, the Holy Spirit, throughout the rest of history and peaceably bringing history to the fulfillment of God’s loving desire.
1. The Letter to the Hebrews has been one of the most controversial books of the Bible in Girardian circles. Its heavy orientation around sacrifice appears suspicious in the face of the Girardian analysis of sacrifice. René Girard‘s own first assessment of it was negative in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (written in 1978), pp. 227-231. He retracted these criticisms in an interview with Rebecca Adams in November 1992 (“Violence, Difference, and Sacrifice: A Conversation with René Girard,” in Religion and Literature 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 9-33). Here’s a portion of that interview:
RG: I say at the end of Things Hidden — and I think this is the right attitude to develop — that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.
RA: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.
RG: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice” — I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking, as exemplified by my reading of the Judgement of Solomon in the book [pp. 237-245]. This text is fundamental for my view of sacrifice.
2. Other Girardians have thus made more positive uses of the Letter to the Hebrews. James Alison makes plenty of positive use of it in Raising Abel, quoting it numerous times throughout and even giving it the last word. He closes with a quote of Heb. 12:18-24 (pp. 196-97) as a way of summarizing his entire argument in the book.
3. Raymund Schwager offers an extensive exposition of Hebrews in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 182ff. In a major “Systematic Consideration” entitled “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice,” Schwager basically uses Hebrews to anchor his argument. The concluding section of this part is “The Sacrifice of Christ and the ‘Conversion’ of Evil,” and Schwager uses Hebrews to show how the Cross works that transformation (especially the final sub-section of this part, entitled “The Cross and the Transformation of Evil.”)
4. In Violence Renounced, there are two articles with a Girardian perspective on Hebrews: “Sacrificial Language in Hebrews: Reappraising René Girard,” by Michael Hardin (one of the authors of another Girardian website on the lectionary, “Preaching Peace“), pp. 103-119; and “‘A Better Sacrifice’ or ‘Better than Sacrifice’? Response to Michael Hardin’s ‘Sacrificial Language in Hebrews,'” by Loren L. Johns, pp. 120-131.
5. I recommend Thomas Long‘s commentary on Hebrews in the Interpretation series (John Knox Press) as a standard, i.e., non-Girardian, commentary to consult for preaching. Long considers Hebrews to be a sermon, not really a letter, and so his rich homiletic exposition of Hebrews also includes wonderful commentary on the art of preaching itself. Moreover, Long himself is an artful preacher and brings a beautiful flare for language and metaphor to his commentary.
6. James Alison, Broken Hearts and News Creations, introduction, page xii, outlining a third emphasis in the book:
The third emphasis is also something I have learned from Girard. It is from Girard as a master reader of texts that I have begun to sense what might be meant by Jesus fulfilling the Scriptures. The more I have ‘sunk into’ the fecundity of Girard’s thought over time, the more it has made available for me some of the intellectual flexibility necessary to recover a way of handling the texts of Scripture that is, as far as I can tell, much closer to ancient or patristic styles than to ones we’ve become used to over the last couple of centuries. Girard’s thought has taught me to read the Hebrew Scriptures for signs of the One who was coming into the world, in the light of the actual shape that that coming into the world took in the Passion. In short, he makes it possible to read this passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews, quoting the Septuagint, as a rigorous instantiation of a hermeneutical model:
when he came into the world he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin-offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Lo I have come to do thy will, O God, as it is written of me in the roll of the book.”’
So, in the chapters that follow, and despite the fact that I am by formation a systematic theologian, and not a Scripture scholar, you will find various attempts of mine to read Scripture in the light of Mimetic Theory and to think through what it might mean to recover an ecclesial sense of Jesus fulfilling the Scriptures that seeks to avoid being supersessionist or anti-semitic.
Reflections and Questions
1. This passage grapples with the fact that the Hebrew tradition itself is steeped in sacrifice and is attempting to proclaim Christ as the end or fulfillment of all this. The quote from the Hebrew scriptures is from Psalm 40:6-8, but there are a number of related passages in which the Jewish tradition is trying to throw off the sacrificial: 1 Sam 15:22, Ps 50:8-15, Is 1:10-17, Jer 7:21-26, Hosea 6:6. See a webpage of biblical passages on the theme of “Mercy not Sacrifice.” Can one preach a sermon on the fact that the whole movement of the Old Testament seems to be away from sacrifice? Gil Bailie speaks of the near-sacrifice of Isaac as a defining point: Abraham, the father of the people of Israel, is one who begins the move away from sacrifice by hearing the voice of the true God to halt his sacrifice of the firstborn son. To be a descendent of Abraham means to move along this same path until Christ finally fulfills it by transforming sacrifice into self-sacrifice. See Violence Unveiled, pages 140-143, on “Abraham and Issac” (excerpt).
