One of the great Christmas passages of the New Testament is found at the end of the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It's called "The Magnificat," and is spoken by Mary, the newly pregnant mother of Jesus.
In the image here today I've given you one translation of it, but here is the translation found in David Bentley Hart's new translation of the New Testament, which I reviewed here on the blog yesterday:
"And Mary said, My soul proclaims the Lord's greatness, And my spirit rejoices in God my savior, Because he looked upon the low estate of his slave. For see: Henceforth all generations will bless me; Because the Mighty One has done great things to me. And holy is his name, And his mercy is for generations and generations to those who fear him. He has worked power with his arm, he has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts; He has pulled dynasts down from thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has given aid to Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, Just as he promised to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed, throughout the age.'"
That's verses 46 through 55, and what I'd like you to notice about it is its counter-cultural nature.
Fritz Wendt, a native of northern Germany, a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City, unpacks some of that in this interesting meditation on The Magnificat.
The passage, Wendt writes, "sticks out because, instead of being sweet and gentle, it is impolite and 'in your face'; instead of soothing us, it irritates, it annoys, it interrupts."
Indeed, that's what the whole gospel story does in some ways. We are likely to think of the sweet Christmas baby and of all being calm and all being bright, in the words of the hymn, but, in fact, the reality is that in that birth, Christianity makes the astonishing claim that God has entered human flesh and that nothing will ever be the same.
And though Christianity calls Jesus a king, this is not a king with a violent army ready to establish power. Rather, it's a king born into weakness who will die in weakness. Talk about being irritated, annoyed and interrupted.
Wendt says Mary's message is this: "Through God’s action, the social hierarchy of wealth and poverty, power and subjugation is to be turned upside down; a new social order of justice is at hand."
Ah, yes. Sweet Christmas. It's revolutionary stuff. Which means that for many it will irritate, annoy and interrupt. As it should. So Merry Christmas.
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HOW CAN YOU RESIST THIS CHALLENGE?
Pope Francis says that trying to reform the Curia (top officials at the Vatican) is like trying to clean the Sphinx with a toothbrush. I've seen the Sphinx a couple of times in my life and now Francis has given me a fun reason to visit it again to test out his metaphor.
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THE BOOK CORNER
The Last Christians: Stories of Persecution, Flight and Resistance in the Middle East, by Andreas Knapp. What makes this book both heartbreaking and effective is that it's the account of the author's personal journey to the Iraqi land that, until recently, the terrorist group ISIS controlled. He travels from his native Germany with a refugee from Mosul to begin his story of the slaughter of Christians at the hand of radical Islamists. From there he describes in excruciating detail what has happened to Christians who have stood against ISIS. Knapp, a poet, priest and author, several times comes to the edge of denouncing the whole of Islam, but he backs away from that prejudice in time and concedes there have been times when "Sword and Bible-wielding Christians became cruel colonial masters, as reverence for humankind as the image of God gave way to thirst for power in the guise of religion. Conversely, Islam has known periods of relative tolerance." Religions of all stripe have blood on their hands. And the focus here is on the Islamists who have betrayed the core of their faith to commit violence in pursuit of radical religious and political goals. Knapp's conclusion: "Christians from the Middle East have given up everything in order to remain true to their belief in the gospel. They come from the homeland of Christianity and remind us of our own origins and values. By opening our doors to them, we have it in our power to preserve this precious legacy and ensure a more humane future for humanity."