December 27, 2009
Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow
See also: [Year C Archive]
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
This snippet from the First Book of Samuel is chosen to go along with the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple in the Luke passage for the day. We have already seen in the Advent season how Luke weaves elements from the story of Samuel into his account of the nativity of Jesus: Elizabeth, like Hannah, is barren until God gives her power to conceive; Mary’s Magnificat is a close echo of Hannah’s song after Samuel is born; and now, this mention of the boy Samuel’s service with the priest Eli in the sanctuary at Shiloh is set in conjunction with the account of Jesus’ encounter with the priests and scribes in the Jerusalem temple. In the original context, Samuel’s youth and innocence are set in direct contrast to the greed and cynicism of Eli’s sons: while Samuel wears his ephod and performs his sanctuary service with sincerity, Eli’s sons commandeer the meat of the people’s sacrifices before it can be properly offered, and have sex with women at the entrance of the tent of meeting, profaning not only themselves but the sacrifices and intercessions they are supposed to mediate for the people. In a sense, then, Samuel begins to be the true son of Eli, the son of the sanctuary, that Eli’s own sons refuse to be. This theme will be echoed and expanded when Jesus refers to the Temple as “my father’s house.”
The psalm is a straightforward song of praise to God. What I find particularly interesting about it, though, is the fact that the poem is not addressed directly to God, but is cast as a call to creatures to give their praise to God. I like to visualize this psalm as addressed to the entire universe, arranged like a choir of choirs in concentric circles. At the outermost, most all-encompassing circle are the cosmic “heavens” and “heights,” the place of all angels and heavenly hosts. Within that circle are astronomical phenomena, sun and moon and shining stars, and the cosmic “waters” that surround the dome of the sky. Then come earthly phenomena, atmosphere and hydrosphere and lithosphere: oceans and sea monsters, weather and wind, mountains and hills. The next circle includes living things: plants in forest and orchard, animals both wild and domesticated, “creeping things and winged birds.” The next-to-central circle includes human beings, supported by and giving voice to all the other circles: kings and princes and poor, women and men, old and young. At the very center of the concentric choir are God’s own people and the “horn” God has raised up for them, from whom the covenant and the teaching reach out to embrace the cosmos. If in this season in particular we associate the “horn,” a symbol of strength, with the Messiah, and the promise of the Messiah with the incarnation of the Word in Jesus, then the psalm becomes a reflection on the cosmological meaning of Christmas, a vision of how all things may be united in the praise of the One through whom all things are made.
In a season that is most recognizable, both in the church and in the world, by its special music, it is hard not to see the key verse in this epistle selection as “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” It reminds me of the phrase, variously attributed to Augustine and to Martin Luther, that “whoever sings, prays twice”; and it brings to mind an observation made in a theology class in my seminary that many of us absorb more theology through hymnody than through study—and that’s why the texts of hymns should never be treated casually. In this Colossians passage, the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is set in direct parallelism with “teach and admonish one another in all wisdom,” indicating the same educative and formative role for music here. The power of music—at least one aspect of its power—lies in its ability to engage the emotions and the intellect at the same time, to make us think attentively about things like tune and tempo and text, and to think about them passionately in both listening and performing. Music has a unique ability to provide us “lures for feeling” and to engage our feelings in striving for beauty and harmony of experience. That can give rise to nostalgia and sentimentality, as certain favorite Christmas carols do; but it can also move heart and mind toward action for the sake of ideals, as, for instance, in Christmas hymns’ repeated references to peace on earth and goodwill for all people. That makes it especially significant that the epistle sets the call to sing in context with the call to “clothe yourselves” with characteristic virtues: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and, above all, love. Each of these virtues represents an abstract ideal which, entertained as a lure for feeling, can guide concrete action. Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs—and Christmas carols—that sing of these virtues can move us toward action to actualize them in our real worlds. As we celebrate during Christmastide the Nativity and the Incarnation that make it possible for us to embody Christly, divine ideals in our concrete human lives, it is good to be mindful of how the songs of the season do (or do not) inspire us to let the Peace of Christ be realized in us.