2. In what sense is it “God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”? We need to walk the fine line that refrains from saying that Christ’s sacrifice was God’s will. It was not God’s will in the sense that God requires such sacrifice. Mimetic theory makes it clear that sacrifice is by our will. (See the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”) But God transforms Christ’s self-sacrifice to the human powers of sacrifice into our sanctification. Now, that’s grace!
3. Raymund Schwager‘s treatment of such passages in Hebrews is nuanced and difficult but well worth the effort. He is attempting to show how God’s actions in Jesus Christ expressed a divine will in opposition to human wills but one with the power to transform what is evil in us. He notes that in Christ there is a conjunction of paradoxical forces that God is able to convert:
What at first seemed to be something purely negative, as the rejection of love and closing in on oneself, was transformed by Christ into a surrender which bursts all dimensions of earthly existence. He is therefore both scapegoat and lamb of God; he is the one who is the one slain and the bread of life; he is the one made into sin and the source of holiness. (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 189)
Thus, our slavery to the forces of sacrifice, the victimage mechanism which generates and sustains human culture, is sanctified into a new way of living as surrender to God’s loving will and desire for creation.
There are two crucial moves in Schwager’s argument. One is to show that Jesus’ act of surrender was for the benefit of all, even his enemies. Jesus came to incarnate a love that even reaches out to enemies. So if he allows himself to be killed by them, this is at the same time an act of identification with them because they did not know that they are victims of the same forces of sin and death. Schwager writes:
Jesus’ judges and his executioners wanted to punish a criminal; he himself on the other hand wanted to give himself, as the Last Supper sayings show, for the many. These two intentions stand in contradiction to each other. It follows that if Jesus was able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents, then this was possible only because he thereby managed at the same time to transform their actions.
The crucified one saw in his opponents people who ultimately did not know what they were doing, who, because of blindness, even in their actions were more victims than responsible agents. He himself was a victim insofar as he was killed and they were victims in killing, insofar as they were under the spell of an external power. For him, then, killing was an act done both to him and to them, even if in very differing ways. Both together were victims of that power which in fact kills: sin. At this deeper level, Jesus no longer stood over against his opponents, but he underwent together with them the blows of a destructive power, but in such a way that he alone experienced this suffering for what it was. Through his identification with his executioners, he suffered together with them the being killed by sin. Because of this common destiny, Paul can rightly say: “One has died for all; therefore all have died” (2 Cor 5:14).
The “conversion” and transformation of evil began with Jesus including his opponents in his being killed, and thus consciously living through on their behalf that dimension in their action which enables us to say that the act of crucifying him was in fact something suffered. But he had not yet achieved the decisive act, for suffering would only have had a positive sense if we had to assume that God directly willed such suffering as a punishment, which, however, we have already excluded. The crucial point was the transformation of passivity through his surrender. Because of his unreserved acceptance of the suffering which came to him, it was already more than something merely undergone. Suffering which is affirmed becomes a new form of activity. (pp. 187-188)
The second crucial move, then, is to understand clearly that sin’s twin, death, must also be seen in this nuanced fashion. Otherwise, we too easily arrive at our human notion of martyrdom that is more simply a sacrifice to our powers of sacrifice than it is a transformation into self-sacrifice. If one is not careful, we might end up too easily saying that Christ surrendered himself over to death as the experience we know it as: suffering. Christ surrendered himself not to death but in death to God’s will. He surrenders his Spirit back to the Father. I close these remarks with Schwager’s own careful parsing of these crucial insights:
All the synoptic Gospels on the one hand emphasize the suffering of the crucified one and on the other they clearly describe his dying as an activity. We find in Mark: “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out the Spirit [exepneusen, usually translated “expired”]” (Mark 15:37; Matt. 27:50). The loud cry was an expression of the most extreme desolation, and with the breathing out of his Spirit he indicated at the same time a revelatory event (Mark 1:11; 9:7) which went out from Jesus as bearer of the Spirit. The breathing out of the Spirit is made even clearer in Luke: “And Jesus cried loudly, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit'” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrendering and handing over the Spirit to the Father. Since Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as the long awaited bearer of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), the return of the Spirit to the Father means at the same time the fulfillment of the mission. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father consequently come together in the one event described by the letter to the Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.
Whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another person renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other, to whom he thereby entrusts himself without reserve in love. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life has its limits, arising at the least from the demands of one’s own life and one’s own identity. At the moment of dying, these limits can be broken down. But since in death all a person’s strengths fail, death in itself is extremely ambiguous. Is it merely the passive undergoing of an inexorable limit, or can there be a surrender which goes beyond all previous limits? From the viewpoint of ordinary human experience, no clear answer is possible. However Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) and, dying, entrusted his Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). Since the Spirit which he laid in the hands of the Father was at once his human spirit and the divine spirit bestowed on him, he was able completely to transform the ambiguous human act of dying, which is above all something suffered, into an act of surrender.
Whoever no longer determines himself by his own spirit, but entrusts this to the heavenly Father in order to allow himself to be totally determined by him, achieves a sort of openness and availability which go beyond our earthly experience and can only he hinted at by parables. The image of the clay with which the potter works can give a clue to this readiness to be shaped, and yet the one dying on the cross was much more than clay, for it was with his whole being and above all with his free will that he became a totally available “material.” What at first appeared only negative in the “victim situation” was transformed with his death into a limitless opening of himself and making himself available, an abandonment of himself and total trust. His dying as total act of handing over already contains agreement in advance to that imminent sovereign action of the Father, which was realized in the resurrection of the crucified one. His will allowed itself to open up through obedience in suffering to a complete uniting in love with the will of the Father. (pp. 188-189)
4. Verse 9b: “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” Abolishes what? Establishes what? Christians might tend to think in a wider context of abolishing the Old Covenant in favor of establishing the New Covenant. In recent years, though, we have recognized that this might not be a helpful way to think. And the more immediate context of this verse gives us perhaps an alternative way to think. In this passage, what is abolished is religion formed around sacrifice and what is established is the ability to truly do God’s will for those who are being sanctified.
Hebrews poses all this as something Christ came into this world to tell us. Where did he tell us? Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, for one: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice'” — a quote of Hosea 6:6. Jesus continues the prophetic message that sacrificial religion gets us sidetracked from our actual covenant to do God’s will as the people of God. Christ also surpasses the prophetic (as Hebrews tells us from the start, 1:1-2) by being the high priest who sacrifices himself as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
We no longer practice religions of ritual sacrifice, but are our practices of religion still in any way sacrificial? Do our practices of religion follow God’s will of doing mercy? Link to reflections on such questions through a church newsletter column on Hebrews 10:5-10.
1. James Alison, “Living the Magnificat” (online), a talk for the conference held by Affirming Catholicism in Durham, England, 7-10 September 2006; now ch. 2 in Broken Hearts and News Creations, pp. 17-33.
Luke 1:5-45 is structured in a diptych between the conceptions and births of John the Baptist and Jesus. There’s tremendous asymmetry between the two, which is the point.
Elizabeth and Zechariah. An angel appears to Zechariah in the temple. “Do not be afraid”: a refrain of the angels in these opening stories. We need to remember the backdrop: religious terror. The message of the angels from God is to not be afraid; real news for archaic religion, suffused with holy terror. The message is an old story: that of Abraham and Sarah. Zechariah doesn’t believe and made mute.
The Visitation: Angel appears to Mary. Same message and same refrain. But, while Elizabeth is too old to have a child, Mary is too young to have a child; she is still a virgin, a young maiden.
Is Mary a virgin? Dante’s Paradiso: at the beginning he says something like, ‘If you have eaten of the bread of angels (panis angelicus, the Eucharist), then go ahead and read; if you haven’t, then don’t bother reading because you aren’t going to get it.’ In other words, if the idea of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is something you can’t get your mind around, then there’s not a chance in the world you’re going to be able to get your mind around the Paradiso. If the mystery of that is a stumbling block, then there is a place beyond which you cannot go. Similarly, with the virginity of Mary. A minimalist view: No attempt to account for the meaning of Jesus’ life can succeed in doing so without taking into account divine intervention. If God’s intervention is inconceivable to you, then there are aspects of the Christian mystery that are out of your range.
