Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chosen Woman

My mind is always on Mary in Advent, waiting as she did, for the arrival of Jesus.

It’s a good perspective in the dark and silent months, and pregnancy a good analogy to the Christian life.  When Mary heard the Annunciation, for a good long time—an eternity, perhaps, to a young woman not more than a child by today’s standards—it would have seemed as if nothing had changed.  Then, as her body began to swell, the reality of God’s promise became clear, as did the fact that she had no control over the course it would take.  It’s a good lesson, driven home to me by the odd juxtaposition of hymns I heard Saturday evening. 

On my way to Vigil mass, I plugged in my Advent mix, and heard the Magnificat.  The words are so familiar to me, but this is the older KJV translation—the one that reminds us:

He has showed the strength of His arm
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 

The Douay-Rheims puts it this way:

He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.

Either way, it’s a strong warning against pride and self-centeredness.

I love the Magnificat, and not just because of its familiarity, but because of its great humility, a virtue that eludes me more often than not.  Mary, having received the most incredible news ever given to man, is greeted by her cousin who recognizes her profound role in salvation history:

How is it that the Mother of My Lord comes to me?

Now in that situation, I’d be inclined to preen my own feathers a bit, casting my big doe-eyes downward in false modesty, and say something like, “Who me?  Why yes, now that you mention it, I guess I am the Mother of God.  Isn’t that amazing?  But, please, Elizabeth, don’t put yourself out.  I’m the same old me….God just picked me for this little role, nothing special.”  That may be a bit of a reach, but I know my stubborn and prideful self that I would find some way to make the Annunciation, the Incarnation about me, and not about God.

Not Mary.  Her whole response sings with her understanding that it’s all about God and His glory.  Which brings me to the second hymn, God Has Chosen Me.

In part, it goes like this--

God has chosen me, God has chosen me 
to bring good news to the poor.
 God has chosen me, God has chosen me 
to bring new sight to those searching for light:
God has chosen me, chosen me…
God has chosen me, God has chosen me
 to set alight a new fire. 
God has chosen me, God has chosen me 
to bring to birth a new kingdom on earth:
 God has chosen me, chosen me:

It’s a good enough song, I suppose, intended to raise evangelical fervor and an understanding of our roles in the kingdom among the faithful, to understand the very real grace that comes with being the chosen of God and the mission that goes with it.  But this day, I heard it quite another way, as complete inversion of Mary’s Magnificat, almost narcissistic in its tone.  This song exalts the fact that God has chosen me, true and good and worth remembering; but more than that, even amidst the real truth and missionary imperative of that song there’s more than a faint hint of self-reliance and self-importance.  God is calling me to lift up the voice with no power or no choice.  God has chosen me to light a new fire.  God has chosen me to bring to birth a new kingdom.

I realize I’m a bit behind the times, and do not wish to ignore or to minimize our role in the hard work of social-justice and evangelization of this world, but it seems to me those are God’s jobs.  He does the doing—I am at best a vehicle and more likely, something of a well-meaning obstacle, even in the best of times.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones
He has lifted up the lowly.

This,of course, at a time when the Chosen were under the thumb of Rome, and had come very much a cropper by concentrating too much on their chosenness.  John the Baptist warned about that in the reading this Sunday--Do not presume to say to yourself, We have Abraham for a father, for I tell you God is able to raise up sons of Abraham even from these stones.  God knows—He really does—that I am more than a little inclined to decide His will just happens to correspond exactly to my own at any given moment, especially if the alternative I see is a difficult and painful one that requires me to give up something of my cherished self.  

He knows that I am inclined to push Him out of the way, telling Him that I’ve got this under control, God, you can go concentrate on other, more important things.  I’ve got Your back here, just leave this to me.  And He knows—He really does—that when something I am committed to for the sake of His kingdom doesn’t work out the way I expect, I am not inclined to take the disappointment in stride.  Mostly, I’m inclined to ramp up my efforts, put my head down and soldier on in spite of temporary defeat, instead of taking a breath, sitting quietly with God and asking, “Thank you for the job you gave me.  Forgive me for my sins.  What’s next?”

It’s one of the reasons I try to pray the Magnifcat at least once a day, generally about the time I do an examination of the day and the ways I‘ve done well and the ways I have managed to sin.  It helps me to hear the voice of true humility that does not repeat over and over to herself either her being chosen, or the failings of the world that she sees as needing fixing.  Rather it is a voice of contemplation of the Wonder Who is God, His faithfulness, and how He is at work in the world.  And more than just a little holy awe at the incredible adventure, joy and honor of being a part of it.  It helps me keep my balance.  It helps me to remember that, even though I am working for God, I  may not be doing God's work....Advent helps us remember that any precursor to action is repentance, humility and grace.  Without it we are almost guaranteed to get it wrong.

Advent is a time for me to open up my heart for God to scatter the conceit in it.  The conceit that drives me to think that if this program, or policy, or way of doing things that I am certain will bring about good things isn’t passed, adopted and vigorously supported, the Kingdom—God’s Kingdom—will suffer.  I know the imagination of my heart (including the part that would excise that song from all hymnals everywhere, now and forever), and it thinks it is in charge and knows it all, with God only as trusted advisor.  That imagination of my heart is what drives me to look mostly to the world for answers, whether in politics, or economics, or social structures.  And it is a conceit indeed—that I might, by my puny efforts—even though I am chosen—be the agent of change in the world.  That change—all God’s doing.  Helpful and hard to remember that.  I’m here for witness.  God’s here to do the hard work of changing hearts.

If hearts are not changed, and alteration is superficial; change cannot truly be imposed from the outside no matter what modern society says about hearts and minds following from external pressure.  And the temptation is great to impose that pressure, pone needs just to look around.  No longer is it acceptable to disagree about hot button matters in society, the full force of social pressure is brought to bear to ensure that everyone supports same sex unions, active homosexuality, abortion, sex-without-consequences....and it isn't pretty.  It's no more attractive when we well meaning Christians do it for the sake of the Kingdom.  Think Westboro Baptist Church or the itinerant preacher standing on the sidewalk telling passersby that they are going to hell if they happen to _______(fill in the blank: have same sex attraction, be Catholic, not support the war in Afghanistan...)  Make that illegal or socially unacceptable and the behavior may go away, but the heart still smolders beneath, ready to erupt again in more violent form when given the least opening. 

Change happens, as the old saying goes, one heart at a time, and sometimes imperfectly at that and, in my experience, almost never the way I thought it would.  Put another way, we all mess it up, just in different ways.  I need to keep my focus not on the miracle of my being chosen for a job in the kingdom (whatever that job is), but the Source of that miracle, first, foremost and always.  I need help looking away from myself, not inward.  I’m already too self-celebratory.  These days, we all are.  I need to listen and ponder a good long time before I set out to assume my part in God's changing the world. And constantly as I take up that cross.

For that, Mary is the first and best teacher, and her song, unlike its modern contemporary that focuses, over and over, on us and our role—stands as a lyrical celebration of the might, power, and glory of God, Who works His ways because they are His ways.  There is no doubt that the center of Mary’s song is God and God alone. 

Perhaps with her intercession and God’s grace, my soul might one day magnify the Lord as well.  Just a little. 

I’d be happy with that.

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