Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Gift for All

By Brian Kirk

Luke 1: 26-38

There is so much one can say about this text. We could really get into a discussion over the possibility of a virgin birth, did or didn't Luke mistranslate texts from the Hebrew scriptures, but I don't really think these discussions resonate with people's hearts when it comes to the story of Mary and the visit of the angel. What always strikes me here is how radical this whole episode is -- radical in ways we might not recognize in the 21st century. This is particularly so when it comes to gender roles. Luke starts his gospel, as we might expect, with a story of a man, Zechariah. But we quickly discover that Zechariah, the doubter, will not be the hero of this story. Instead, Luke turns his attention to two female characters, Elizabeth and then Mary, both of whom are much more receptive to receiving the news of the angels and willing to play their part in the drama than is Zechariah. Oh, and don't blink or you'll miss Joseph's role in the story altogether.

These episodes set the tone for all of Luke's gospel. He's not arguing for women's liberation, of course, but rather is setting the stage for the way the gospel of Jesus will turn the current state of the world on it's head. In a partriarchal culture, God will change the world through two humble women. Later in Luke's gospel we will see this same role reversal happen as the good news is delivered first, not to the powerful, but to some lowly shepherds. Luke is the gospel writer who will tell us of women disciples, and will have a special place in his drama for the plight of the least of these, the outcast, the poor, and the outsider.

The mere fact that he centers the start of his story of Mary in Nazareth in Galilee is a reminder that this "king" will not be born to celebrity, but will come from humble origins: a small, backwoods village. Galilee was known as a place where Jews and Gentiles coexisted peacefully. Luke is reminding us early on that Jesus' mission will not be just to his own kind, but to all people -- the Jew, the Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, clean, unclean.

What are the implications here for critiquing the focus in so much of Christianity on "personal salvation?" The angel tells Mary that Jesus' kingdom "will have no end." How do we loosen our grasp on the Christ child long enough to realize that he has come for all humankind? That the peace, joy, hope, and love he brings isn't just for those who claim him by name, but for all God's children? That he comes to us not just individually, but communally, as people of faith?

I'm reminded of the story, told in so many cultures and faiths, of the way God's light became hidden inside all of us. In some versions of the story, it is sin that causes the light to fragment, with tiny pieces finding their way inside each human soul. In other versions of the story, God (the trickster) purposely hides the light so that we will go in search of it. The great challenge of life, then, is to discover that light of God within each person. Luke's Jesus nudges us in this direction, even from the start of the gospel, declaring that God works through the most unexpected people. That God's light will become enfleshed through the life of the peasant girl Mary. Perhaps the challenge of this story is to realize that, just as God's light is within all others, God's light is within us, too. And as Mary enfleshes that light in the birth of Jesus, we too are called to enflesh that light in the way we live and serve.

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