Behold – Tom Mundahl reflects on recovering a sense of the mysterium tremendum.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C (2018, 2021, 2024)
As we approach the last Sunday in Advent and lean toward the Festival of the Incarnation, we marvel at Luke’s creativity in presenting the parallel births of John and Jesus in both prose and lyric song. Although it may be the case that the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis were among a growing collection of early hymns, their use by the evangelist is entirely original (see Gordon W. Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 122).
Perhaps the most important function of these songs is to express amazement and wonder at the birth of two children destined to renew their people, a wonder that overflows to the whole creation. Luke makes the force of the births crystal clear by situating them during the regimes of Herod and Caesar Augustus (Luke 1:5, 2:1). These political leaders wield power with the lifeless language of decrees and tax bills. In contrast, Walter Brueggemann suggests: “There is no way to begin this new narrative except by a new song in the mouths of angels. The very idiom of lyric means the penetration of closed royal prose. The beginning is with a song that stands in conflict with the decree. All the old history is by decree, but the new history begins another way” (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).
Not only does Luke here honor the Greco-Roman mode of enlivening historical narrative with the energy of speech in the style of Thucydides or Lucian, but employing “lyric hymnody” to celebrate divine action, he moves far beyond setting forth an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) to “bring to fruition” (Luke 1:1, alternative translation of “fulfillment”) new life among the hearers of the story. Just as the root meaning of the word “poetry” is “to create or make,” so all captured by this narrative are enlivened and share in the remaking of creation.
While there is no doubting the significance of the Davidic pedigree (Micah 5:2-5a), nor the utter newness in atonement the author of Hebrews shares (Hebrews 10: 5-10), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary and Elizabeth. The annunciation, the visitation, and the Magnificat reveal the power and the mystery of the coming of God. As poet Denise Levertov write of Mary, whose courage is confirmed by Elizabeth:
“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.”
(The Collected Poems of Denise
Levertov, New York: New Directions,
2013, pp. 836-837)
As we have seen from Luke’s narration of the parallel births, he clearly favors Mary and Elizabeth. Despite his priestly credentials, Zechariah finds the promise that his elderly wife will bear a son ridiculous. His question, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) is the last we hear from him until John is named. By contrast, even though Mary is “much perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by Gabriel’s stunning words, she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Wisely, she discerns Gabriel’s clue and travels to see her relative Elizabeth. Mary could receive no greater confirmation than Elizabeth’s rich blessings: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42), and “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Like 1:45). Blessing is always intimately linked with creation (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, pp. 40-42).
And yet, we should not underestimate blessed Mary’s perplexity and the richness of the dialogue with the messenger that follows. We hear Mary’s confusion in the simple question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”(Luke 1:34b) Gabriel’s response goes far beyond obstetrics. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….” (Luke 1:35) That this is an enterprise of deep meaning is made evident in the “overshadowing” (episkiatzo) of the Most High. This sense of the looming, creative presence occurs as God’s very being fills the “tent of meeting” as the Exodus (a critical theme for Luke) continues (Exodus 40: 34-35, LXX). It recurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34—Exodus again)), where a similar presence “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions of marking the occasion with “wilderness booths” all the more ridiculous. Even more primal is the “wind from God” that “overshadows” the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2, LXX). How could we conclude that the coming birth is anything less than a “new creation” leading to “exodus freedom?”
This birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transfigures the earth household. The evidence is clearly heard in Mary’s response to the angelic messenger. Instead of being named “Queen Consort” of the divine, Mary entitles herself “the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This theme of reversal will explode in the Magnificat inspired by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The boldness of Mary’s song comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (Brueggemann, p. 141). Gabriel makes this clear by repeating the words to Abram and Sarai under the oaks of Mamre: “For nothing will be impossible for God” (Genesis 18:14, Luke 1:37).
Electric as it is, even lyric poetry like the Magnificat exhibits structural elements. The poem moves from singing of the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49) to a wider statement of God’s mercy to all who are reverent (1:50), to a vivid description of the reversal of the poor and arrogant (1:51-53, concluding with a reminder that this all fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants that will overflow into the future (1:54-55). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern emerging “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).
But this narrative strategy does not compromise the free nature of this lyrical event. 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” (Brueggemann, p. 104).
The wonder of all this is underscored by the use of the word formerly translated as “behold” (idou) three times in Gabriel’s “annunciation” (vv. 31, 36, and 38). The first two uses, by Gabriel, are translated by NRSV as “and now.” While the desire to avoid archaic language of “excessive holiness” is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak? It may be that returning to “behold” may restore the necessary authority of Gabriel and help us recover a sense of the mysterium tremendum with its riveting 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” (Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, claiming that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological—an ontology of creation community—that requires a “beholding of actuality” (Jpseph Sittler, “Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).
Sittler continues: “To ‘behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the oneself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the creation with an intrinsically theological stance” (Sittler, p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It is in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have despoiled it” (Ross, p. 12).
The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold (“Here am I,” NRSV), I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While this is not so bad, with a deep performative meaning, it remains to poll the poets to determine the richer. And this is crucial, for as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, “obedience follows imagination” (quoted in Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989, p. 85). The search for ecojustice today requires a massive infusion of imagination, far more than the threat of more fires, hurricanes, and heat can provide. But then it cannot have been easy to face up to the task of becoming theotokos, the Mother of God—especially as a very young woman. William Butler Yeats helps us to begin to share the immensity of this calling in his poem, “The Mother of God,” which ends with this lament:
“What is this flesh I purchased with my pains
This fallen star my milk sustains.
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones.
And bids my hair stand up?”
(The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats,
New York: Macmillan, 1956, p.244)
Even as we join Mary in lament—in our case frustration over the struggle for ecojustice—during this Advent season, we remember Gabriel’s words, “For nothing will be impossible with
God” (Luke 1:37).
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.