The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is a surrogate meeting for the first meeting of John and Jesus. Elizabeth speaks for John and Mary speaks for Jesus. Elizabeth bows and defers to Mary, the first point where the diptych becomes asymmetrical. John is the forerunner. Mary responds with the Magnificat, which we need to focus on.
The Magnificat (1:46-55). This song sung by Mary is based on Hannah’s song. And the story of Mary and Jesus is a filling in and fleshing out of the Hannah/Samuel story as the Elizabeth and Zechariah story is a filling in and fleshing out of the Abraham and Sarah story.
This song of praise summarizes the themes of the whole Old Testament. In our world, we tend to think that if something new is going to come into the world, then you have to get rid of the old ideas. We’ve got to think for ourselves, to do something original. But Mary is the vessel for the newest thing ever, and she’s nothing but the incarnation of the tradition.
Quote from Thomas Dehaney Benard (sp?), around the turn of the century: “Do we not all know how sentences from the Bible or the liturgy glide into our prayers and offer their unsought aid to express kindred feelings of our own? So here [namely, the Magnificat] the words, as well as the thoughts, are those of a high-souled Hebrew maiden of devout and meditative habit, whose mind has taken the tone of the Scriptures in which she has been nurtured. We feel the breath of the prophets; we catch the echoes of the psalms; we recognize most distinctly the vivid reminiscences of the song of Hannah.”
He’s explaining how the Lukan Mary spontaneously irrupts with this glorious avalanche of themes that summarize the whole Hebrew experience. Do we really know? Do sentences from the Bible and the liturgy glide into our prayers? He’s talking about something that’s not so true anymore.
“The mind has taken the tone of the Scriptures in which she has been nurtured.” What is the corollary for that in our world? Today, what would we irrupt with? Would we irrupt with the Magnificat? Or with some TV commercial? What is forming us? And whatever it is, it’s anything but this because we believe, as Luke did not, that creativity is other than being steeped in the tradition.
3. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 221. Girard’s anthropology is not an excuse to disparage traditional orthodox positions such as the divinity of Christ or even the virgin birth. Rather, he supports his position from the standpoint of such staple doctrines; see his sections on “The Divinity of Christ” and “The Virgin Birth.”
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from December 21, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).
5. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “He Shall Be the One of Peace.” He begins with the insight that the Holy Spirit is characterized by the absence of rivalry and proceeds to make a thoroughly Girardian reading of Mary’s Song. In 2015, a brief reflection for the Christmas pageant, “Surprised by Joy.”
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” offers these reflections on Mary, “Mary in the Place of Shame and Glory.”
7. Clint Schnekloth interviewing Elizabeth Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, shortly after her book, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. Here’s the Word & World (Volume 25, No. 1 / Winter 2005) interview: https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/…/25…/25-1_Schnekloth.pdf
8. Russ Hewett, pastor of MeetingPlace near Bangor, Maine, offers this blog on the hope born in Mary, “Before Jesus Came, Hope Was Born.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Mary’s Song concludes, “in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” What is the mercy that goes all the way back to Abraham?
In 2012 we are still reeling from the slaughter of innocents in Newtown, CT. In light of Mimetic Theory, we might begin by asking, does it help us to understand how Adam Lanza could target six year-olds at his neighborhood school, if we begin by trying to understand how human communities through the eons could put their children on altars and murder them with the sacrificial knife? Was Isaac around six when his father Abraham heard god telling him to sacrifice his son? Can we begin to understand how Abraham could possibly think that was his sacred duty? Were the actions of Adam Lanza completely the actions of an enraged, psychopathic individual? Or did he somehow hear a higher authority, from deep within our human history, commanding him to do this as his last act upon the earth? We will never know for sure.
But we do know that the Judeo-Christian revelation begins with Abraham hearing the voice of Yahweh telling him not to kill his son on an altar. (For more on Gen. 22 see the webpage for Proper 8A, and more below in comment #5.) Abraham heard the voice of sacrifice at the beginning of the passage (the same voice that Adam Lanza heard?). But he also finally heard the voice of Yahweh at the end telling him to stop. And if we think we have long ago moved past listening to the voice of sacrifice, consider the words of Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the United Nations: when asked on nationwide television in 1996 if the death of half a million Iraqi children from US war and sanctions on that country was a price worth paying, she didn’t deny the numbers. She replied: “This is a very hard choice, but the price — we think is worth it.” We need to ask ourselves why half a million dead Iraqi children don’t seem to bother us as much as 20 school children killed in Connecticut. The answer should be that both disturb us to the core so that we do more to stop it, as difficult as that “more” may be to find. Or admit to ourselves that the logic of child sacrifice is alive and well 4,000 years after Abraham. Admittedly, the logic of sacrifice is much more complex in today’s world, where a choice to not make a military intervention often means letting someone else kill someone’s children. Which is worse? Risking killing children in an effort to protect others, or standing by while someone else carries out a sacrificial bloodletting? But the complexity of these sacrificial choices do not make them any less sacrificial. And so the Good News of God beginning to rescue us by someday not having to make these terrible choices at all should be enough to make us leap for joy. In the meantime, however, how do we continue to listen to God’s voice and respond faithfully? How much are we even listening?
