Readings: 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Luke 1:46-53, True Christianity 394, 395(3) (see below)
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We’ve been jumping around in the Bible a little lately. We spent some time in the book of Ruth, then fast forwarded to the end of King David’s reign. Now we jump back to the days closer to the time of Ruth again, to hear a song of praise from a woman named Hannah.
To set the context: Hannah was to become the mother of the great prophet Samuel. But as we begin 1 Samuel, we find that she is the beloved wife of a man named Elkanah and she is also barren. She yearns for a son, especially since Elkanah’s other wife had many children, and was very nasty to Hannah on that account. So, Hannah went to pray at a holy place named Shiloh. She prayed so intensely but silently that the priest Eli thought she was drunk. But once she unburdened herself to him, he added his prayer to hers, and soon she found herself with child. In gratitude, when her son was weaned, she returned him to Shiloh and to Eli, so that his life might be given in service to the Lord.
It is at this point, that she sends another prayer up to God, the one we hear in our text today. She speaks of rejoicing and of praise, but most significantly she speaks of reversal. She speaks of those with power and strength being humbled, and of those who are empty and vulnerable being lifted up. She speaks of the fact that God is in the business of resurrection, of being present to those who suffer and enacting a change in their circumstances. She sings a song of God’s providence and care for human beings. Like many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures, the story and words of her as an individual character also speaks to the trajectory of the Israelite people as a whole.
Hannah’s words are echoed many books later in Mary’s song, often called The Magnificat. The similarities are obvious. Both are praising God after a miraculous pregnancy, both are drawing attention to the transformation of their lowly state into a triumphant one. Their vulnerabilities are slightly different: Hannah was older and married and despairing due to her barrenness, suffering due to the expectation that women would bear children, and the fact that their worthiness was often tied to their fertility. Mary was younger, inconsequential, as yet unmarried with no real status, a Jew under Roman rule, a nobody. But both received an invitation into a different reality, and both recognized what God was doing. That when God acts, there is always a necessary upheaval.
Swedenborg writes that our love is our life; it is what drives and motivates us.(1) So of course, the quality of that love, *what* we love, determines the direction we are going. And as we heard in our reading today, he organizes the kinds of human love into four main categories: Loving the Lord, loving others, loving the self, and loving the world. What is key, is that none of these loves, even the last two, are inherently bad, rather, it is the order that they are in that counts. Of course we should love ourselves; God wants us to feel self-confidence and self-worth, because we are beloved in God’s eyes. We should all see ourselves as God sees us. And of course we should love the world, not only the magnificence of creation but the ingenuity and the goodness of the societies that humans have built together. God blesses human striving and learning and making. But problems come when love of self and the world are constantly and unreasonably put first all the time. These loves then become shadow versions of themselves. A habitual centering of our selfhood and our benefit above others, a habitual coveting of worldly possessions and wealth and reputation; this is an inversion of God’s wise and loving divine order. That order of things, as Hannah and Mary both knew, will lead to a barrenness of the spirit.
Yet, how easy it is for the order to get out of whack! How easy for us personally, and collectively! How easy it is to be courted and seduced by ideologies of superiority and accumulation! To believe it is a good thing to put our own interest ahead of others because we have come to believe the other is deficient or dangerous in some way. To believe it is a good thing to accumulate as much as possible just because we can, or because we think it demonstrates our cleverness. To believe it is a good thing to win at any cost because our cause is so righteous. To believe it is a good thing to never change our minds, or be open to learning, because certainty is strength and openness is weakness.
But none of those ways of thinking are the gospel. None of those things are what is communicated by the story of Advent. A sweet and cooing baby in the manger is only part of the story. The rejoicing and the angels and the gift-giving are only part of the story. The main part of the story is that God’s providence for us always involves a necessary upheaval, the work of uprooting love of self and the world when they have settled in the wrong order and planting them back where they belong, as a support for mutual love. Even a welcome pregnancy is still an upheaval, it is just one we are expecting and waiting for. And this is why the Advent lectionary usually includes a healthy amount of John the Baptist. His whole deal is “get ready, prepare the way.” He doesn’t mean settle in with a cup of cocoa. He means get ready for a necessary upheaval. He means prepare yourself for the work of changing what needs to be changed.
