Friday of the Third Week of Advent
JGS 13: 2-7, 24-25A
PS 71: 3-4A, 5-6AB, 16-17
LK 1: 5-25
The two readings today highlight the births of Samson and John the Baptist, and in both cases, their mothers were barren before an angel of the Lord appears and tells them they will have sons who will be great, just as will happen when the angel of the Lord visits Mary, who was not barren, but a virgin. The unusual prohibitions in both stories seem to indicate that Samson and John were nazirites, a Jewish form of consecration to God, marked by avoiding alcohol, ritual uncleanness, and cutting of one's hair - which of course is familiar to us from Samson's story. The word nazir simply means "consecrated" or "set apart" and in modern Hebrew has become the standard word for monks, both Christian and Buddhist.
The Bible abounds in stories of strange births: from the near-miraculous escape of the infant Moses from death at Pharaoh's hands, to births from barren wives (Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, Samson, John the Baptist) to, of course, the virginal conception of Jesus and his own near-death at the hands of Herod. Naturally, all of those people end up being important figures - heroes, prophets, patriarchs, and so on. God's favor for these seemingly unfavored people is a continual theme in the Biblical tradition - siding with the little guy, the younger son, the barren wife, the David facing Goliath, Rocky facing Mr. T or the big Russian guy.
I understand the literary power of those stories, as a foreshadowing of the future greatness of these heroes and a symbol of God's favor for the dispossessed; as a middle-class white guy who is not dispossessed, and not likely to do something so radical that it will make me famous, where do I find myself in stories like this? For one thing, I would do well to remember the favor of God for people who come from the "other side of the tracks." That so much of the Biblical narrative is shaped by the outsiders of history should be a reminder to me that newness and change so often come from the edges of the system rather than from those who are enmeshed in a system of power and security.
At the same time, I don't have a flashy birth story; my parents are very nice people, but they don't seem to have had any visitations by angels (or demons?) prior to my birth. My hometown is so small it isn't even on the map, although it seems Jesus was in the same boat there - as Nathaniel says in John 1:46, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" I wonder if being "ordinary" leads me to undervalue my own life, to undervalue the "ordinary." I'm not likely to challenge a king and lose my life like John the Baptist, much less to be superhumanly strong like Samson. In the Ignatian tradition, the "ordinary," the "daily" is precisely where we encounter God, and where we make the reign of God happen. Most of us don't do earth-shattering things, but the reign of God is not just for those big explosive events and revelations, but in the daily circumstances in which we all live most of our lives. That means that "finding God in all things" is not just about warm fuzzies, remembering God while we are doing homework (although that's fine), but seeing each moment, each encounter, as an occasion to learn, to listen, to make a decision that will enhance the well-being of those around us. So like God, we can make a decision for those who stand on the underside of history, those for whom the system does not often work as it should, AND we can recall that the opportunities to make those decisions emerge in so many moments of our daily lives.
Patrick Cousins works in the Department of Campus Ministry.