Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Annunciation

Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

You will conceive—in your womb—and you will give birth to a son… 

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

 

Did the Blessed Virgin say, “me too”? There is a moment in the Annunciation story when an ordinary girl on the cusp of womanhood is approached by a powerful male figure who tells her what is going to happen to her body, in its most intimate spaces. (#MeToo is a collection of women’s stories acknowledging their experiences of sexual assault and harassment following very public claims against a number of media executives.)

Sit with me in this moment, this uncomfortable moment, before rushing to find proof of her consent, or argue that contemporary notions of consent do not apply to ancient texts, or God knew she’d say yes so it was prophetic, or contend that (human) gender does not apply to divine beings, Gabriel or God, and the Holy Spirit is feminine anyway. Hold those thoughts and just sit in the moment with this young woman.

Even in the Iron Age in an androcentric and patriarchal culture, she knows her body belongs to her. She doesn’t ask what her intended will say, what her father will say, what about the shame this would likely bring on her, her family, and their name. Instead she testifies to the integrity of her body under her control. In her question, “How can this be?” I hear, “Since I have not done and will not do what you are suggesting—just in case you are really here to defraud me and my intended—how will this thing work.” I see her withholding consent at this moment. She has questions and has not agreed to this, glorious messianic prophecy notwithstanding. Not yet. 

It is in this moment between “this is what you will do, what will happen to and in your body,” and submission to what she accepts as God’s will that I ask, Does Mary say, “me too”? Does she have a choice here? The narrative and world that produced it may well say no. That is what makes this a “me too” story to me.

Yet in a world which did not necessarily recognize her sole ownership of her body and did not understand our notions of consent and rape, this very young woman had the dignity, courage, and temerity to question a messenger of the Living God about what would happen to her body before giving her consent. That is important. That gets lost when we rush to her capitulation. Before Mary said, “yes,” she said, “wait a minute, explain this to me.”

After the holy messenger explains the mechanics of the conception that is to take place—he is still saying, “this will happen to you”—then and only then does she consent, using the problematic language of the text and her world, “Indeed, I am the woman-servant-slave of the Lord (a slaveholding title).” Mary’s submission is in the vernacular of slavery, as is much of the Gospel. The language of “servitude” is a misnomer in biblical translation; even though they were not necessarily enslaved in perpetuity, they were enslaved. And while enslaved had no right to protect the integrity of their bodies or control of their sexuality or reproduction. We often soften the language to “servant” particularly with reference to God but the language of slavery runs through the whole bible and is often found without critique on the lips of Jesus.

In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling: Let it be with me according to your word. Given what we know about power dynamics and hierarchy, (not to mention the needs of the narrative), how could she have said anything else? I think that there is not much difference between “overshadowed” and “overwhelmed.” I also remember Jeremiah saying God had *seduced and **overpowered him. (*Translated “enticed” in Jer 20:7, פתה means “seduced” in Ex 22:16; Deut 11:16; Judg 14:15. **The second verb חזק, is one of two primary terms for rape in the Hebrew Bible.)

Did the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary say, “me too?” Perhaps not. A close reading shows her presumably powerless in every way but sufficiently empowered to talk back to the emissary of God, determine for herself, and grant what consent she could no matter the power of the One asking. And yet in that moment after being told by someone else what would happen to her body, she became not just the Mother of God, but the holy sister to those of us who do say, “Me too.”

 

 


Shalom Miryam, Hail Mary

A miracle happened today. We will see it in nine months on Christmas Day. In reflection an Annunciation sermon (from 2004).

[On this day when people are arguing for the right to prevent women from accessing health services under the rubric of birth control (and abortion) because of their own religious biases, I am mindful that God does not share their fear of women’s bodies, in spite of what they say in Her name.]

