December 4, 2016

When God is Too Close

This Advent season we are looking at some of the main characters in the Christmas drama through the lens of Creation Spirituality as defined by Matthew Fox. (see last week).
According to Fox there our lives are a four-fold journey that involves the Via Positivia, Via Negativa, Via Creativa, and the Via Transformativa. Throughout our lives we ‘weave through these paths like a spiral danced.’
Mary of Nazareth is a key player in the Christmas story because she agrees to be the one to ‘bear a son and…call his name Emmanuel’ in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to Israel given to King Ahaz centuries earlier. (Isaiah 7:14).

The Via Positiva is defined by Matthew Fox as the part of our life path where we experience awe, delight, amazement in the work of God in the world and in our lives. Mary, a teenage girl in the small town of Nazareth, was not expecting God to interact in her life in any amazing way. She was engaged to the carpenter of Nazareth, a man named Joseph, who she probably didn’t know very well. As was the custom of the time, her parents and his would have made the arrangements for the betrothal. This was much more than a promise to get married. In fact, except for the actual consummation, the Hebrew 1st Century betrothal was equivalent to the wedding. If the man died, the woman inherited just as if she had been his wife.
Mary, as a betrothed girl, would have been busy with preparations for her wedding. She would have been getting blankets and baskets and bowls ready to move to Joseph’s home. He would have been busy renovating or building a home for his bride. Into this everyday world, God comes. Again, it is the angel Gabriel who arrives with an unexpected message. Six months earlier Gabriel visited Zechariah in the Temple. Now, “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” It must have been an astonishing thing. “He came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Mary appears to be more concerned about why Gabriel calls her favored than by the fact that an angel is talking to her! Perhaps it is easier when confronted with the astonishingly Holy, to cling to the mundane.
Then he continues, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
After this astonishing announcement, Mary is understandably confused. “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.’ And as proof of his veracity, Gabriel adds, ‘And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Convinced and faithful, “Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:26-38)
Stop and Think: Consider the difference in response between Mary and Zechariah. Are you more like Mary or Zechariah when you perceive God speaking? Has God ever ‘stepped’ into your everyday world and changed things?

You might wonder what part the Via Negative could play in Mary’s part in the drama. This is the part of our path where things can get rocky. Fox says the Via Negativa is characterized by uncertainty, darkness, suffering, and even letting go. Certainly, Mary had to relinquish her plans for her immediate future. She had to tell her parents and her betrothed husband the news. She had to accept that they were not happy about the situation and maybe even doubted her story.
When she said, “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”, Mary opened herself to the scorn and ridicule of family and friends. Only God could put things right. By trusting God, Mary showed a wisdom above her years. She did not try to convince Joseph or explain things to anyone. She simply waited on God and let go of her own plans. The simple married life she envisioned would never be. God had changed all that when God stepped into her life. Saying ‘yes’ to God’s call isn’t always easy and often means we have to let go of our carefully laid out plans.
Stop and Think: Put yourself in Mary’s sandals. What feelings might you have when you must you’re your parents and Joseph that you are pregnant, by God? What feelings would you have experienced when those who love you, doubt your story?

The Via Creativa is a time for returning to relationship with God which has been broken by the sin, doubt, or suffering of the Via Negativa. With the Via Creativa comes compassion for others. With nowhere else to turn, we can guess that Mary turned to God. There is nothing in scripture that gives any hint. We do know that she acted in a surprising way, for a teenage girl of her time.
She “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:39-40) Perhaps reminded of the angel’s comment about Elizabeth being 6 months pregnant, the girl joined a caravan and went to visit her cousin. This was probably a week-long trek over dirt roads that could be beset by bandits. Mary was very brave both in her ‘yes’ to God, and her journey to see Elizabeth.
Upon reaching their home, she said hello to Elizabeth, who prophesied. ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:41-45)
Elizabeth’s words were a balm to Mary’s confused and troubled heart. Seeing that the angel had spoke truthfully about Elizabeth’s pregnancy must have given Mary assurance that she had not imagined the whole incident with Gabriel. She could embrace the promise of God with joy.
 Stop and Think: How often do we try to fix things ourselves instead of turning to God when times get rough? What happened when you let go and let God take care of some difficult situation?

Mary responds to Elizabeth with the famous Magnificat, announcing a change in world order, the arrival of the Via Transformativa, where our lives join with God’s social justice and re-creation. When we come full circle back to union with God’s creativity, we are made more whole than before.
Mary sings, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ (Luke 1:46-55)
In Original Blessing Matthew Fox states, “Justice moves us first because injustice moves us. An erotic justice means first of all getting in touch with our feelings about injustice.” Mary’s Magnificat also calls us to consider the response of God to injustice and our call to work for justice.
Stop and Think: Matthew Fox asks “Do we have such feelings [about injustice]? Do we allow them to be? Do we have feelings toward unemployed…prisoners…small business swallowed by a multicorporate monster?” Do you need to join God in ‘erotic justice’?

The Gospel account in Luke tells us “Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.” The young woman leaves and returns to Nazareth where she will really have to face difficult questions because soon it will be glaringly obvious that she is ‘with child’. She and Joseph will need to face down the gossip. We’ll consider Joseph’s response to Mary and her announcement next week.

For thoughts from another blogger about Mary, her response and ours to God's call to action is on Life for Leaders on December 4.

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