Courage – Tom Mundahl reflects on beholding versus seeing.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
While there is no doubt of the significance of Davidic pedigree (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), or of the evangelical energy with which Romans concludes (Romans 16:25-27), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary. Both the Annunciation and the Magnificat reveal the power and mystery of the coming of God. As poet Denise Levertov writes:
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
opened her utterly.
(Denise Levertov, “Annunciation,”
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov,
New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837)
As he narrates the births of John and Jesus, Luke clearly favors Mary. Zechariah finds the message from the angel that his elderly and “barren” wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child more than a little ridiculous. With understandable skepticism he asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) But the lack of faith demonstrated by his cross-examination guarantees there will be no more questioning. He is struck dumb until the birth.
What a contrast Mary provides! She is very young in a world that values age, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and poor in a highly-stratified economy. All of these are intensified by her lack of a husband, a situation made all the more precarious by Gabriel’s announcement (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39).
That this is a visit of great moment is made clear by Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) From the Rosary’s “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” to “Grace be on you, en-graced one,” the message is unmistakable: this is the one to bear the long-expected child. Unlike Zechariah, who doubts the very possibility of this enterprise, Mary’s only question is procedural: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34b)
Gabriel’s response goes far beyond any obstetric explanation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you….” That this is a movement of deep meaning is made evident by the “overshadowing” (επιςκιαζω) of the Most High. This sense of the looming presence of God appears in the Exodus story (Exodus 40:34-35) and it also occurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34), where the presence of the Holy One “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions about “marking the occasion” with traditional wilderness “booths” ridiculous. What’s more, the scene reminds us of the “wind from God” overshadowing the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2). Here the evangelist suggests we are dealing with nothing less than new creation that, with this “deep incarnation,” includes the life of all creatures (Niels Henrik Gregersen, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Fortress, 2015, pp. 20-21).
That his birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transcends all notions of status is made evident by the fundamental reversal demonstrated by Luke’s language. Instead of being named the “Queen Consort” of the divine, brave Mary calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38) This theme blossoms with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
Luke Timothy Johnson and other commentators remind us that Luke uses a compositional technique common to Hellenistic historians (cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) by recreating speeches given by major actors to advance the narrative (Johnson, p. 43). Whether the speeches are given by Pericles or Cleon, there are few orations in this technique that match the Song of Mary in richness of poetic image. Not only is the Magnificat full of Hebrew parallelism, but the fact that it has been set to music throughout history suggests that it is, at minimum, lyric poetry. To paraphrase the old hymn, when we hear these words, “How can we keep from singing?”
Part of that impulse to sing comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress, 2001, p. 141). This stems primarily from Gabriel’s assurance, “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37). As he continues to reflect on the struggle of the earliest church to begin the birth story, Brueggemann writes: “The beginning must be just right, for there is something new here that can scarcely be articulated, and the articulation must match the reality of the newness” (p. 102). This cannot be done in prose, the language of royal decree, or even with forms of Greek historical rhetoric; it must be done in lyric leading to song. So we have the “Song of Mary”(Luke 1:46b-55) following the annunciation; the “Benedictus,” the “Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) following the birth of John; the “Gloria,” or “Song of the Angels” (Luke 2:14) following the birth of Jesus; and the “Nunc Dimittis,” or “Song of Simeon”(Luke 2: 29-32), following the presentation. Is it a surprise that all of these are still part of the musical treasure of God’s people?
Even a piece of lyric poetry like the Magnificat contains structural elements. The poem begins with the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49), moves to a wider statement of God’s mercy for the faithful over the generations (1:50), continues with a vivid description of the reversal of social positions between the poor and arrogant (1:51-53), and concludes with a reminder that all of this fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants (Luke 1:54-55, Johnson, p. 43). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern that “emerges from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” “he has looked,” “has done great things,” “shown strength with his arm,” “has scattered,” “has brought down,” “has lifted up,” “has filled,” “has sent the rich away,” and “has helped;” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).
This narrative structure in no way compromises lyric freedom. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order. As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (p. 104). “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37).
The wonder of this may be signaled by the use of the word that used to be translated “behold” (ιδου) three times in the annunciation — vv. 31, 36, and 38. The first two uses, by Gabriel, are rendered by NRSV as “and now.” While the desire to avoid language of “excessive holiness” that communicates with contemporary listeners and readers is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak? It may be that returning to “behold” may restore a bit of the necessary authority of messengers like Gabriel, and help us to recover a sense of mysterium tremendum with its sense of awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: 1958, pp. 12-24).
Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls. Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, and goes on to claim that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological — an ontology of creation community– that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).
Sittler goes on to suggest: “‘To behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” ( p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have mismanaged it.” (Ross, pp. 11-12)
The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While it may not be in reaction to a personal visit from Gabriel, it may be that as we share in Mary’s servanthood, we will be “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High and given the courage (Levertov) to build justice and health for each other and the earth household.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014; edited and revised by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN