This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
1 Samuel 2:1-10
2Hannah 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.
2 ‘There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
3 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.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 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.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 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 honour.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
9 ‘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.
10 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.’
In form and language this song is one of Royal Psalms in which a king gives thanks to God for a victory against the odds. The editor of the books of Samuel has placed it here and put it in the mouth of Hannah. That shows his good understanding of the story of the birth of Samuel, the great leader of Israel. An ordinary woman, who is regarded as barren becomes the mother of God’s chosen prophet and priest. By transferring to her a royal psalm the editor shows he understands the ways of God who gives royalty to ordinary people who trust in him. The content of the song also carries this message. God is not impressed by worldly status and often lifts up the poor. If we compare this song with the Magnificat of Mary we can see how Luke has used it as a basis for his composition. In fact the history of this “psalm” shows how much the Bible reader owes to the skills of its editors and story-tellers.
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then 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.
Just look at that first sentence. The activity of God and his heavenly court is described as if it was a Palestinian business: “in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent…” Luke knows that’s how you do it, by naturalising rather than super-naturalising the action of God.
The legend of the virgin birth of Jesus, which we also find in Matthew’s gospel but nowhere else in the New Testament, results from a Christian misinterpretation of Isaiah 7:14 which literally states that a “young woman” is with child. It’s used by Luke in ways that are subtly different from Matthew: he makes no play of Joseph’s doubts, nor does he specify that Mary remained a virgin until the baby was born. Rather he emphasises the “overshadowing” power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s will without effort or disruption of human life. In fact the divine action requires the full consent of the human agent: Mary said, Here I am, the servant of the Lord.
Again, in this instance it’s clear how much the reader owes to the skill of the author. Those who imagine they’re reading an eye-witness account deprive themselves of the pleasure of listening as children listen to a story-teller, enjoying the characterisation and the subtle changes of voice. Scholars used to devalue such narratives as myths, as if only scientific history could communicate the truth of God. The emergence of the narrative method called “magical realism” in fictions from Central and South America in the last 3o years of last century, revealed that “supernatural” and “legendary” material could illuminate character and designate the “powers” actually at work in the events of history. That’s what Luke is doing: his magical realism shows us how God’s grace initiates action, which arouses human cooperation, so that God’s son the Messiah of Israel, may be born. We need to tear ourselves away from 19th century English magical realism with its bleak midwinter and its pallid Mary. Luke is telling us about fierce young women whose lives are open to the God who has promised to deliver his people.