It's the week before we celebrate Christmas; why are we hearing this story now?
I mean, often the lectionary cycle presents the life of Jesus in slightly rearranged ways,
but his conception a week before his birth?
Shouldn't this reading have come back in March?
Heck, there's even a feast day for it: March 25—the Feast of the Annunciation.
Well, yes, probably, but that would have interfered with the Sundays in Lent
and the story arc leading to Christ’s death.
To say the least, the Church’s reasoning sometimes seems very arcane.
And let’s admit that part of the problem is that we get complacent as listeners.
We are so used to hearing the story of Jesus that we forget
that it is not primarily historical biography but rather narrative theology.
Meaning that the basic details of the Jesus story are arranged, rearranged,
and in some instances wholly made up to suit the particular agendas
of particular writers for particular communities at particular times.
And we, almost 2000 years later, have to sort through those layers for a meaning that
we can then attempt to apply to our particular lives in our particular time and context.
Throughout this process, however, there is a unifying, underlying motif that never varies:
That God is acting in and through history, in and through individuals and communities,
out of love for creation.
Take the two women we hear about today, for example:
Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel,
and Mary, mother of the prophet Yeshua.
We get a little of Hannah’s story from the reading this morning.
She is married to a man who loves her deeply but she cannot give him a child,
and this causes her deep pain.
So she prays to God for a son, promising that if God grants her request
she will give the boy back to God for service in the temple.
And so it comes to pass and Samuel is born
and is consecrated to Yahweh and to life as a priest in the temple.
“And the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature
and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”
While he is still young God visits him and speaks to him and gives him his mission in life.
He becomes a great prophet, a judge over all Israel, and ultimately a king-maker.
Hannah’s song of rejoicing comes at the head of the biblical saga of Samuel
and speaks to all of what follows as though it had already happened.
And of course, once again we find that scripture is often
more involved with artistic license than historical fact.
Most scholars today feel that Hannah’s song is really a national hymn,
written at a later period when Israel had developed into a kingship
and interpolated backward into the story for theo-political purposes.
What really matters, however, is not the portions that speak about the king,
but what the song says about the nature of God, who God is:
the same God who set the earth on its foundations in the cosmos
is One who will stoop down and raise the poor from the dust.
If this is a national hymn, perhaps sung by women
and passed down from generation to generation at work at their looms,
like Miriam’s song of victory after Israel’s deliverance from the Egyptians,
then it should be no surprise that the author of Luke
puts a version of it in Mary’s mouth.
Because the stories of the birth and childhood of Samuel
were definitely in the mind of this evangelist when he began writing his gospel.
The author even paraphrases the book of Samuel in talking about the young Jesus, saying at one point, “And the boy Jesus increased in wisdom and in years,
and in divine and human favor.”
And, like Samuel, early in his career Jesus is visited by God,
who speaks to him and gives him his mission in life.
He too becomes a great prophet, a teacher of wisdom for all people,
and ultimately, in his own way, a king.
A king some considered the fulfillment of David’s line and thus of Hannah’s song.
Mary’s song about her son is essentially just a copy of the Song of Hannah,
combined with part of a previous prayer of Hannah’s,
in which she refers to herself as a handmaiden, a slave of the Lord,
and then paraphrased to be more succinct.
Even its placement at the beginning of the third gospel
makes it function much like Hannah’s song at the beginning of I Samuel:
it prepares the way for the rest of the narrative
and this evangelist’s view of Jesus as Israel’s greatest and final king.
This is all interesting textual analysis, and it is pertinent,
but the principal thrust, once again, what really matters,
continues to be praise of who God is and how God acts,
of God's justice in bringing down the powerful and raising up the lowly.
Both Hannah and Mary are given songs that proclaim their joy in their God.
Both Hannah and Mary are said to take heart in the promise that the Most High considers, cares for, and acts on behalf of the lowly -- despite what one might expect
(and contrary to how we human beings behave ourselves).
Both Hannah and Mary are used to convey that what God is doing is not just for them,
but also, through them and their offspring, for the whole people.
Both songs carry strong social and political implications:
Be careful what you call a blessing and what you call unfortunate;
be careful who and what you esteem and who and what you do not esteem.
These are bold and edgy prayers; that they are given to speakers marginalized by society
makes them even more revolutionary in their implications,
as they demonstrate powerfully and eloquently just who may be called
to be the servants of God and the recipients of God’s power and glory.
Both Hannah and Mary sing a song that can be, that should be,
our song in this Advent season.
As we have prepared for the coming of the Christ Child,
now we too can sing in thanksgiving, in celebration, in remembrance,
and in proclamation of the promise made to our ancestors.
Like Hannah, and Mary, like Sarah and Elizabeth too,
this is the time for us to indulge in unadulterated, celebratory joy
in the promises that come to fruition for us in Jesus.
It is also a time for us to remember that we live in an unfinished universe.
The savior we await, the savior promised long, has come into the world
but is still ahead of us drawing us toward completion,
calling us to be co-creators in bringing to birth a new reality,
one of economic justice and equity between all peoples.
God’s kin-dom will not come, cannot come in its fullness, without our participation:
without our prayer, like Hannah, without our openness, like Mary.
So even as we sing in thanksgiving for what God has done and is doing,
for who God has been and will continue to be,
we are challenged to examine our own lives
to make sure that what we do and who we are becoming
demonstrates the same heritage, we who are made in God’s image.
Not only a hymn of thanksgiving then, but a rallying cry
and hopefully, someday, a shout of victory.
So here’s to all the pregnant women.
For that matter, here’s to all the pregnant men.
All of us full of Advent expectancy,
big-bellied with hope and promise.