Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- Our story today speaks of a great shift in religious thought and practice. Ancient society, both Jewish and pagan, used animal sacrifice on an everyday basis. Jews used it for thanksgiving; the marking of covenants with God; they sacrificed for infractions against the Law of Moses, both nationally and for personal misdemeanours and they sacrificed after childbirth. Pagans similarly sacrificed, though with different intent and style. They did it to obtain hoped for support from the gods, for crops; sailing safely from one place to another; childbirth and, under the empire, to maintain their intricate connections with the ruling Caesars. Temples were abundant and every town would have a number and even the countryside had rural shrines, and they were on the estates of the rich. They were at road junctions; crossroads in towns and street intersections; sacrifice was an inescapable aspect of ancient life.
Our writer to the Hebrews, (10:5-10), wrote mainly to Jewish Christians to educate and acclimatise them to the new way of Christian belief and practise rooted in the incarnation, where God is born as a human being and shares our human life and unites it with his divine life. Here, as he so beautifully phrased it: “You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me”. Sacrifice has now been assumed into the one and eternal offering of the Son of God, given by God himself to us and any subsequent animal sacrifice is now meaningless. Christ’s bodiliness has taken over and replaced any other offerings.
In our world today, as in the ancient world, human life; the human body, is held cheap and despised. We see it in the way ancients kept slaves – human commodities to be thrown away when they had served their purpose. We see it in our day in the brash commercialism with which we treat ourselves and others. Syrian refugees and Palestinians are viewed as expendable pawns in the power games of the great nations and we only intervene to stop their slaughter when it directly affects us. Foreigners are despised and objects of suspicion and all too frequently we sexualise children, women and boys, treating them as if they were there to be bought and sold, and most of us are held cheap at the beginning and end of life.
Our gospel speaks to this situation, (Luke 1:39-45). In this extraordinary passage we see a great shift away from the normally male orientated temple, with its priesthood and sacrifices to the most undervalued of people; women. Here, in our story is Elizabeth, formerly barren, so not even fulfilling the role she was supposed to perform by society, and therefore to be regarded with contempt, cursed by God. And what does this woman do under the inspiration of God? Well, first, she conceives a child in her mature years and then, she prophesies! Her husband, a priest of the Levitical order, normally serving in the temple on a rota basis, sacrificing and offering prayer for the people has been silenced, struck dumb, by divine will, and his authority has passed elsewhere. Indeed, it has passed to his formerly barren and now fecund wife, carrying a child by the grace of God and who, in the power of the Spirit now prophesies and makes this stunning remark to Mary, proclaiming her blessed because of her faithfulness and trust in God. This dramatically subversive statement, reminiscent of two Old Testament prophetesses, and so redolent of the victory of God over human oppression stands as a startling reminder that we should look to the way God works in our world and the way in which his revelation of himself turns everything upside down. In the incarnation, in which God becomes human, one of us, one with us, with all the frailty and delicacy of the human body, we meet the mystery of God laid open to us and for us, and it is meant to stop us in our tracks and force us to reappraise our valuations of this world and our lives.
The late 8th century prophet Micah, (5:1-4), offered a similar and striking prophecy when he spoke to the people during the Assyrian sack of the cities of the northern kingdom Samaria. They had been carted off as exiles to Assyria, slaves, commodities for the market place, no-people, rubbish; and Micah reminds them of the origins of the early kingdom from among a tiny and insignificant tribe at Bethlehem. Kingship, power, had not come to the nation through the powerful tribes, or the largest or the richest, but from David, himself the youngest son, the least in importance. Micah’s message is clear, and continues Israel’s subversive tradition of looking to the weakest for the salvation of the nation. God, as Israel had always known, has a great capacity for turning things upside-down, and if our Christmas message of the grace and goodness of God is about anything, it must not simply offer security, but the challenge of his subversive and radical grace.