Thursday, April 27, 2006

Danger: subversive prayer - Thinking about The Magnificat and The Lord's Prayer

The wrong kind of prayer can get you killed. That is, if it's the right kind of prayer and it's delivered in front of the wrong kind of people, it can get you killed.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, got away with it, but Jesus wasn't so lucky. Well, I don't want to get into theological questions, so I'll just say "he didn't get away with it" and let the issues of luck, mission, destiny, purpose, God's will, and fate be argued by others.

The words of Mary's Magnificat that we have in Luke, in the story of the two pregnancies, Mary's and her cousin Elizabeth's, aren't technically a prayer. They amount to an updated Jewish psalm, a song of hope for those tough times under imperial occupation . Said, as the story goes, by Mary to Elizabeth, and marking the claim that Mary's Jesus is greater than Elizabeth's John the Baptist, the Magnificat is a general statement of praise for Israel's God's saving action, even though the action had not -- and still has not -- been completed.

If she had actually said something like it in the hearing of a Roman official instead of in the privacy of a relative's house, she might have been put in the slammer.

Imagine the response of a major imperialist on hearing a proclamation that the God of the Jews had "showed strength with his arm" and scattered the proud, knocked the powerful off their thrones, lifted up the poor and powerless, filled them with good food and sent the rich away hungry. And helped "his servant Israel", those upstart malcontents and complainers who kept spawning terrorists and assassins (the Sicarii or dagger-men) and other Zealot resistance fighters against the Empire and its collaborators.

Even if, upon looking around, it was obvious to the Roman that the Jewish God had done no such thing, at least not lately, it would have sounded to him like a program for giving aid and comfort to the resistance and even to terrorism. So it could have been off to Abu Herod with Mary and probably her fiance Joseph, too. And that potential sleeper cell she visited in "a Judean town in the hill country", consisting of her cousin Elizabeth and her priest-husband Zechariah and their unborn son, John, might well have been "swept up" with Mary. (Can't trust those religious fanatics who think they have a god on their side.) Locking up Elizabeth would have saved Herod and the Romans from a lot of problems later on with John the Baptist and Jesus. Put 'em away when they're young. And you can't get much younger than those boys were at that time.

But nobody with power heard Mary's subversive words, so she was home free.

Not so with her son. He had a troublesome habit of speaking his mind in public. Even that model prayer written in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and later named "the Lord's Prayer" by the faithful, had a disruptive countercultural and subversive message. Familiarity has bred a comfortable inattentiveness. Time has seemed to dull its sharp edges, since the context and cultural framework for understanding the prayer have changed. But it still can be read in a way that cuts to the bone, challenging both The Empire and the standard forms of resistance to The Empire. (More to come)

No comments: