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First to Shepherds and Migrant Farmworkers

I live with a shepherd. His name is Judah, but he’s not a human being; he’s a canine, an Australian shepherd dog.

Just in case I’m in any danger of forgetting his genetic predispositions as a shepherd, he will sometimes circle around behind me on our walks when we’re crossing a street, to herd me safely across to the other side.

It was during one of those herding moments in downtown Saugatuck recently that my Christmas gaze landed on what we hear from Luke every year—the prominent role played by shepherds in the Nativity.

To break my sentimentality around that story, I need to recall some of the socially complex features of shepherds in the first-century Mediterranean world. They performed essential work to ensure the thriving of their communities but it was mostly thankless and invisible work. Shepherding was an occupation on the margins of that society, literally marginal as shepherds were required to do their work at a fixed distance from the city gates.

The work itself was challenging. Shepherds had to wrangle obstinate sheep and fend off predators, not only wolves but also larger animals, like bears and lions. They sometimes had to fend off humans, too, the sheep-stealers who would approach the herd under the cover of darkness. That’s why the shepherds in Luke’s story were awake that night, guarding the sheep.

Everyone knew how much they relied on shepherds for their economic flourishing but they were nonetheless treated as outsiders—“dirty, unsophisticated, brutish and vulgar,” as one commentator put it.

It takes little effort to imagine similar occupations in our own society today. I can’t help but think of the migrant farmworkers in the central valley of California, near where I used to live, and now closer to my new home in the fields and orchards of southwest Michigan during peak harvest.

In this affluent resort town, we live very near to a whole class of people most of us who live here seldom see or even think about, yet without whose work the shelves in our grocery stores and markets would have far fewer fruits and vegetables on them; some of these workers actually go hungry themselves.

To people like that, Luke says—from ancient shepherds to today’s migrant farmworkers—an angel of the Lord appeared and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

Luke reports what this angel was sent to proclaim and he reports it this way: “I am bringing you good news,” the angel says, “good news of great joy for all the people.”

For all the people. So here’s at least one reason why Luke has this angel show up first to shepherds—to make clear that the good news meant for “all the people” really does mean all, no exceptions.

“For unto you,” the angel says, “is born this day, in the City of David, a savior”—not only for the wealthy, or the powerful, or the influencers, or the movers and shakers, but for all the people, starting with the ones whom we rarely see and who don’t seem to count.

Now, that would have been enough, more than enough, for that tiny band of shepherds to absorb. It’s not every day, after all, that an angel pays you a visit in the middle of the night and makes your hillside bright with the glory of God.

But there was more.

After this solitary angel delivered the message, the whole sky above them was suddenly filled with a host of angelic beings singing God’s praise.

“Seeing Shepherds,” Daniel Bonnell

That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Surely the splendor of a single angel would have sufficed to deliver the message.

What might Luke’s purpose be in giving us this Technicolor spectacle of heavenly radiance and divine praise? Why all the fuss?

Luke gives us some hints about this by starting his account of the gospel with an elderly, childless woman who becomes pregnant, and then a young, unmarried virgin who becomes pregnant, and throughout his gospel account with story after story of the powerless, the lonely, the fearful, the marginalized and outcast all taking center stage as the story unfolds about the baby born this night.

A single, solitary angel, no matter how splendid, would not suffice for Luke’s purpose. To those shepherds and everyone else who lives as they do—on the margins and invisible—for them Luke wants to ensure that they hear the good news:

you are not forgotten;
you have not been overlooked;
your lives matter and you count.

So…here’s a heavenly host singing just for you!

Yes, it is excessive.

Indeed, it’s just as excessive as the grace that embraced the prodigal son and that was offered by the good Samaritan to the injured traveler; just as excessive as the compassion given to the widow of Nain whose son had died, to the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears; just as excessive as the generosity shown to Zaccheus the tax collector and the Samaritan leper who was healed—these are just some of the stories that appear only in Luke’s account of the gospel.

Of course a whole heavenly host of angels would sing for just a few ragtag shepherds in a field. Because this is Luke telling the story, and Luke opens his account of the Gospel with a young girl praising God for bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

That song of Mary is found only in Luke as well.

May we hear her song throughout these Twelve Days of Christmas, echoed in that angelic chorus of praise. May we hear that song reminding us that the God we worship leaves no one behind; and showers grace first of all on those who are easily forgotten and dismissed; and for all of us becomes touchable, tangible love, a love we can cradle in our arms, like a baby.

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Advent 4: Comrade Mary

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The Blessed Virgin Mary – it’s complicated.

It’s been complicated for a long time, ever since Christian men started telling Christian women to be like Mary – passive and submissive.

It’s complicated, not least because Mary’s traditional title includes the word “virgin,” which has cast a Christian spell of suspicion over human sexuality for centuries. (And this is certainly odd since I’m pretty sure Jesus’ brothers and sisters were not delivered by storks.)

So is Mary the model for humble obedience to the will of God? Or is she the fierce pioneer of God’s intervention into human history with radicalized love?

Yes, both; it’s complicated.

Christians arrive to the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Mary greetsmary_elizabeth1 us. What she says ought to provoke in us what happened to her cousin, Elizabeth: our insides should twist and tumble and tweak (Luke 1:44).

Mary greets us in this week before Christmas having done quite a remarkable thing indeed: saying Yes to God. This is not easy.

This Yes is not passive submission, but deliberate, engaged, active participation in a divine encounter. This woman had precious few opportunities to chart her own course or even ponder it, yet she not only questions God’s own emissary but then boldly says Yes – as if that mattered, and it does.

Mary greets us as the One-Who-Says-Yes-to-God, and then tells us what this Yes means:

God has scattered the proud in their conceit.
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

Mary’s exclamation ought to send shivers down the spine of all those who wield power, whether through votes or by force or in the mechanisms of social privilege.

But no, not quite. That would be the rhetoric of the opposition party countering the power of the ruling class. Mary’s greeting is more revolutionary than that.

Mary echoes the words of Hannah, from centuries before her own time. Hannah lamented not having children of her own and dared to present herself in the Temple, repeatedly, to demand a divine remedy. The male guardian of that holy site even worried that she might be drunk. But then God answered her fervent prayers, and the prophet Samuel was the result. Hannah’s song of praise lingers in Mary’s exultations:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth…
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 (1 Samuel 2:3-5).

Mary2Mary, in solidarity with her ancient sister Hannah, greets us, not with cozy platitudes but a challenge: God is found among the least likely; God attends to the forgotten, the outcast, the throwaways, the utterly insignificant. God pays heed to the ones not even the most “progressive” among us try to feature in our programs of charitable assistance. Mary voices the astonishing solidarity of God with the absolutely voiceless.

Where God is, most cannot hear – but Mary does.

And so I think of my own mother, Rosemary, who died this year at the end of March. That faithful, pious woman who refused to let God off the hook. Like Hannah, she fretted over not having children – and complained bitterly to God about it (whether she complained about the result is another story…).

My mother was tender and tenacious, stubborn and strategic, frivolous and fierce. She was complicated; and so was Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mothers do and speak and live what few take as important, significant, or laudatory. Most of us don’t even know the half of it.

Our complicated mothers are our complicated selves in countless ways, even as our social systems reduce us to the neatly drawn categories of gender, race, and religion. Mary said No to all of that by saying Yes to God – the God whom she encountered as our Uncanny Comrade.

Mary, too, is our comrade, who points to the outrageous God of Jesus by pointing at her own body – her rounded belly, the charges of scandal, the forced migration, the painful journey, the lack of any hospitality, the bloody, messy stable. Mary’s life and witness, her words and her body, are as complicated and as glorious as your body and mine. There, she says, in all that bodily complexity, right there is God.

But “comrade”? Why risk evoking a revolution? Because Mary voiced what Hannah voiced and my own dear mother voiced, each in her own way: take God seriously, and the world will not stay the same. Take God seriously, and your own world will turn upside down. Take God seriously…seriously enough to complain and cajole and insist and demand that God make good on God’s promises. That’s what mothers do.

Yes, it’s complicated, but not so terribly much. Because we are the story of Mary and her Child, a story of God’s unending, passionate love for God’s own creation.

So may Mary, the mother of a precious and vulnerable child, help us see the piercing love of mothers for their terribly vulnerable children – on the streets of Ferguson, in flimsy boats on the Aegean Sea, on the beaches of Greek islands, in our schoolyards playing, and in our backyards laughing.

May Mary’s brazen Yes animate our own affirmations of God’s justice, especially when it seems risky and unreasonable.

May this blessed and ancient comrade in divine mysteries inspire us to see and treat all bodies as blessed – all of them, without exception.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 1979 Book of Common Padvent_3_altrayer
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.