Sunday, December 21, 2008

Submission: Let it be with me According to your Word

Readings: Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B

Advent is a season of waiting. For us in the 21st century it is a season of waiting for Christmas. For those of us so fortunate, we wait to put up the outdoor lights, to put up the Christmas tree, to eat the feast, to sing carols with friends and relatives. For those of us who have lost or maybe cut off our ties to society and family, we wait for a chance to get near a warm grate in the sidewalk or to get a handout from a passer-by. But we are not waiting for Christmas to turn our world upside down, to stand our dearest cultural values on their heads.

But that is exactly what the birth of Jesus was about to do to first century Palestinian Jewish culture. An already ancient, patriarchal honor/shame culture was about to have its values inverted by a woman and her baby. The event was not without preparation, however, as our Old Testament Reading shows.

There King David observes that he is now enjoying a higher material standard of living than Israel's God. David lives in a house of cedar, while God still lives in a tent with the Ark of the Covenant. David implicitly wonders whether he should build an equally grand house for God.

Then his prophet Nathan tells him that God says that David has it backwards. David has no power to build a house for God. Rather, God is building a house for David - and not a merely material house of cedar, either. God is building an entire Kingdom for David and his descendants, that will be home for all Israel, forever.

For now, for the Ark of His Covenant, a tent is all God wants. The same tent that covered the Ark whenever the Israelites halted on their trek from slavery to the Promised Land. When God wants something different, He will say so.

But God goes further: In Psalm 89 He declares that His faithfulness to his Covenant with Israel and the way His love shall support David will compel David to cry out to the Lord, "You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!"

God is declaring that He is greater than the material trappings of honor in an honor/shame culture. That God is greater than honor itself. God is so great that God can dispense with honor.

And so God sends his angel to talk to a young woman. To get some feeling for the radicalness of such an idea, imagine that these events are taking place not in the Nazareth of ancient Israel, but in present-day Nazareth in Muslim Palestine. Let us use Arabic names. The woman's name in Arabic is Maryam. And even though she is second-class, virtually the property of the man to whom she is about to me married, the angel Gibreel does not come first to her husband-to-be, or even to her father. He comes directly to her.

That gesture itself conveys meaning: Allah is greater than honor, Allah is greater than social convention. Allah can have dealings with a woman, and even cause her to become pregnant. By this gesture of sending Gibreel directly to Maryam, Allah is saying," You are not your husband's, nor your father's, nor your society's, you are your own. But first and foremost, you are Mine. And this is what I will do with you."

Now Maryam becomes indeed her own, an individual. Allah permits her to question Gibreel. Gibreel's answer that her child will be called Issa, and the Son of Allah, amazes her. And this is crucial: she is not forced, she is not coerced. Instead, she freely gives her consent, her submission, "Here am I, the servant of Allah, let it be with me according to your word."

We should all be astonished. Young women found to be pregnant before they are married can be sent back to their families. But family honor, and in particular the honor of the head of the family, is everything. A man without honor will soon be a man without wealth, friends, livelihood, or even protection, for himself or his family. It is not uncommon for a daughter so dishonored to be killed by her father and brothers. It even has a name, "honor killing." Honor killings have been done by Muslim immigrants in Europe as recently as this year.

By consenting to what Gibreel has spoken, Maryam has just set herself up to be killed. She now depends for her life on the mercy of Allah, and His further intervention on her behalf.

That, friends, is Faith.

Faith that Allah will continue in His move to stand the honor/shame duality on its head, faith that Allah will persuade Yusuf to accept her and go through with the marriage.

Later, when it is clear that Allah has followed through, and Yusuf has accepted her, Maryam practically launches into song (Luke 1:46b-5). Indeed, our alternate reading forms the basis of J. S. Bach's Magnificat. And again we read about the inversion of honor/shame, the humbling of the proud, the powerful brought down from their thrones, the hungry (spiritually and physically) fed.

We can only say in English, Praise the Lord! In Hebrew, Halleluyah! In Arabic, Allahu Akbar!

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. - John 3:16

That whosoever follows him should be unbound from the shackles of Honor/Shame and freed to follow path of Humility. The path of Faith. You bet your Life. And your Life in the World to Come.

Now may Allah bless you and keep you, may Allah make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May Allah look upon you with favor and give you peace. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Muslims have their own version of this story. See al-Qur'an, Sura 3, "al-Imran," verses 34-48. By having not Gabriel, but merely "the angels" address Mary, the story has been changed to affirm honor/shame culture instead of challenging it.