Tuesday, September 8, 2009

SLJ: for Mary's Birthday: the Tree and the Rock

Happy Feast of the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary!

--Dr. Thursday

In the very moment when the maiden in Nazareth heard the words that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would “overshadow” her, she could at first be but “deeply disturbed.” The phrase, “to be overshadowed,” was a euphemism for the act whereby man makes woman pregnant. But since she “knew no man,” a euphemistic declaration on her part that she was to remain a virgin, she had to be assured that the child was not to be conceived in a human way. The child was to be a “holy offspring,” indeed the Son of the Most High himself. Once she assented by saying, “Let it be done according to thy will,” God's greatest conceivable intervention in history, human and cosmic, was accomplished: Jesus was conceived in the womb of “the virgin called Mary.”


The miracle in question has another aspect, which is much more scientific than psychology can ever be. In an age that probes deep into the range of what genes are responsible for, the biological origin of Jesus gives a startling twist to the psychological miracle he still is, which, of course, never bothered most of those who took him for the natural son of Joseph. Most of those who were impressed by that miracle held on to the faith, held by the Church from the earliest times, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. They had no use for talking around this and other biblical miracles by taking any unusual event for a “sign” and justifying this as the Hebrew way of disinterest in miracles, properly so-called. For already Justin Martyr, a convert from Judaism, warned his antagonist Trypho, a Jew, that if a “sign” is worthy of a prophet, it has to be more than an unusual event, it strictly has to transcend nature. ... The miracle of Mary having conceived by the Holy Spirit had to be admitted, so argued Justin Martyr, if the Bible was to remain a sensible text about what constitutes a sign in the Bible.
[SLJ Bible and Science 175, 177-8]

Never an easy process, the birth to nationhood was particularly difficult for the Israelites. The Canaanite tribes presented ever-new problems while the strategy of Moses demanded ever-new faith in Yahweh as the only Rock. At times their faith was so weak as to let the ark fall into the hands of the Philistines. It was not entirely an act of faith when the people wanted to have a king, the symbolic assurance of finally becoming a nation. That their request for a king did not turn into a self-defeating strategy was largely due to the presence of Samuel, from his birth on a symbol of the Mosaic strategy pivoted on Yahweh as its sole strength. Samuel was the child of Hannah, long-barren wife of Elkanah. On offering her son to Eli, the chief priest at Siloh, for service at the tent of Yahweh, Hannah spoke words which showed how Moses' farewell had become a part of the religious folklore. A thousand years later, Mary, the daughter of Annah, was to voice, in much the same words, her gratitude for the marvels done to her by the Lord. The strategy of Yahweh, the Rock, was valid for the people as well as for Hannah, a handmaid as low by appearance as Mary was to be:
My heart exults in the Lord; my horn is exalted in my God.
I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the Lord; there is no Rock like our God (1 S 2:1-2).

Mary must have had these words in mind as she continued, like Hannah, to declare that the strong would be humiliated, the fat would go hungry, the hungry would be well-fed, and the poor would be seated with the rich: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord's and this is why the horn of his anointed will be exalted.
Hannah's anticipation of Mary's Magnificat was all the more proper since Hannah's son, Samuel, played a crucial role in turning the people into a nation by anointing Saul as king. Samuel's God-given authority as a judge and prophet was also the basis for transferring the office of king from Saul to David, the shepherd boy. With David, the most momentous advance was made toward the specific fulfillment of the promises of the covenant. From David's loins was to be born Israel's ultimate Shepherd, leading the people to the fountain of redemption.
Like any great advance, the one tied to David's role was also an advance on rocky grounds. Saul was far from ready to yield. A life-and-death struggle ensued between the two, its tensions never fading from David's memory. On singing his final song of thanksgiving, his escape from Saul's hands became the symbol for all the cases when Yahweh had become for him the Rock of refuge:
O Lord, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,
my God, my rock of refuge!
My shield, the horn of my salvation,
my stronghold, my refuge,
My savior from violence, you keep me safe.
'Praised be the Lord,' I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies. (2 S 22:24)

Since the trials of David were like so many thunderstorms and violent earthquakes, he could fittingly refer to God as the unshakable rock of safety:
For who is God except the Lord?
Who is a rock except our God?...
The Lord live! And blessed be my Rock!
Extolled be my God, Rock of salvation! (2 S 22:32, 47)
Such was the God who showed kindness to David and was to show the same kindness to his posterity forever, a prospect worthy of the finest outburst by one of history's greatest poets. That it was not a momentary outburst on his part can be grasped from the manner in which it was inscribed into the Second Book of Samuel:
These are the last words of David:
The utterance of David, son of Jesse;
the utterance of the man God raised up,
Anointed of the God of Jacob,
favorite of the Mighty One of Israel.
The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me;
his word was on my tongue.
The God of Israel spoke;
of me the Rock of Israel said
"He that rules over men in justice,
that rules in the fear of God
Is like the morning light of sunrise on a cloudless morning." (2 S 23:14)
In view of the absolute solidity of the promise of a God who is Rock, David could but envision the future as firmly secured:
Is not my house firm before God?
He has made an eternal covenant with me set forth in detail and secured. (2 S 23:5)

[SLJ And On This Rock 57-60]

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