Thursday, December 08, 2022

Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary : part 2


Today, 8 December, the Church is invited to reflect on the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though there are alternative lectionary readings set for this lesser festival, I chose to use the main readings for the day, Isaiah 41:13-20 and Matthew 11:11-15, along with an icon of Jesus in the womb of Mary in the womb of her mother, St Anne.

The Isaiah reading includes this vision: ‘I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.’ (vv 19-20)

In the Bible, where we come across trees, they stand for people, sometimes an individual, sometimes a community. So here we have a vision of God transforming barrenness into an ecosystem, the descendants beyond measure of childless Abraham and Sarah.

The reading from Matthew says this:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (vv 11-12)

Interestingly, while the standard text for the Church of England is the NRSVA (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised) translation, the person who read the Gospel did so from the REB (Revised English Bible), which translates these verses as:

‘Truly I tell you: among all who have ever been born, no one has been greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.

‘Since the time of John the Baptist the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are taking it by force.’

This translation removes women from where they are; and inserts men, where they were not. The Greek explicitly says ‘among those born of women,’ en gennētois gynaikōn; while ‘the violent,’ though the noun is in the masculine, biastēs from biazó, is not qualified by ‘men’. It is assumed that all who have ever been born are born of women, and it is assumed that the violent are men; but both assumptions obscure the point. Jesus is comparing physical birth and spiritual birth. Just as we are born from our mother’s womb through the violent contractions of labour—or the violence of Caesarean section—so spiritual rebirth is a Kairos moment of crisis and opportunity, of violent energy, risk, and all being well, subsequent joy.

Today we reflect on Mary’s conception, within the ‘salvation history’ prepared by God before the creation of the world, before there ever was history, carrying us away from and back to God in time’s ebb and flow. Mary’s place, not only within Anne, but within Abraham, within Adam. The work of God to transform the wilderness of time and space, devoid of anything other than the three-person God, into cedar, acacia, myrtle, olive; cypress, plane, and pine; all rooted in this life-sharing God.

Today we give thanks for the gift of labour in place of barrenness, and of particularity in place of mere potential—what is, in all its contingency; all that I am, free of might-have-beens or if-onlys. For, like Mary, you and I are chosen, and loved, from before the worlds.


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