Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Annunciation, Transfiguration, Dostoevsky

Today is the Annunciation, a tremendous feast day, so I feel inclined to have some fun.  We'll start with some exegesis, and then end up with Dostoevsky.  Hard to beat that.

When Gabriel appears to Mary, there is a good chance that she is at prayer.  What is the evidence for this?  If Jesus was born on the 15th of Tishri, the first day of the festival of Succot, as there is evidence (which I won't go into here) to believe, then nine months previous would be the first day of Chanukah, or the 25th of Kislev.  There were prayers for women to say during Chanukah, and on the first night, she would pray the Ushpizin prayer:
"Oh surround us with the pure and the holy radiance of thy glory that is spread over our heads as the eagle over the nest. He stirreth up and thence bid the stream of life flowing upon thy handmaid".  
Mary would have been praying for the glory of God to spread over her, and Gabriel tells her that the power of the Most High will overshadow her.  Ok, that's kind of neat.  But it's a lot better than that.  If Mary was praying during the feast of Chanukah -- the feast of the rededication of the temple after it was taken back from the power of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Seleucid Greeks -- then she was praying during a time when people were particularly conscience of the fact that there was no ark of the covenant.  

Flip your bible for a second to 2 Maccabees 2:4-12.  There is an interesting legend or tale that the author of 2 Maccabees records there.  According to legend, he says, as Judah was being deported into Babylon in 586BC, Jeremiah orders that the ark of the covenant be hid on the mountain where Moses has seen the Promised Land -- Mount Nebo.  Purportedly, the ark was indeed hidden there, but when those who had followed Jeremiah wanted to mark the way to the cave, Jeremiah responds in verses 7-8:
The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. And then the Lord will disclose these things and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated."  
The author of Maccabees tells this story in connection with the feast of Chanukah, the rededication of the temple of the Lord.  But, of course, even though the temple was rededicated, there was still no ark.  The Holy of Holies remained empty.  So when is the time when God will "show his mercy" and the "cloud will appear?"  

Well, first of all, there is a clear reference here to the Transfiguration.  Luke consciously uses the Greek word episkiadzo in Luke 9:34 to refer to the "overshadowing" of Jesus, Moses and Elijah.   The time has come for the ark to appear again, and it is found on a mountain just as it was buried according to legend on a mountain.  Except now, Jesus is the new ark.  

But, in anticipation of the Transfiguration, Luke uses this same word once more.  That place is in Luke 1:35.  There, a good Jew would have recognized that the time that Maccabees was referring to is drawing near.  Mary, at prayer during the feast of Chanukah, begins to fulfill the prophecy recorded during the first Chanukah.  The temple is about to be rededicated.  The Holy Spirit will "overshadow" her, a word used rarely in the Septuagint, and importantly in Exodus 40:34-34 to refer to the cloud of God's glory overshadowing the tent of presence with the ark in it.  This overshadowing presence of God in the Old Testament is extremely important, since the first overshadowing could be said to take place at creation when the Spirit hovers over the waters; at Sinai when the cloud descends on the mountain; over the tent of presence with the ark in it; and in the dedication of the temple of Solomon.  The overshadowing that that God will do over Mary refers to the tremendous cloud of God's presence all over the Old Testament. Mary is the new location of God's presence.  At creation, the Spirit was over the waters of the abyss, the "space" where creation would take place.  Mary is the "space" of the New Creation. The cloud of God was over the mountain of Sinai where the Law was given.  Mary is the mountain of the New Law.  The presence of God was over the tent of presence where the ark was kept.  Mary is the new tent of presence, the dwelling place of the ark.  She is also the new Holy of Holies of Solomon's temple where only the High Priest could enter:  Jesus, the new High Priest.  

The text in Maccabees, however, connects the ark again with Moses, as does the Transfiguration.  The ark will appear when the new Moses, who built it, appears again.  Just as no one knows where Moses was buried, so with the ark.  They will appear together.  This happens before the Transfiguration in Luke though.  Again, it begins with Mary.  She is overshadowed, making her the new tent of presence where the ark dwells.  But she is also the new Moses.  Moses is the first prophet of the Old Testament to follow the pattern of a Calling Narrative.  And, we know from Deuteronomy that the Messiah will be a new prophet greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).  Mary follows the same pattern.  The pattern goes something like this:

God calls; prophet is afraid; God assures that he will take care of everything and delivers message, usually saying in some way that he will "be with you;" prophet wonders how this can happen because of his own inadequacy and weakness; God says that it will be his own power that will make this happen; prophet says Yes. 

Moses is the first and greatest prophet to follow this pattern.  Luke is careful to structure Mary's annunciation following this same pattern.  Why?  She is not only the bearer of the New Ark, she is also the new prophet Moses receiving the New Law within her, greater than the old law, and greater than Moses.  In Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, giving the new law in the sermon on the Mount.  I think that in Luke, Mary is the new Moses, bearing a new ark that she helps build with her very own body, "overshadowed" by the Spirit so that she can give birth.  

The new Chanukah can now take place, the fulfillment of the dedication of the temple, since now the ark is here, and Moses has been found.  We have a new Moses, a new ark and a new temple.  

