(no I didn’t forget the reading link… there are just not any appropriate readings…)
We are coming to the end of Lent. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday when we remember Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem and his Crucifixion, though the two did not happen on the same day… It makes for a Sunday of much joy and even more sorrow.
But this is not just the last week of Lent… today is also the feast of the Annunciation – a Solemnity for our Roman siblings, a Festival for our Lutheran siblings, and in the Anglican Tradition a Principal Feast. Our Orthodox siblings count it as one of eight major Feasts of our Lord – since what is being announced to Mary is the incarnation of Jesus. Throughout Christian Tradition it is a big deal. So, we’ll come back to it…
Here at Volmoed through Lent at these Thursday services, we have been focused on the Beatitudes – those sayings in the Gospels that begin with “Blessed are those…” or words to that effect. Blessed are the peace makers, blessed are those who weep, blessed those who hunger for justice… The Beatitudes sum up Jesus’ expectations of the faithful. So, like the Annunciation, the Beatitudes are a big deal in Christian Tradition…
Both Luke and Matthew give us lists of Beatitudes. Matthew gives us eight while Luke gives us only four… But Luke enhances his Beatitudes with Woes… Woe to you who are rich… woe to you who are well fed… As a general principle, I’d prefer more blessings and fewer woes…
For those of us of a certain age it’s hard to hear the Beatitudes without images from Monty Python’s Life of Brian coming to mind. Brian, and his hapless mother happen to be in the crowd for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But they are way at the back and it’s very hard to hear… “Blessed are the peace makers” says Jesus, mostly inaudibly… “What did he say?” someone asks… a helpful person in the crowd close by says“I think it was ‘blessed are the cheese makers…’” to which someone else responds “what’s so special about cheese makers?” and another person explains “well obviously, it’s not meant to be taken literally… it’s referring to any manufacturer of dairy products.”
Translation does harm to beatitudes. While we may be able to laugh at the misunderstanding in Life of Brian, it is entirely possible that similar misunderstandings are embedded in scripture as we have received it. When we read quotes from Jesus, are we hearing what Jesus said? Or what somebody misheard Jesus say? Or what some translator thinks Jesus meant to say… or should have said… There are a lot of gaps in the scriptural record. But thankfully, our primary relationship is with a living, risen Jesus, not with a book.
Modern languages also do harm to beatitudes and other parts of scripture. Our modern language says something like: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” But that could be rendered: “Blessed are you pursuing righteousness – you are the Kingdom of God.” These are both valid translations, but they are very different. The risk is that we hear the beatitudes as if/then statements. If we are persecuted, then we will (at some future time) inherit the Kingdom. This is not the way beatitudes work.
Throughout the gospels Jesus often draws on Hebrew scripture – the old testament – of course it was the only testament at the time of Jesus. This is the case with the beatitudes. With a little memory work, we can call to mind any number of beatitudes from the Hebrew scripture. Just bring to mind Psalm One – blessed are those who do not take counsel from the wicked or sit in the seat of the scornful. Jesus is not inventing a new artform…
Beatitudes, in Hebrew Scripture, have an interesting function. They don’t tell us what to do. Beatitudes tell us who we are. They are observations, not instructions. They describe us. Or, perhaps, they don’t…
There is another interesting structural thing in the beatitudes as we hear them from Jesus. They are not addressed to individuals. They are collective. Jesus isn’t saying “blessed are those among you who are pursuing righteousness…” It might be better understood that in pursuing righteousness we are all blessed.
The Annunciation to Mary, which is the feast almost everyone celebrates at this time, is also a profound beatitude. The Angel Gabriel begins his message to Mary: “Rejoice favored one. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” It is a beatitude pure and simple – perhaps.
As you look through the available translations these days, the phrase “blessed are you among women” seems to come and go… The early sources don’t agree. In case we needed a further illustration of the problems of scriptural translation I mentioned moments ago, here it is…
Nonetheless, with or without that particular phrase, there is no doubt that the Angel Gabriel is bringing a beatitude to Mary. Notice especially that Gabriel is not telling Mary something she should do. Gabriel is telling her something about herself. She will conceive and give birth to the very Son of God… to Jesus…
We are often encouraged to consider Mary’s obedience. “Here I am, the Lord’s servant… let it be according to your word.” This seems like she is agreeing. Some translations have her responding with an enthusiastic Yes! But here is another translation: “Behold the slave of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” This sounds more like resignation than choice.
Beatitudes tell us who we are… Gabriel has told Mary that she is the mother of Jesus. Mary’s yes is in accepting that identity, not in agreeing to the task.
In the Orthodox tradition Mary is known as the Theotokos – sometimes translated as the God Bearer, sometimes as Mother of God. But translation is, as we have noted, a challenge. “May it be done to me” is not a typical maternal response. God is not a typical father. Jesus is not a typical child.
A line from a medieval mystical poem, O Magnum Mysterium, roughly translated, says “Blessed virgin, who’s flesh was found worthy to carry Lord Christ.” Another beatitude. Another description of who Mary is.
Mary says yes because that is who she is. Through Gabriel’s visit she comes to know herself more as God knows her.
And here, at the end of Lent we have the same invitation – to know ourselves as God knows us – not completely, but at least a little.
All this talk of dying that features prominently in our Lenten readings tells us that death is a path to life. Letting go of things leads to abundant life. One way of understanding this could be that letting go of our illusions of who we are allows us to begin to see the reality of who we are… to begin to see ourselves as God sees us.
Clinging to our illusions of who we imagine ourselves to be will not succeed in anything but delaying God’s truth. Sooner or later our false self will perish, and the truth will survive. Mary could have said no to Gabriel. It would not have changed who she was. She would still have been Theotokos. God is patient, but persistent. Mary’s yes opens her own eyes to what God already knows.
For us, what an incredible, unimaginable blessing, a beatitude, awaits if we can manage to say our own yes to God. As Mary got to see herself in a way that God saw her, we can get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us. That is a bit terrifying. Mary, too, was terrified. And the Angel Gabriel still says, “fear not.” For we know that Jesus purpose is not condemnation and punishment, but pure, boundless, totally reckless, unconditional love.
It’s not that God will come if we die to self, God is here. It’s that our eyes can be opened as we die to self, to false self. We clear our vision so that we can see Emanuel – God with us.