Both women’s songs come during a time when Israel was struggling. In Hannah’s time, Israel was still a nation of tribes, suffering under corruption and disunity. In Mary’s time, Israel was captive under Roman rule, no longer captain of its own fate. Yet, into these troubling circumstances, these women spoke of a God who saw those struggles and cared about them, who stepped in to support a change of circumstances.
Hannah would give birth to Samuel, a great prophet, who would preside over the establishment of Israel as a kingdom. Mary would give birth to Jesus, who would transform our ideas about God and jumpstart a new religious movement. But we must notice though, that God doesn’t just change the circumstances themselves, wave a magic wand that suddenly makes everything perfect. God supports change by uplifting the process of new life, of birth. In each of these stories a child is born, who would go on to make choices that would have an amazing impact.
So too is the picture of our inner lives. God doesn’t just change the order of our loves like moving chess pieces on a board. Let’s be honest, we would just move them right back to where they were. God steps in by helping us to take advantage of situations where we can grow. God steps in by saying to us, “Would you like to grow this new life inside of you? Here is a way that you can do it. Do you accept?” And the choice is ours. We can choose whether or not to give birth to something new that will change the way we see the world, and the way that we act within it.
And the way that we act within the world, collectively, makes a difference to all of us. What is so moving about Hannah and Mary’s songs is that they are not just talking about their own journey, they are not just talking about individual people, but systems of power. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more (1 Samuel 2:5, 8). This speaks to physical, social and spiritual realities all at the same time. The necessary upheavals in our own spirit play out in the choices that we make, and the choices that we make act together to create the world we live in.
This is what makes scripture so powerful, that we can see the levels of connection. We can see that Hannah and Mary are speaking of themselves *and* Israel, as well as speaking of us and our own time. We can see that the workings of our own spirit, our own strivings and stumblings and triumphs, they are connected to the same things in our world of now, and the so the mighty question of Advent is not “how will be celebrate the birth of our Lord?” but “how will I be changed by it?” What necessary upheaval will we say yes to this year?
But those who stumbled are armed with strength (I Samuel 2:2:4). This is the promise of Advent, a promise that we all need, this year more than ever. The life of the spirit, the discipline of the life intentionally lived in relationship with spirit, is the acceptance of the necessity of upheaval. There are times, like Hannah, when we are praying fervently for it, knowing it needs to come, making ourselves ready. And there are time we are more like Mary, surprised and puzzled to find it on our doorstep. But either way, the Advent call is to take a deep breath and say “Yes Lord: Reinvent me according to your will.” My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1:46-47).
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #78
1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Then Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; in the LORD my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance. 2 “There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed. 4 “The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. 5 Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. 6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. 7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. 8 He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. “For the foundations of the earth are the LORD’s; on them he has set the world. 9 He will guard the feet of his faithful servants, but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness. “It is not by strength that one prevails; 10 those who oppose the LORD will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the LORD will judge the ends of the earth. “He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
True Christianity #394 and #395(3)
There Are Three Universal Categories of Love: Love for Heaven; Love for the World; and Love for Ourselves
We are starting with these three categories of love because they are universal and fundamental to all types of love and because goodwill has something in common with each of the three.
Love for heaven means love for the Lord and also love for our neighbor. Love for heaven could be called love for usefulness, because both love for the Lord and love for our neighbor have usefulness as their goal.
395 When these three categories of love are properly prioritized in us, they are also coordinated in such a way that the highest love, our love for heaven, is present in the second love, our love for the world, and through that in the third or lowest love, our love for ourselves. In fact, the love that is inside steers the love that is outside wherever it wants. Therefore if a love for heaven is present in our love for the world and through that in our love for ourselves, with each type of love we accomplish useful things that are inspired by the God of heaven.
…if these three loves are prioritized in the right way, they improve us, but if they are not prioritized in the right way, they damage us and turn us upside down.