Fun stuff.  I don't know if it all works, since I'm just throwing this together as I go, but I think it hangs together.  Ok, so we have dealt with the Spirit telling Mary that the power of the God will episkiadzo her.  But he will also "come upon" her, also in verse 35.  That word is eperkomai. Most translations say that the the Holy Spirit will "come upon" her.  That is weak.  Weak!  This word in the Old Testament most often refers to the Day of the Lord, usually a terrible day, the day of the Messiah, when God will judge the earth.  So God is going to "come upon you, as on the day of the Lord, a day of judgment."  In other words, while Mary is listening to Gabriel use these words, she is hearing a lot of things.  She hears that the Day of the Lord, the great and terrible day prophesied in the last verses of the Old Testament, is now here, right now, in her.  It is going to happen inside of her.  Jesus is that Day.  The climax of history, and the moment of judgment is now upon Israel, and literally upon Mary, who represents the purified Israel.  So now, within a single verse, Moses and Elijah have appeared.  Moses through the word episkiadzo and Elijah through the word eperkomai.  How does Elijah appear?  He will bring about that great and terrible day, we are told by Malachi in the last two verses of his book.  Before that terrible day of the Lord, the one that is now here, Elijah must appear.  That will be John the Baptist primarily, but Mary in her own way is the prophet of the Day of the Lord.  It comes upon her first of all Israelites.  She is a microcosm of Israel, and the Day comes to her first.  

So the Annunciation is a mini Transfiguration.  Mary is both Moses and Elijah, the great prophets of the Old Testament, inaugurating the Day of the Lord, the New Ark, the rededicated Temple, the New Law, all of these things within herself.  Now that's feminism!  

So how could she possible say Yes to this?  Wasn't she terrified?  I can imagine a terrible struggle going on within her.  On the one hand, she recognizes that something incredible is about to happen.  On the other hand, she will be stigmatized now for life.  Who will believe that she is impregnated by the Holy Spirit?  Now I suppose if Joseph was told by the angel right when Mary conceives that she was pregnant and they marry right away, no one would know that Mary got pregnant before the wedding.  But we don't know that for sure.  Maybe Joseph didn't find out until Mary began to show.  Maybe God tested Joseph and he only found out later.  We don't know if anyone found out.  The whole town may have known and thought that Mary had cheated on her betrothal with Joseph.  And then when they get married, it starts to look like Joseph might have gotten her pregnant, and so now they are marrying to cover it up. I have often wondered if Jesus spent so much time specifically with prostitutes because behind his back growing up, the gossip was that Mary couldn't wait till marriage.  Even though he knew this was not true, maybe he had a special love for the sexually weak.  

In any case, Mary knew that a new and hard life was in for her.  She had to have tremendous trust.  I'm going to steal a passage from Crime and Punishment to wrap up this reflection.  It is one of my favorite parts of the book.  It is when Sonia reads the story of Lazarus from John 11 to Raskolnikov.  I am taking it out of context, but I think it fits in nicely here. Go read the whole section on your own! Raskolnikov is with Sonia, who is preparing to prostitute her body just to make a little money to save her family.  But she also has deep faith, and it is that part I want to highlight in this quote.  Raskolnikov is speaking to himself:  
"And if she has not gone out of her mind... but who says she has not gone out of her mind?  Is she in her senses?  Can one talk, can one reason as she does?  How can she sit on the edge of the abyss of loathsomeness into which she is slipping and refuse to listen when she is told of danger?  Does she expect a miracle?  No doubt she does.  Doesn't that all mean madness?" 
He stayed obstinately at that thought.  He liked that explanation indeed better than any other. He began looking more intently at her.  
"So you pray to God a great deal, Sonia?" he asked her.
Sonia did not speak; he stood beside her waiting for an answer.
"What should I be without God?" she whispered rapidly, forcibly, glancing at him with suddenly flashing eyes and squeezing his hand.  
"Ah, so that is it!" he thought.  
"And what does God do for you?"  he asked, probing her further.
Sonia was silent a long while, as though she could not answer.  Her weak chest kept heaving with emotion. 
"Be silent!  Don't ask!  You don't deserve!" she cried suddenly, looking sternly and wrathfully at him.  
"That's it, that's it" he repeated to himself.
"He does everything," she whispered quickly, looking down again. 
"What should I be without God?  He does everything."  That summarizes the message of Mary. She, like Sonia, was on the brink of something incredible, even terrible.  How could she possibly say Yes to this?  It was beyond her small frame, her youthful age.  Yet that did not matter to her.  The enormity of it was nothing.  Why?  

"He does everything."  

Nathan O'Halloran, SJ


PH said...

Awesome reflection. Thank you. I've always thought an interesting interpretation of the Mary-Joseph thing was that his reluctance was caused by him REALLY knowing what was going on, and being too humble to want to be the earthly father of the Messiah. That explanation has made alot of sense to me because Joseph, a righteous man, would have known Mary's character. He was probably also well aware of the prophecy of a virgin birth.

Ellen said...

That was so beautiful. The Chanukah prayer that Mary may have been praying made me think of Revelation 12. The prayer is asking that God’s glory spread over us as an eagle hovers over its nest. Revelation 12:14 says, “But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” That can be seen in Mary’s life, how she was always protected by God from the enemy, and also in the Church. I was struck how from the beginning Mary has been interceding for the Church, that we be nourished and protected.
The prayer speaks about “the stream of life flowing upon thy handmaid.” The dragon vomits water from his mouth as a stream of death upon the woman to sweep her away (v.15). He is still vomiting his stream of death upon the Church and God’s people, but Mary continues to intercede for the waters of life to flow over us, that the Church may be without spot or blemish, washed by the water of the Word (cf. Eph. 5:25-27).