Abraham’s hearing the antisacrificial voice of God is the beginning of Covenant, the beginning of a new basis for being human, a new foundation for our humanity. We are no longer to base our human institutions in the sacrificial structures that privilege some and sacrifice others. And, in the process, we will meet a completely new God. The gods of sacrifice are gods of wrath and punishment who create order in community sacrificially and enforce it with sacred violence. The God who called to Abraham to stop the sacrifice is a God of mercy and compassion whose justice reaches out to the lowest to make sure that all needs are met — that no one is sacrificed. Steeped in 100,000 years of the other gods, humanity has never been going to hear this new God of mercy and compassion overnight. So this God made a Covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants in order to carry on the conversation for centuries.
Back to Mary’s Song. The covenant made to Abraham and Sarah is about to begin its time of fulfillment through the fetus growing in Mary’s womb. The word womb (Gr koilia) appears three times in this passage. I wonder if we might see it as a metaphor for human culture — the container in which we are shaped and formed after our births. Except human culture, since our beginnings, is a safe place for nurturing us on a sacrificial basis. The safe nurturing of the majority is bought at the price of a minority. (Adam Lanza’s idiosyncratic sacrificial logic went against our culture’s sacrificial logic where it is precisely middle class white children who must be kept safe, such that the death of Iraqi children is generally not experienced with the same impact as suburbanite Connecticut children.) John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb in anticipation that the child in Mary’s womb will begin God’s redemption of the womb of human culture, so that it will one day be a place where all are safe. It will never again be a matter of our children vs. someone else’s children, because all are recognized as God’s children.
What has always been founded in the wrath of ritual blood sacrifice, i.e. human culture, will be redeemed by Jesus’s compassionate act of self-sacrifice on the cross, and God’s rescuing power of life on Easter. The Good News is that God’s culture is breaking into this world to redeem human culture, begun in Jesus and continuing through the Holy Spirit. The unleashing of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s telling begins in the wombs of this odd couple — a woman too old to conceive and an unmarried woman too young — and will begin to redeem the womb of human culture on Easter. The sacrificial structure of human cultures that stratifies some high to be privileged and some low to be sacrificed will begin a leveling — a theme we see both with John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah 40:3-4, and in Mary’s song. The high are brought down and the low are raised up. In God’s culture (“kingdom”), the response to human need is oriented around the lowest — that which human culture sacrifices — so that all God’s children may have enough.
Link to a sermon titled “Mary’s Song and Hope for Newtown.” (Note: the designers of the lectionary seem to have made this connection between Mary’s Song and the end of sacrifice by pairing it with Hebrews 10:5-10.)
2. In this Christmas season of great charity, the analysis of Mimetic Theory helps us to see the place of charity more clearly. Charity is important and essential as acts which model the values of God’s culture coming into the world; modelling is the heart of Mimetic Theory, the process through the Holy Spirit by which human beings catch God’s desire, having their own desires redeemed. But charity alone is insufficient for the ultimate redeeming of the structures of human cultures themselves. Charity alone will not bring about the ultimate leveling promised in Mary’s Song. Charity acts to help bring up the lowly that the sacrificial engines of human culture keep producing. It is putting a band-aid on a continually festering wound. Someday, the New Jerusalem will come to earth such that the city of God will no longer be producing the lowly at all — and there will be no further need for charity. In the meantime, are there ways in which human justice can begin to be transformed by God’s justice so that the lowly are raised up by the whole community, and not just those who act in charity? Does the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of democracy working for the Common Good bear hope resonant with Mary’s Song?