This story of Jesus’ visit to the Temple at twelve years of age is the only glimpse the canonical Gospels give us of the period between Jesus’ birth and his public ministry as an adult. Not surprisingly, this gap in the story has led over the centuries to many varied attempts to fill in the record, from the “infancy gospels” that gained popularity in late antiquity, right up to more contemporary speculations that between the ages of twelve and thirty Jesus traveled into Asia and mastered the techniques of Buddhist meditation. Apart from such stories, this passage in Luke is the only glimpse we get of Jesus as a boy; and for Luke what is important here is less the biographical detail than the emerging recognition of Jesus’ identity.
Given Luke’s purpose, it is doubly interesting that this story is essentially told from Mary’s point of view: it is Mary and Joseph who go to Jerusalem for Passover each year, and who take Jesus with them as a more or less passive passenger; it is Mary and Joseph whom the narrative point-of-view follows after the festival, leaving Jesus “off camera,” as it were, while they begin the journey home; it is Mary and Joseph who turn back to the city in haste to search for Jesus; it is Mary who scolds Jesus for making them worry; it is Mary who, after the incident, “treasured all these things in her heart.” This narrative device ties the incident to the rest of the nativity account, in that Luke makes Mary the central character, the hero, of the whole story of the coming of the Messiah into the world. Mary is the active linchpin of the entire nativity sequence: it is Mary to whom Gabriel announces the Messiah’s conception (compared to Matthew’s account, in which Joseph receives that news); it is Mary who visits Elizabeth and is recognized as “she who believes”; it is Mary who sings a song of triumph about Jesus’ conception; it is Mary who treasures and ponders in her heart the shepherds’ report of angelic announcement that her child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, is the Savior; it is Mary who receives from the Holy Spirit through Simeon the word that “a sword will pierce your own soul too”; and now it is Mary who meditates on the meaning of her son’s discourse with the teachers and being so at home in the Temple.
For Mary, each of these incidents serves as an outward, visible, and public corroboration of her inward, personal, and subjective encounter with Gabriel. Gabriel had promised Mary that she would be empowered to conceive; and Elizabeth corroborated that at their meeting. Gabriel had promised Mary that her son would receive “the throne of his ancestor David” and would “reign over the house of Jacob,” which are identifying marks of the Messiah; and the shepherds corroborated that in their report of the angel’s proclamation that the child “is the Messiah, the Lord.” Gabriel had promised Mary that her son would be “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God”; and Jesus himself corroborates that when he calls the Temple “my father’s house.” In the overall pattern of Luke’s narrative, Jesus’ behavior in the Temple and his response to his mother’s anxiety is just the final and most probative in a series of proofs that this child is who Gabriel said he would be; Mary’s “treasuring” in her heart of “these things” is just the final and most significant in a series of recognitions of the power of God’s promise and the truth that “nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37).
In a very real sense, Luke’s story of the birth of the Messiah is the story of Mary’s faith unfolding in the accomplishment of active fact. Luke presents Mary as the prototypical ideal disciple: someone who trusts in God’s promise and who gives herself to be co-creator with God in the actualization of the promise. In the incident in the Temple, Luke notes that Mary does not “understand” what Jesus means when he says they should have known where to look for him, they should have known he would be in his “father’s house”; but Luke also notes that, even without fully understanding, Mary treasures and ponders the event. And that also is an aspect in the life of discipleship: to trust in divine aims and to act for their fulfillment even when their complete scope is too large for logical analysis to comprehend. Mary provides here an ideal for later disciples of Jesus to emulate, in her consistent faith that God’s promise will be fulfilled, and her growing recognition of Jesus’ identity as that fulfillment. Luke’s portrayal of Mary is an invitation to the faithful to be consistent in their trust in God’s promises of justice and peace, and to recognize those promises as focused in Jesus, in the aims and ideals embodied in his life and ministry and teaching and death and resurrection—and to give themselves to be co-creators with God in realizing such Christly aims in their own experiences and actions.
Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership.He is a co-author of The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World, and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.
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