For many centuries most European countries took 25 March, not 1 January, as the day when the number of the year changed, so that 24 March 1203 was followed by 25 March 1204. If you had asked a Christian of that time why the calendar year changed so oddly in the middle a month, she might have said: “This is the beginning of a new year in the Christian era, which began a thousand years ago today when God was made human, when God took upon Godself a carnal body and human nature in the womb of the Virgin.”
I like to imagine that Mary was praying the scriptures. Perhaps she was praying Psalm 46 which describes:
4 …the holy tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved:
God will help her, when the morning dawns…
8 Come, behold the works of the Holy One…
10 Be still, and know that I am God!…
11 The Sovereign-Commander of celestial armies is with us; the God of Jacob
[and Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah] is our refuge.
Perhaps she prayed the prophet Zephanyah, Zephaniah, chapter 3:
15 …The Sovereign of the Heavens and Earth,
is in your midst daughter;
you shall fear disaster no more daughter…
16 Fear not daughter, O daughter of Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak daughter.
17 The Ever-Present One, your God, is in your midst daughter,
a warrior who gives victory;
Who will rejoice over you with gladness daughter,
and will renew you in love daughter;
Who will exult over you daughter with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you daughter,
so that you will not bear reproach for this daughter.
I imagine that since Miryam did not suffer from our masculinist translations, that she would remember those texts with all of their girl-God-talk to the Daughter of Zion. She too was God’s daughter. And God sent God’s messenger to this daughter of Zion.
The angel said, “Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. If as a member of an oral, aural culture Miryam recognized those words, she might not have felt well at all. The old Benjaminite householder in Judges 19 greeted the wife of the traveling Levite with those very words: Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. That night he stood by as her husband forced her out of the house and into the clutching grasp of the men who raped and murdered her, leaving her to die on the doorstep of the man who greeted her with peace.
These words were also put to the Shunnamite woman on Elisha’s behalf in question form: Is it shalom to you woman? Is it shalom to your husband woman? Is it shalom to your child woman? She said ‘It is shalom.’ But her child was dead. Yet her child would live again. But how often could that happen? No wonder Miryam was deeply troubled by Gavri’el’s, Gabriel’s, words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
Then Miryam was greeted with a ‘Fear-not.’ (The standard greeting in angelic discourse.) Once upon a time, to the woman who received the first angelic annunciation there was “Fear not Hagar…” More recently there was “Fear not, Zecharyah, Zechariah,: for your prayer has been heard; and your wife Elisheva, Elisabeth, will give birth to a son, and you will name him Yochanon, John.” There would be “Fear not Yosef (Joseph) ben David, take Miryam as your wife…” “Fear not, shepherds. Look! I am bringing you good tidings of great joy, which are for all people.” And one day there would be to her again, this time with her sister-friends: “Fear not women: for I know that you seek Yeshua, Jesus, who was crucified…”
The word of the divine messenger was ‘fear not’ because God is with you. Already. Before the spirit of God transubstantiates the flesh and blood of your womb into the body and blood of the Messiah. God is with you now, in your ordinary-extraordinary first century, Iron Age life. In the midst of the Roman occupation, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. After the destruction of the temple in Samaria, God is with you. During the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, God is with you. While God is breathing life into the dead womb of Elisheva, God is with you. Here. Now.
The word of the divine messenger was not that God would be Immanu-El, with all of us, but that God was with her. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. When the fabric of space and time collapse into the secret spaces of her body, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if her spouse were to drag her down to the temple by her hair so her cousin could intone the malediction of the sotach – the woman suspected of adultery, God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. Even if she were forced to drink the bitter waters of cursing, cursing her body and its secret places – she whose own name meant bitter-water-woman. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.
Because God had been with her, was with her and continues to be with her, God is with us also. Immanu-El. As we continue our Lenten and annual liturgical journeys, let us reflect on the expansion of Immanu-El within us. I would like to invite you to grow with God in a Marion year.
On Palm Sunday, feel the neonatal Gospel quickening deep within you. During Pesach, Passover, including Good Friday and Easter, imagine nibbling on matzah to quell burgeoning waves of nausea as morning sickness comes morning or noon or night or all of the above. On Pentecost as faithful Jews celebrate the First Fruits hear Elisheva’s benediction “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” ‘Your first fruit.’  Imagine Ordinary Time transformed into Extraordinary Time as Miryam’s womb, now the Ark of Throbbing Promises expanded to encompass the ineffable. Imagine Advent waiting to see what on earth, what under the heavens he will look like. Will he have 10 fingers and 10 toes? Imagine Christmas as Frances Croake Frank envisions it:
‘Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood”?’
The fusion of divinity and humanity in the dark softness of womb-space has forever changed both of us. God’s knowledge of being human is experiential. Our experience of God-being is being human. The Incarnation provides a glimpse of God’s anthropology: It is just possible that human beings are capable of nurturing and protecting the most precious gift ever conceived. There is hope for us.
In this Women’s History Month, the Incarnation also provides a glimpse of God’s gynecology: Women, our bodies and their possibilities, our intimate relationships, our family ties, our calls and our confessions are God-space.
But in our world, women are the poorest people on the planet – their children are often poorer, but regularly shorter-lived. Women and girls are the most frequent victims of physical violence and sexual abuse. Palestinian women give birth to dying babies at Israeli checkpoints. Iraqi women and girls are more likely to be kidnapped if venturing outside of their homes after Operation Iraqi Freedom than before it. More women in the Armed Forces of the United States haven been raped by their comrades-in-arms than by the designated enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait – where there are presumably only allies. Professional sex-workers serve as recruiting sub-contractors for colleges and universities with billion-dollar endowments. A father murders his daughters and their children, some of whom are also his children. A prison guard reports of the two weeks she was held hostage by inmates “Fortunately the sexual assaults didn’t happen very often.” The broken body of girl-child is stuffed behind a toilet in a library whose shelves offer story of the Annunciation and Incarnation.
Shalom lakh, peace to you woman, wholeness to you woman, may it be well with you woman. God is with you. In your brokenness, in your fullness, God is with you. How can this be? The power of the Holy Spirit, She covers you, She enfolds you, She transforms you inside and out, and She is transforming the world through you – one man at a time.
May God the Mother and Father
of Avraham, Yitza’ak and Ya’acov,
Sarah, Hagar, Rivqah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah,
Who took the tangled threads of their lives
And wove a tapestry of Redemption
In the Body and Blood of Miryam l’Natzeret
Continue to weave the strands of your life
In the Divine design
Amen.

