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Posts tagged ‘Elizabeth’

LOVE Incarnate in the Upside Down

Luke 1:39-41; 46-49; 52,53  

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.

The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.

Otherwise, the story has no meaning.

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.

Image result for perfect baby jesus funny
Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.

maryElizArtwork by He Qi 

Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.

anunciationAnd yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.

Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.

I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.

And where, in all those stories, is love?

That is the right question to ask.

I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?

upsideDownteeThis is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.

ELsmilingShe has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.

ElEGGOS

And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.

ELcrucifixShe descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”

You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.

May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.

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Sad, Glad, Soft, Loud, Stubborn Songs!

Based on Luke 1:39-56

 What are your favorite songs? Everybody has some. Which are the songs that give you energy, bring a smile to your face, and pick you up? You listen to them on your iPod, or in your car or at home and you just feel better? U2’s Beautiful Day or Cee Lo’s Bright Lights, Bigger City lift me up. Or which songs move you in a different way? Which songs resonate with your feelings of sadness or doubt or fear? Which songs sit with you and cry, mourn, or question? The Beatles’ Yesterday does that for me. And then, which songs help you to express frustration or anger? The ones that give you permission to express the deepest, fullest anger in your soul? Zero by the Smashing Pumpkins in on my anger playlist.

What are your happy, energetic songs? Your sad ones? Your angry ones?

Songs are powerful. This time of year, we don’t have to remind ourselves of that, do we? I think there is no season more prone to nostalgia, memories, and emotions than this one. And songs are a big part of it, right? Some Christmas songs are just silly and fun.

Yes, we sing Jingle Bells [before the tire blows out], and Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman, and the Hanukkah Songoh wait—that’s…not…well, it’s one of MY favorite silly/fun songs for this time of year, anyway. Thanks, Adam. All kidding aside, there are also songs we listen to and sing that are not silly or just plain fun. Some songs can lift us up and other songs allow us to be honest about our sadness or our anger. One mistake that we make as U.S. Christians is that we more often than not go for the silly and superficial music this holiday season. Don’t get me wrong—I love to laugh and to be silly. And I do it a LOT. But honestly, we often avoid the deeper, more honest songs that speak to the realities of our world and our lives. The songs that challenge us; the songs that move us to action.

The songs of lament; the songs of justice.

All during Advent we have been walking through the story of Luke’s Gospel. So it is appropriate for us to talk about songs, because Luke contains a lot of songs. This shouldn’t be a surprise for us, because Luke likes to tell its story with the stories of the Ancient Israelites in mind. In other words, while we equate Luke with only the story of Jesus of Nazareth, Luke actually echoes the stories of characters like Moses, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, and David. All of them sang. Their songs told stories. So do the songs of Luke’s characters: Zechariah, Simeon, the angels, and of course, Mary.

A reminder about the Gospels and how they tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Contrary to what we may remember, the birth of Jesus is barely mentioned in the Bible. Only 2 Gospels–Luke and Matthew–talk about this event, and in drastically different ways. Luke’s focus is on the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically the prophets like Isaiah and Micah. Luke is honed in on God’s justice and love lifting up the lowly—those whose voices are often silenced. So it’s no surprise, then, that we find Luke’s story mostly about women. Of course, in the time and culture of the 1st and 2nd Century, women certainly did not enjoy many freedoms. In fact, the Bible we have leaves out much of what women might have said or experienced. So it’s rare that we get such a closer view of women’s perspective like we do in Luke.

Like the Ancient Israelite’s story of Ruth and Naomi, in Luke we find two women who share a special friendship. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, as we know, were older and could not have children. Luke spends an entire chapter telling their story for a reason. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s story parallels Mary and Joseph’s. You see, eventually, an angel visits Zechariah making a startling announcement that seems impossible; then, a mute Zechariah and a shocked Elizabeth deal with the reality of an unexpected pregnancy. This new kid, according to the angel with a name [Gabriel], will be like the prophet Elijah and bring the Israelites back to their homeland. Wow! But in spite of this amazing news, Elizabeth finds it necessary to remind everyone that up to this point, she’s been disgraced in her own community. Luke wants us to understand that Elizabeth was isolated. She felt worthless. But God via some Gabriel-angel told her something different.

Well, apparently this Gabriel was busy, because the angel made it over to Nazareth to visit Elizabeth’s relative, Miriam, who we call Mary. A similar announcement takes place. Mary is going to have a kid. Just one problem: she has a guy she likes who happens to be a descendent of King David [which is good], but they actually aren’t married. So getting pregnant maybe doesn’t sound so great at this point.

I love Luke’s rendering of the story. Mary is troubled at the news. Well, that’s an understatement!

Like Elizabeth’s kid-to-be, John, Mary’s son will also be a leader. Not just any leader—the next king to take over David’s empty throne. But Mary was less concerned with all that political jargon. Like Elizabeth, it was more about practicality. No, Mary wasn’t older like Elizabeth, but she did not know a man yet. That’s what the Greek text actually says. I’m not going to go into the tiresome debate about the word virgin, because I just don’t think it’s important in the story. What matters is that Mary and Joseph are not together in the way that would be acceptable in society. Remember, these are parallel stories. So Elizabeth was disgraced by her community for being old, female, and infertile. Mary would be disgraced also for being pregnant without a proper marriage commitment. Seems like they can’t win, right?

