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The World Turned Upside Down

Fourth Sunday in Advent, 18 December, 2011
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Some people are little known in their own time and end up having an enormous impact on history. On the other hand, some people have a significant impact on history without ever becoming significantly well-known. How many of you, for instance, know about the fifth century Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus, whose name I like to translate for my students as Denis the Puny? He was the scholar who calculated the likely birth date of Jesus and is therefore responsible for the BC/AD dating system we use to this day. Quite a significant legacy. Later scholars, though, have suggested the he was very possibly wrong. The date of the nativity remains something of a mystery. Matthew has Jesus born in the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. Luke, on the other hand, ties it to the census taken when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was legate of Syria, which places it in the years 6 or 7 AD.

The efforts made by fundamentalist scholars to harmonise these two accounts are tortuous and unconvincing. Let us, instead, take Luke's story on its own merits. While some commentators might dismiss the story of the census as merely a plot device so that Luke can get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the Messiah to be born in the city of David, I want to suggest that there's more going on. The mention of the imperial provincial census provides the geopolitical context for Luke's story — a story which is going to subvert the expectations and priorities of the world of Quirinius.

What was happening in 6 AD? What might the educated sophisticated urbanites of that year have expected us to remember 2000 years later? Well, of course, we'd remember Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Lucius Arruntius, surely? They were the consuls of Rome — heirs to the 500 year old office that conferred nobility on a man's ancestors? No? What about the Great Illyrian Rebellion? The banishment of the imperial scion Agrippa Postumus or the tetrarch Herod Archelaus? Not ringing any bells with anyone? Imagine telling Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, consul of Rome, heir to one of the most famous names of Roman politics, trusted adviser and general to the emperor, that the most important person in the empire at the time of his consulship is not him, or the emperor, or anyone he has even heard of, but a pregnant unmarried peasant girl from the Galilean hill country.

And yet, of course, this girl from an obscure town on the very edge of the empire is remembered and celebrated while Lepidus and Arruntius are dusty footnotes, remembered only by ancient history geeks like me. To measure it in contemporary terms, Lucius Arruntius gets only 22,000 hits on Google, while the Virgin Mary get over 23 million. Imagine if, in 2000 years time people remember, not Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, but a pregnant unmarried teenage girl from Zimbabwe.

For, according to Luke, this is how the Kingdom works. By placing the story of Mary and her son carefully within the framework of imperial power and history — as represented by the census — Luke is demonstrating how his story turns the normal expectations of the world upside down. The angel appears not to one of the wealthy and powerful, but to one of the poor and obscure; not in the imperial centre but on the oppressed periphery and — in this most patriarchal of eras — not to a man but to a woman. Is it any wonder, therefore, that as the church becomes complicit with worldly power structures it turns this feisty Middle Eastern girl into an image of pale, saccharine, feminine passivity?

Because here, Mary's response is anything but passive — 'What sort of greeting is this?' she asks herself. And, of course, shortly after the annunciation passage read in today's Gospel, Luke has her burst out with the Magnificat, a picture of the world turned upside down that is little short of a revolutionary manifesto: He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

And this links with the great Advent theme of waiting. many of the readings for the other Sundays of Advent talk about waiting and expectation. Christians waiting for Jesus' return. The prophets of Israel, down to John the Baptist, waiting for the Messiah. There is waiting and expectation here too. The expectation of a pregnant mother, of course. But if Mary is more than just a passive vessel, it must be elsewhere in Luke's story too:

Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God."

Wait! Can you hear it? The sound, as Bernard of Clairvaux put it, of the universe holding its breath? Will she? Can she?

The Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

And the world is no longer the same.


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