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Sunday, 20 December 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The reading for this last Sunday in Advent includes some striking words from the prophet Amos and the Mary's prophetic outburst that we have managed to soften the edges off and conveniently forget its prophetic politically disturbing character. Thomas Cahill locates Mary in this prophetic tradition:

Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient party-poopers. It is a mistaken notion that prophets can see the future. Rather, they tell us what is true right now. Amos is the first in a long line of Hebrew prophets who tell the people the truth, however unwelcome, about how they actually stand with God.

A decade or so after Amos' time, another prophet, Micah, finds himself confronted in the southern kingdom of Judah with the appalling Canaanite tradition of sacrificing children to the god Moloch. This practice had begun to attract even some Israelites. Micah, sickened, tells them in no uncertain terms that God "has already shown you what is right: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

The ancient Jews had an amazingly unitive view of life. They did not need to distinguish prayer and moral action as if these were separate movements: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk with God—that is, to be moral and prayerful—were all simply aspects of the same process.

Mary, the Muscular Prophet
A third example of prophecy comes from early Christian tradition. Luke reports that "it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1). Despite the decree, it wasn't really the whole world—just the poor and lower rungs of the middle class, because in ancient Rome the rich only pretended to pay taxes, while everyone else bore the brunt of supporting the state...

Joseph had to travel all the way from Nazareth to his birthplace, Bethlehem, "to be taxed," as Luke tells us, "with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child." If you lived in one of the better neighborhoods, you didn't need to be saddled with such inconveniences. But if you were poor or a member of a minority group, a 100-mile journey by donkey when you were nine months pregnant was just the way things were.

Were Mary and Joseph bitter? Did they wonder if God had abandoned them to be permanently oppressed by the rich and powerful? No, their lives were not confined to the politics or circumstances of the moment, however appalling.

In her song of celebration about the baby she was about to give birth to, Mary spoke eloquently in the Jewish prophetic tradition—by seeing beyond the surface realities to the deep truth of human affairs. "My soul extols the Lord," she exclaimed,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because he has acknowledged his servant's humiliation. Look: from now on will all ages call me happy because the Almighty One (holy his Name) has done great things for me! His mercy falls on every generation that fears him. With his powerful arm he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled the princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-53).

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