Words That Glow (Isaiah 6:11; John 1:23)
A familiar phrase, “It leapt off the page at me!” Of all the lines and sentences in a book, one starts to glow and flash out as if it were being spoken to me personally. I mention this because a single sentence occurring in both Isaiah and Luke jumped off the page at our own St. Vincent de Paul. Thumbing through the Bible during a searching period of his life, this one text lit up for him on the page: “The Lord has sent me to bring glad tidings (good news) to the poor and to heal the brokenhearted.” Caught up by it Vincent thought “That’s me; that’s my calling.” And we know the rest of the story.
This is of interest because it’s about St. Vincent, but more so because these same words of Isaiah pervade so much of this Advent and Christmas season. Almost like no other, this prophet underscores the way in which the God of our scriptures shows a leaning toward the dispossessed and marginalized people of this world.
John the Baptist also uses Isaiah’s words to vocalize his calling: “Make the crooked ways straight!” And surely a key way to carry that out is to rearrange things so that all people, and not just the privileged few, are given dignity and respect. But even more vividly does the sentiment show up in the words of Mary spoken — better, sung — just after her cousin Elizabeth recognizes her as blessed among women. “The Almighty has done great things to me, and holy is His name.” And then, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”
Her prayer picks up on the Old Testament revelation of who God is, depicting Yahweh as the one who freed the Hebrew slaves from bondage, the God who shows special care for the lost ones. Prophet after prophet proclaims that the Holy One of Israel protects, defends, saves and rescues these no-accounts, these people on the underside of society. Mary’s words continue this key theme, now in the context of the coming of the Messiah — who is already taking shape within her. She sings her song which some called “the great reversal.” The coming reign of God will upset the order of that world run by the arrogant and hard of heart. The societal arrangement of wealth and poverty, power and powerlessness will be turned upside down, the mighty pulled down from their thrones and the lowly exalted.
It’s no surprise that Mary’s words in her Magnificat have leapt off the page for so many believers living on the underside of society. Not favored by the powers-that-be, they find hope in this refrain that the Lord God is there, on their side. In some ways it’s a shocking message, not geared to comfort those who are satisfied with the way things are.
For sure, God loves everyone. But as one writer puts it, “the form of this universal love of God differs according to circumstance.” (Elizabeth Johnson, Abounding in Kindness, p.309). The point of Mary’s words is not to bring about a kind of reverse discrimination, setting the poor against the rich. It aims rather to restructure a world, to build up a community of sisters and brothers marked by human dignity and just relations. An African theologian, Peter Daino, invites his readers to dream of a social order as Mary’s revolutionary words would paint it. “Imagine such a world: a heavenly banquet and all the children fed.”
Words that leap up off the page when you pick up the Scriptures or that break through the clutter when you hear them read. At different times, these tidings of Isaiah and Mary have caught the attention of so many believers. And indeed, haven’t they jumped up at Vincentian Family members who seek to look at the world through the eyes this God-person Jesus Christ, the lowly one born in a manger, friend of the outcast, ever attentive to his mission to bring the glad tidings of God’s love to the world and especially the poor in it.
Let the glow of Mary’s Advent and Christmas lyrics catch our eyes in these days of the coming of The Lord. “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”