3. With this last question, I’d like to take us back to Newtown and young people like Adam Lanza, who suffer woefully as undertreated from mental illness and then others horrifically pay the the price. In light of the last question, we can even point to a contrast here. For how we treat children who suffer from certain kinds of illnesses and differing abilities has seen a remarkable leap forward in human justice being transformed by God’s justice. Children with cancer are treated for free at amazing places like St. Jude’s Hospital. School systems across the land allocate considerable resources — human, architectural, and financial — to giving differently-abled children the very best chance of succeeding in school and in life. Think of how different the situation is from a hundred years ago when “disabled” children were immediately shunted away into institutions to languish and die — sacrificed according to the old structures of human culture. But mental illness in children seems to be the last frontier in this movement. Children like Adam Lanza, who seem to be born with brain chemistry that leads to anti-social behaviors that can become dangerous, are significantly undertreated. Yes, saner gun control would be a welcome outcome in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy. But even more important from my perspective would be to take huge steps forward in our treatment of mental illness, especially in children and youth. (If you haven’t seen it yet, see Liza Long‘s blog-gone-viral “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”)
4. For those who are looking for fresh ways to talk about culture in light of Mimetic Theory, we wrapped up our study this past Sunday of Brian McLaren‘s excellent new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, where he has a helpful summary of the Girardian anthropology on pages 108-110, which concludes:
Religious and political systems (and sports leagues) become the curators of our rivalry-management mechanisms. They seek to keep the peace by (a) providing mechanisms for the focused release of cathartic, unifying violence against a scapegoat of some kind, and (b) pronouncing prohibitions on behaviors that would lead to outbreaks of unmanageable, disintegrating rivalry. (p. 110)
We might add a third means of keeping the peace, the one we’ve talked about here a great deal: (c) stratifying everyone’s positions and status in life, high station to low station, so that deferral of desire for objects of rivalry is placed in a hierarchy. But in our class Sunday we got a lot of mileage out of Brian’s term “rivalry-management mechanisms.” That’s what human culture came into place to do. The rivalry-management mechanism for other mammals is a dominance hierarchy of deferral, put into place by fighting to establish physical dominance. This no longer was effective for our hominid ancestors, so the mechanism that came into place is the scapegoating mechanism which sets up a religion-based culture whose gods provide the authority for the hierarchy of deferral. According to the original human enculturation, for example, women defer to men because the gods made men superior — and the religious authority is behind all such hierarchies of deferral.
One of the reasons why a TV series like Downton Abbey might be so popular is that we are fascinated by the remnants, and the falling apart, of such societal hierarchies. You can sense in the characters of Downton Abbey their sense that God made things in the way of stratification that defines their lives — a sense that postmodern people no longer have.
The Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement of the last century were part of the leveling process that is prophesied in Mary’s Song. As we begin to see the injustice in our hierarchies of deferral, and the authority of the gods is removed from propping them up, then we begin to see the high brought down and the lowly raised up. The sexism and racism which were embedded in our culture for centuries will take generations to completely dismantle, of course. One must work with great focus and attention to dismantle it. “Diversity Training,” for example, isn’t going to be enough, when white people are still typically in charge of the overall institution. Diversity can be and is done in racist ways because they are still under the auspices of racist institutions. An organization must be intentionally “antiracist” to continue the work of dismantling racism. (See, for example, the work of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing & Training.)
An area in which hierarchy still persists is our economics, where capitalists still enjoy the privilege of authority, held up by the god of the Free Market. We know this because the fruit of our capitalism is currently to widen the gap between rich and poor instead of the leveling proclaimed in Mary’s Song. Also, does the Military Establishment currently enjoy a status of privilege in the United States? And supporters of marriage as exclusively heterosexual are putting up a feisty last stand.
But all the leveling which is taking place, as good as it is from the perspective of the prophetic tradition of the Bible, creates great danger, too, because our rivalry-management system of old is losing its effectiveness. This is the apocalyptic dimension of Jesus’s message which is featured in the Synoptic Gospels (always the First Sunday of Advent; see Advent 1C), delivered in a sermon right before the apocalyptic revelation of his crucifixion and resurrection. Because the cross begins taking away our rivalry-management mechanism, Jesus understands that the violence carried out by human beings (not God!) will get worse before it gets better — and he was right. The other element of God’s culture, then, is to also catch the spirit of God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s forgiveness. To simply level the playing field without redeeming the tendency of our desire to fall into rivalry will return us to the even greater danger of all-against-all, the situation which the scapegoating mechanism saved us from, in the first place. In Jesus Christ, God completes the redemption by pouring out the Spirit of God’s compassion, God’s way of desiring which redeems the fall of our desiring into rivalry. It is God’s Covenant Love which is saving us, the promise to Abraham and Sarah being fulfilled. Enough to make anyone jump for joy!