But again, that’s the point Luke is making. Yes, society points the finger and judges, but God doesn’t really care. This atypical story moves on as God chooses to lift up these two women. Check this out: after the angel leaves Nazareth, there’s no man in Mary’s story. No one–no Joseph! Instead, Mary goes by herself to visit Elizabeth in the Judean town where she and Zechariah lived. Now let’s assess this. Nazareth in Galilee was about 70 miles from Judea. But keep in mind that Samaria was in the way and we know how Israelites and Samaritans felt about each other. So most likely, Mary traveled around 100 miles.[1] What was going on her mind during that long trip? Probably she was afraid, nervous, upset, and unsure about the future. But she went with haste to see Elizabeth. For some reason, she felt that Elizabeth was the right person to tell.

Mary.ElizabethWhen she arrives at their home, Elizabeth welcomes her. Actually, she embraces her. No doubt this made Mary feel better. Elizabeth didn’t scold her or ask her, “Where’s the ring?” or shoot judgmental glances at her. Elizabeth welcomed her. The story is redefining what society has taught. It doesn’t matter if Mary is unwed and pregnant. What matters to God is that both Mary and Elizabeth will participate in the passing on of Good News. John will preach it at the Jordan River. Jesus will preach and live it in Jerusalem and Galilee. And you and I must remember that this storyteller Luke knows about who these two babies will become. He’s writing a flashback story. It’s all making sense now. Of course, the God who stands with the oppressed, the God who lifts up the lowly will give these two women powerful roles to play. If both John and Jesus preached freedom for those enslaved, justice for those pushed down, and a place for the left out, doesn’t Elizabeth’s and Mary’s story resonate?

Well, just in case we STILL don’t get it because we’ve had too much eggnog and are fixated on manger scenes, Mary on a donkey, and the little drummer boy—Luke brings it home. And of course, Luke brings it home with music. The once-mute Zechariah sings. His song is joyful, but mixed with frustrations and years of sadness.

Zechariah sings:

Blessed is God, but the wait has been long for us to be saved from those who hate us. We needed to be rescued from enemies. But God forgives sins and is tender in mercy, giving light to those who sit in darkness and even fear death. God gives peace.

And Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, is of a similar tone. It could have been a typical Hebrew poem of old. It looks a lot like Hannah’s song. Mary sings:

My whole being lifts up my God, but only because God has helped me in my lowliness. I may not have been blessed before, but from now on, I will be. There is mercy for me and great strength in God’s arm which scatters the proud and the powerful. God lifts up those who are down, like me. God gives hungry people things to eat. Those who are too rich are empty.

Mary and Zechariah’s songs, and eventually the angelic songs amid shepherds, of Luke’s gospel in chapter two, voice music of joy mixed with pain. Not all the joy of the songs is reality. People go hungry. The proud keep their thrones. The greedy get more. The lowly are oppressed. People often feel empty, even when they try to be faithful. Sometimes we don’t feel so blessed. And yes, THIS is what the songs of Luke’s story have to teach us. We so often paint the Jesus birth story in the most sanitized, friendly, and nostalgic way possible. But this will leave us empty. For the story is much, much bigger than how we’ve wrapped it up for ourselves. Hear the songs of this story. And now, hear your own.

We all sing—whether in public or in private. Sometimes we sing aloud and sometimes we sing in our minds or in our hearts and only we can hear. But we need to sing all kinds of songs, not just the easy ones. We need to sing songs of lament to express our grief and fear, honoring these emotions and then eventually stripping them of their power over us so we don’t stay in our grief and depression; so we don’t learn how to hate. And we need to sing songs of joyful praise and thanksgiving so we feel a connection to each other and to the land and the good creation around us. And we need to sing songs of courage and hope when all around us is fearful, violent, and bleak.

We need to sing like this in order to live like this.

Mary and Zechariah don’t just sing, they start to live out what they sing. They name their hopes, fears, sadness, and promises. Mary’s song is sung in the past tense. According to her, these promises have already been fulfilled [even though they hadn’t]. So she’s stepping out into the world with more than hope. She is living and breathing this song. She’s agreeing to be a willing participant in the giving and telling of God’s mercy and love to all people. And her song becomes her story.

So sing, friends. Sing all the songs of your whole being. Don’t ignore them or suppress them. Sing.

Sometimes your songs of defiant love and acceptance will overwhelm the hateful words and actions in our world. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of honest doubt will completely heal someone who never felt she had permission to question God. So sing.

Sometimes your songs of thankfulness will remind another how special it is to just have food, and health, and people who love you, and not things. So sing.

And sometimes your songs will blend with many other songs, raising a voice of courage and unity to work for justice, peace, and acceptance for all So…sing!

And as you sing, step into this mercy and love of God that doesn’t push you down or call you names or leave you on the street or exclude you or applaud violence or offer simplistic answers or belittle your pain or ignore your challenges or judge your faults.

Step into that song; live it. Amen.


[1] Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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