Sunday, December 10, 2017

Joy in the World's Upside-Downing - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And 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 mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
(Luke 1:46-55)

Mary gets short shrift in many of our Christmas songs and sermons. Granted, as a Protestant I'm not in the business of holding her up so immaculate and reified as to be barely human, but I'm not talking about that. What I'm talking about is this song and the depth of insight it displays.

There has always been something upside-down about the Christmas story. It is about a god-man peasant-king, a birth celebrated by angels and outsiders, the turning point of history squirming in a feed trough. The familiarity of these details often makes us miss their strangeness – that this is not how anyone would have expected any of this to go down.

Just take Mary's situation. She who is blessed among women is, by her blessing, marked by scandal. It is her faithfulness that nearly leads her fiance to divorce her. Her divine child will be raised a presumed bastard. That which causes coming generations to call her blessed must have seemed almost a curse, and perhaps in her heart part of her cursed it as she watched her little one hang bloody and impaled.

Yet this is less an oddity than an instructive moment. Mary understands, with these words, what Jesus came to do.

This world always expects salvation to flow from the top. Worldly deliverance is in the hands of the powerful and well-known. We write books about the most influential among us, and almost inevitably they are the lords of government or masters of business. We exalt the proud and overlook the humble.

God views things differently. In His eyes, it is the proud and the mighty who are in a sense the problem. Scripture throughout shows an ambivalence towards power – while it can be used for good, it also corrupts, and the corrupt often gravitate toward it. Over and over the Lord declares His care for the lowly, the oppressed, the needy and the powerless. In His birth, God is finally and cosmically siding with these outsiders.

He is doing this, though, not simply out of principle. He is coming in this upside down way because His aim is to turn the world upside down. Because, in coming this way, He is actually beginning to do it. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” The form of His coming is in fact the work He has come to accomplish.

The kingdom of heaven is an upside-down kingdom. The world God creates is an upside-down world. It is for the pauper and the sinner and the outcast. It is also for the powerful and the Pharisee, surely, but only as they recognize their haughty vestments for the rags they are. Those on the top must stoop to the lowliest place if they hope to find salvation, and the tax collectors and prostitutes will often find it before them.

The profound mystery, though, is that as we move through this upside-down story, we start to recognize that this world is in truth the world we all long for. That our earthly city is in truth the place askew. All those buildings we thought so tall were in truth jutting down from the floor of heaven, and that only by seeking the lowest places might we break through into the right-side-up where we belong.

Down he came from up,
and in from out,
and here from there.
A long leap,
an incandescent fall
from magnificent
to naked, frail, small,
through space,
between stars,
into our chill night air,
shrunk, in infant grace,
to our damp, cramped
earthy place
among all
the shivering sheep.

And now, after all,
there he lies,
fast asleep.

-Luci Shaw, Descent

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