5. I’m pondering Diana Butler Bass‘s provocative essay on Huffington Post in the aftermath of Newtown: “Where Was God in Newtown?” She might have benefited from Mimetic Theory in categorizing the answers to this question in the three groupings she chooses: God was present, God was absent, God was hidden. MT would have us, first of all, change the question: Which g_d was in Newtown? Anthropology is one of the things raised up and theology lowered (a leveling of theology’s usual perceived ascendency over anthropology) so that we can begin to better understand the gods as our human projections of the authority we need to back the sacred violence of our rivalry-management system. The gods are, by and large, cultural gods. We can understand that when Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich suggest that God is absent from our schools because we have taken him out, and that we need to put him back in through school prayer, they are speaking primarily of our cultural gods.
Is there a true God outside of our usual cultural gods? If so, then that God is generally always hidden to some extent behind those gods of our making. We began these reflections with the near-sacrifice of Isaac. MT reads this story as the true God being hidden behind the cultural gods who demand child sacrifice. The biblical story of salvation begins proper when Abraham hears the voice of the true God telling him to stop the sacrifice. It is a process of learning to hear which continues to this very day. We will continue to have mentally ill folks like Adam Lanza who hear a voice of authority in their heads commanding them to carry out a sacrifice. Even more tragically, we all will continue to listen to cultural gods who find ways to justify our neglect of suffering children when there’s so much more we can to do to stop the suffering. Adam Lanza had been one of those children. As an adult, he has to take responsibility for what he did. But don’t we all also share some of the responsibility to the extent that we continue to listen to cultural gods who say there’s nothing more we can do for children who suffer like Adam Lanza did? What are the ways in which we continue to sacrifice the children?
As a disciple of Jesus I believe that he came into this world on that first Christmas to begin revealing the true God to us, out from behind our cultural gods. It is still typically those cultural gods who are most present to us, with the God, whose culture of leveling out the inequity and injustice comes most fully in Jesus, still at least partially hidden to us. Where might we find this God? The cross shows us that we are still, in a world run by the sacred violence of our cultural gods, most likely to find this God amidst the suffering of our victims. We find the God of Jesus in the suffering of the people of Newtown. But in the hope represented by today’s passage — babies leaping in wombs and prophesies of a great leveling of God’s promised justice — can we also find hope in the justice that is slowly taking place in this post-resurrection world? The way in which our schools do currently help raise the lowly — can we hope for more? Can we be inspired to work for more? (Again, you may link to the 2012 sermon “Mary’s Song and Hope for Newtown.”)
6. (Pre-2012 post:) This passage very much continues the theme from the Micah passage about a God who favors the least among God’s children. (See the reflections above.) Mary’s song highlights the overturning that will take place. Mimetic theory helps, I think, to keep this overturning in perspective. As we said above, the overturning will not happen through the usual human means of military victory. For those who have been victims to rise up and murder their persecutors is a reversal only according to the same age-old human perspective of the persecutors. The victims have reversed things by becoming the persecutors of their persecutors.
The perspective of the victim, on the other hand, takes the faith of letting oneself fulfill the destiny of a victim, trusting that the God of Life and Creation will overturn that power of death through a power of new life. The perspective of the victim can only take an permanent place in history when the Messiah submits to human persecution in the faith of being raised from the dead by the God who sides with victims. This God understands that the ultimate end of the human perspective shaped by sacred violence is for all of humanity to become victim to its own violence. Thus, this God is ultimately on humanity’s side, intervening in history through the Messiah who forever reveals the life-giving power of victim as forgiveness.
7. Gil Bailie emphasizes how easily the perspective of Scripture glides from Mary’s tongue. This was re-emphasized for me in scrolling through 1 Samuel to rehearse the part about Samuel choosing David to replace Saul. Here is a taste once again of how close Mary’s song is to Hannah’s:
Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
8. Verse 50: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Recall what we said about “generation” in Advent 1C. The generation of human culture, according to mimetic theory, is along the order of sacrifice. God’s way is to show mercy. Again (as above), see a webpage of biblical passages on the theme of “Mercy not Sacrifice.”