 


The Magnificat as Kedushat HaShem: Sanctifying God’s Name

God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty.
God has helped God’s servant Israel,
in remembrance of God’s mercy, 
according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to the descendants of Abraham through Hagar and Sarah and Keturah forever.
Luke 1:46-56, RGT, (Revised Gafney Translation)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Magnificat properly belongs at the Visitation, traditionally 31 May – an unspecified amount of time after the Annunciation, observed on 25 March (often in Lent, occasionally on Good Friday) – In those days Miryam, Mary, set out… Luke 1:39. It is “repeated” in Advent, though many missed it earlier.

God has…
The Virgin proclaims that God has already done all of these things, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of her present reality.
God has shown strength with God’s own arm at varying points throughout Israel’s history, and the memory, witness and testimony of their ancient scriptures and new psalms to God’s strength, willingness and power to save in those times is enough for the present moment. In the face of the mighty Roman Empire, what God has already done is enough.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts in the songs and stories of old enfolded into the scriptures of Israel. Herod’s arrogance goes yet unchallenged but God has unseated the proud from their thrones in their hearts and halls before and it is enough.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones inside and outside of Israel, whether or not they were enthroned with God’s blessing. God has deposed other gods from within their own realms. Caesar or any other would-be god, it matters not. God has done it before and can do it again. And that is enough.
God has lifted up the lowly time and time again. In spite of the biases of Israel’s story-tellers and scripture-writers, the God of Israel visits and blesses women and children and slaves and foreigners. A peculiarly pregnant girl-child and her post-menopausal cousin with her own pregnancy predicament may be beyond the notice of Rome, but not God. And it is enough.
God has filled the hungry with good things in the before times and every once in a while in our time. People still go hungry, people still die in squalor, taxed to death by Rome and Romanesque imperial imitators, but God still provides unexpected and unimaginable blessings. Our people will not be starved to death and pass out of existence on God’s watch. Some of us will survive and that is enough.
God has sent the rich away empty in our stories and songs and scriptures. The glory of Rome is not eternal. Ask the Egyptians, ask the Assyrians, ask the Babylonians, ask the Persians, ask Alexander the Great, if you can find him. God has done it before and that is enough.
God has helped God’s servant, in our faithfulness and in our faithlessness. God has been faithful. In our history, in our memories, in our scriptures, God has been faithful and it is enough.
God has remembered God’s promise and will keep it. Our prophets Miriam and Moses taught us to hold God accountable to God’s promises. They bargained and argued with God and never let God forget God’s promises to our ancestors or to us, their descendants. Even when the promises have not yet been kept, God remembers and that is enough.
Dayenu. “It is enough.” This is a Pesach (Passover) theology. Sometimes the Visitation overlaps with Pesach. Dayenu, is the refrain and title of what may be the most familiar and popular Passover song. The song says that if God had only… and lists the miracles God performed for the ancestors, if God had only done one and not these that followed, it would have been enough. Dayenu.
And it occurs to me that the theology that the Ever-Blessed Virgin named for Miryam the Prophet of Exodus is proclaiming is Dayenu, Passover theology even though the song would be written centuries after her death or assumption, whichever you prefer.
The Holy Mother of the Word-Made-Flesh is herself a Torah-sage and she teaches us. Her perspective on the yoke of Roman oppression that strangled her world is framed by the memory of what God has done for her people and her ancestors. And by what God is doing to and through her: Kedushat haShem, sanctifying the Divine Name.
Kedushat haShem, sanctifying the Divine Name would come to be the way in which the actions of martyrs were understood. The Stations of the Cross liturgy on Good Friday places the words of No’omi and Lamentations on the lips of the Sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the cross: Call me not My-Pleasant-One, No’omi; call me Bitter-Woman, Mara. For Mother God, the nurturing nursing Shaddai has embittered  me. And, Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. For me, the Mother of Sorrows is also the Mother of Martyrs. And there have been enough. Dayenu.
Truly all generations call you blessed.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;   
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, 
and holy is God’s Name.
Post Script: The Magnificat is woven from Hannah’s Hymn in 1 Sam 2 which also lives on in Ps 113, making Hannah one of the most overlooked authors of scripture.