Advent and the Winter Solstice

A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Numbers 24:17; Genesis 49:7 and Isaiah 9:7

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.” I know it’s trite, and cliché, but this time of year in New England reminds me of the truth in this statement. It is wholly (or is it holy?) appropriate that the church has placed the celebration of Christ’s first and second advents at this time of year. I’m reminded of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In the film, the people of Rohan are pinned by Saruman’s uruk-hai against a dark mountain in a crumbling fortress. There was hope, however, in the last words of Gandalf to Aragorn, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” When hope was lost, and the only choice facing King Theoden was a suicidal ride into ruin, their savior arrived with a host of Rohirrim to break the dark horde.

We hope not in the words of a fictional wizard but in the precedent and promise of the King of Kings. His precedent was set as the Morning Star rose to a cradle full of hay. Tonight as the sun is at its lowest and the night it’s darkest, we look forward to the promise that the light will one day break the blackest shadow at the final ascent of the star of Jacob.

Magnificat Xmas: Mary the Mother of James 2.0

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed highlights the vocabulary of deliverance in the Magnificat. As McKnight mentions in his book (see my previous post), Mary’s son sings a harmonic note of his own in his letter to the exiled twelve tribes:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . . to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.* (James 1:27 NIV [modified])

*Note also my earlier post about the inclusion of “and” in the ellipsis above.

Blessed Valorous Mary, Mother of James

Mary visits Elizabeth, by Hanna-Cheriyan VargheseWe recently received Scot McKnight’s book, The Real Mary, at the library where I work. Since I work there, I got first dibs on the book. It’s a good read – meaty enough for a good mental chew and cooked enough to get rid of the academic gristle.

Now, I’ve posted before about McKnight’s mashup of Mary’s Magnificat and James’ letter. (See my comments regarding his post.) So, I am pleased that he addresses the connection a bit more fully in his book. He encourages his readers:

Sometime read the Magnificat quickly and then read the letter of James quickly. You’ll notice at least the following similarities, and if we want to know about the real Mary and the real James, it is worth our time to ask if some of this is a family connection. Surely one sees such potential influence of Mary in James’ blessing of the poor and then his stiff warnings for the rich and his call to care for widows, as well as in his emphasis on mercy, faith, humility, peace, and wisdom. But, when in James’ letter he quotes Proverbs 3:34 in his fourth chapter, saying “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble and oppressed,” and when he goes on to say, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” he’s reintroducing pure Magnificat. This is probably the message he heard at home his entire life. (McKnight 2007, 104-105 [hyperlinks added])

Given the affinities between Mary’s song and James’ letter, I decided to prepare my Sunday school lesson on the Magnificat as a subversive declaration of God’s victory over the powers of this world. I actually picked up McKnight’s book specifically to prepare for the lesson, and I was not disappointed. He states:

…by reading the Magnificat in context, we can imagine Mary to be wiry and spirited and resolved and bold and gutsy. Maybe we should call her the Blessed Valorous Mary instead of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (McKnight 2007, 19)

Indeed! It is a fun exercise to imagine young James on the floor playing with his big brother while Mary quietly sings to herself this gutsy song of victory. James and Jesus overheard this bold tune that resounded with the same notes of Miriam’s song at the Red Sea and Deborah’s song after the defeat of Sisera. Perhaps the tune informed James’ eschatology. In this great reversal, the proud would one day be dispersed, taking the low place of the once dispersed twelve tribes. For James the cosmic revolution promised in the song was initiated by the birth, death and resurrection the Lord of Glory, while the righteous and wise are to wait patiently and prayerfully for its consummation.

Who knew that James’ Epistle (when paired with Mary’s Magnificat) could be an appropriate Christmas text?

May we heartily celebrate the birth of James’ older brother – who was humbly born as a babe, was exalted in his obedience and who now stands at the door ready to return. May we sing our subversive Christmas songs – declaring the victory of the soon coming King.

Veni, veni Emanuel!
Captivum solve Israel!
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.
Gaude, gaude, Emanuel
Nascetur pro te, Israel.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Mary the Mother of James the Just

Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has an interesting post on Mary (looking at what we know about her life and how it impacts our theology of women in ministry). In it he observes:

Mary “taught” her children — both Jesus and James. . . .

A neglected influence can be found by comparing the Magnificat and the letter of James: the minimum one can say is that both James and Mary breathed the same Jewish, biblical theology; it is more likely that Mary had a direct influence on James’ concern for the poor and for his critique of the rich. But what about this: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to look after the orphans [this means “fatherlessness” more often than it means “parentlessness” in Judaism] and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). Mary was most likely a widow; her children therefore “orphans” in Judaism; Jesus was deeply concerned with widows. Not hard to put together.

I’ve researched the themes of the “Great Reversal” in James in the past on a paper I wrote on James’ use of Isaiah 40 in 1:9-11 (PDF available). While writing that paper I noticed that the themes of reversal in Hannah’s song (1 Sam 2) corresponded rather well with James’ own teaching. Many have noted the thematic and even verbal similarities between Hannah’s song and the Magnificat. While writing that paper, I often wondered if James could hear his mother humming the tunes of Hannah’s and her own songs as he wrote his letter. It’s nice to think that a scholar such as McKnight recognizes the similarities as well. I’m looking forward to reading more in his soon to be published book, The Real Mary.