Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Chapter I: Advent - The O Antiphons: The Virgin Antiphon

The Virgin O Antiphon

You may have noticed that the Great O Antiphons did not quite carry us through Christmas Day as they were originally designed to do. In Medieval England, an eighth O Antiphon was added specifically designed for Christmas Eve, and the traditional Seven were pushed forward one day to make room for the new antiphon.

Today's antiphon switches from a longing for the coming Messiah to God's work in Mary. In Latin, the acrostic for today spelt 'truly tomorrow':
O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be? 
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after. 
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me? 
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.
The original Latin:
O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.
Once again, the inspiration for this O Antiphon comes from the Prophet Isaiah:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. -Isaiah 7:14
It's appropriate to pause for a moment and reflect on the person of Mary on this day as we wait for her to give birth to our Saviour.

Some have complained that Protestants do not give Mary enough respect. While I've never heard a Protestant be particularly disrespectful to the virgin mother of our Lord, I agree that we miss some of the inspiration and humanity that her part of the Story brings.

Unfortunately, I think the opposite extreme has the same effect. We can so honour Mary, giving her titles like "Ever Virgin" and "Queen of Heaven" that remove her humanity, and thus make her bit of the Story just inaccessible as if we had ignored her altogether.

From what we know of 1st century Jewish culture, Mary was likely a young girl at the time of her betrothal to Joseph - maybe as young as 12 and probably no older than 14. Contrary to popular myth, she probably couldn't read or write, and, because she was a female, she had not been given the instruction in the Old Testament that her male peers would have received.

Hers was a simple faith. She probably knew the basics of Jewish Law, and she had probably been prepared by her mother to perform the traditional mother's role in the family, which included specific aspects of the Sabbath and Passover liturgies, but she would not have been educated in the finer details of the Law. She probably knew the stories of the Old Testament. As can be seen even in the Gospels, the leaders of the Jewish community did not value or place much importance (either sociological or spiritually) on their women. Having been raised in this culture probably had a significant psychological impact on Mary.

Now imagine that type of poor girl being hailed by a tall man, "“Rejoice, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28). She was thrown off guard and confused by his greeting. So he responded, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and give birth to a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus.’ He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom.” (Luke 1:30-33)

Imagine the shock of such a statement. We don't know that the angel was shining brilliantly as he did elsewhere, but something made Mary understand that he was from God. She knew enough about the birds and the bees to know that Gabriel told her was contrary to the normal laws of nature, yet she trusted. Her response must be interpreted as an honest, gentle curious question, not a challenge: “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)

And the answer was simple: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God. Behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing spoken by God is impossible." (Luke 1:35-37)

For those who know about the laws of reproduction, as Mary apparently did, this isn't a clear answer. No biological lessons were given. No clear discussion of what exactly God would do. She only knew that the Holy Spirit would come upon her. And her response foreshadows that of her own Son's 30-some years later: “Behold, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

This is the beginning of Mary's journey - the next nine months are impossible for us moderns to understand. Did her family find out she was pregnant? What could their reaction have been? We know what Joseph, an honourable man, thought was the best thing after he found out: divorce her privately. The only support we know she received came from her relatives Elizabeth and Zacharias, but she left their home before the end of her first trimester. 

We do not know what Mary experienced, but we know that she submitted. She gave herself wholly to her God. It must have been terrifying. Again, contrary to popular myth, Mary was a fragile, sinful human being; she probably experienced emotions of fear, panic, sadness, depression, anxiety, and maybe even anger at what God was doing to her. I'm sure there were days during those nine months that she asked the question, "Why me?" and probably not out of a reverent sense of wonder.

As I contemplated this post on Mary, I wanted to include a song video. Unfortunately, as I listened to the one I had picked out, I realised that it fell into the second of the two categories listed above by labeling her "blameless and pure" - adjectives that only apply to her Son or the Holy Spirit. My second choice was much too focused on Christ's future sacrifice (a perfectly good theme, but not exactly appropriate for a post on Mary's submission). Then, out of happenstance, this old song by Amy Grant came on Pandora. It has long been a favourite of mine, and it captures exactly the way I need to relate to Mary, the pattern I think she set, not just for her Son, but for me:

I have traveled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside
And I wonder what I've done
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of Your plan
Help me be strong, help me be, help me

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven

 So we make this our prayer this evening as we wait: Breath of Heaven, hold us together. Lighten our darkness. Pour over us Your holiness. We offer ourselves to the mercy of Your plan... Hold me together.

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