Our God is not like other gods

Frances writes about next weekends readings : –   Ancient people always expected a lot of their gods and believed that in return the erection of colossal temples were the best way to honour those gods, hence the size of Karnak, Olympus, Baalbek and so on. Gods were above all about power and acclaimed as such. Yet the extraordinary thing that we find in our gospel reading (Lk 1:39-56) lies in the quite specific rejection of this norm. The already pregnant Mary, hearing of the unlooked for pregnancy of Elizabeth goes off on an arduous journey, probably on foot to visit her cousin who greets her with the acclaim so well known to us ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb’, a shout of victory and triumph reserved for two OT women whose bloodthirsty actions had saved their nation from foreign invaders, Jael killing Sisera by bashing a tent peg through his skull and Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes! Perhaps Elizabeth saw Mary in a similar light! If so, she is firmly put in her place by Mary’s dignified but humble response in which all the glory is directed to God. True, she realised that like her forebears in the faith she would be remembered: ‘all generations will call me blessed’; blessed by God, not powerful, for it is all the work of God which she acclaims: God is holy, he is powerful, he has routed his enemies, pulled down princes but; here is the difference and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich he has sent empty away. He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy. The God Mary recognises is himself all powerful, but his ways are achieved not through force of arms but through small things, working through the weak and achieving this through a characteristic we might not automatically think of as godlike, mercy, a predisposition which will indeed make the all powerful infinitely vulnerable as we know from the life of Jesus. Our Magnificat exults not in power, though that is there in God, but what is weak, seen in the humanity of Mary and her Son-God, thrown upon the world for its redemption.

This theme of power and its negation is raised in our reading from 1 Corinthians (15:20-27) where Paul works to make his Christian converts think the unthinkable, think outside the mould of normal conceptions and knowledge. In speaking of the resurrection of the dead he was taking his converts far from their normal expectation of things. Corinthian’s were supremely worldly people, based as they were in one of the greatest trading centres of the eastern Mediterranean. They were wealthy, venial, loud, lavish and often powerful, and yet for all of them, from highest to lowest death was the common denominator, promising all alike the same fate: wipe-out. Greco-Romans had no concept of the eternal, of an afterlife such as was believed in by many Jews and compensated for the looming oblivion which would swallow them all by lavish lifestyles and material possessions with the possibility of offspring their only immortality. Paul’s gospel in blatant contradiction to time honoured thinking promised them all an entirely altered reality post mortem. Because Jesus had risen from the dead ultimately he would reconcile a fallen and sin ridden world, exemplified in ‘sovereignties, authority and power’, freely giving it all to the Father, his final act of humility and submission and in return would thereby finally defeat death, the last and most ancient enemy of a humanity who are meant to live with God forever. Paul’s magnificent imagery of the great restoration of a fallen creation by the Son of God whose utterly ignominious death, not to mention his poor and unimportant life in up country Palestine, is a great object lesson for all of us in reworking, as the Corinthians were called to do, of what our life is all about.

We, in the company of the Corinthians have views and values which are too small and earthbound, based in the search for the petty power values of this world and it is in our reading from Revelation (11:19,12:1-6, 10) that this becomes clear. In this strange scene the links between heaven and earth are far more confused yet strengthened. The battle between good and evil takes place in both spheres; the huge red dragon is in the sky which represents heaven and the confrontation between the woman and her child and the dragon takes place in the celestial sphere until the woman escapes its clutches by escaping to the desert, to earth while the child is immediately taken to God and safety. The main sphere of action is in the heavens, a battle royal between God and Satan with the earth rather unusually described as a place of safety for the woman. Now, whilst the logic of all this is severely compromised by the scissors and paste job done by the compilers of the lectionary, it is nonetheless true that we are talking here of a cosmic battle between good and evil rather than personal sin. Only in the missing portion of the reading do we discover that Satan and his evil angels are ultimately thrown down to earth, after having lost the battle with God and at this point earth becomes a more problematical place, estranged from God. Throughout this encounter with evil the woman, representative of humanity is protected by God, she, we are not finally cut off or rejected, but intended for glory and this is what the feast of the assumption of Mary proclaims Mary, one of us plays her part in the redemption of the cosmos, the victory is Christ’s but Mary is mother of both God and Man in Jesus.

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