Conjugating God: The Past, Present, and Future Tenses

By the Rev. Darren Miner

For a printable pdf version click here.

Gospel Reading

✠ In the Name of him who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is right around the corner. (But I bet you already knew that!) The Gospel reading we heard today is a familiar one. We hear the first part each year at the feast of the Visitation, and we hear the second part at the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. On those feast days, the focus is quite rightly on Mary. Today the focus is on what God has done in the past, continues to do in the present, and will do again in the future—and what that means for us!

The story takes place right after the archangel Gabriel has announced to Mary that she has been chosen to bear the Son of God. Her response is to visit her elderly cousin who is miraculously pregnant. The Church Fathers assure us that Mary does not visit her cousin Elizabeth so as to verify what the archangel had told her. Mary is not a doubter. But perhaps she just needs to share her joy with one who will understand it.

At the moment that Mary enters Elizabeth’s house and greets her cousin, the child in Elizabeth’s womb, the prophet John the Baptist, recognizes the presence of his Lord in Mary’s womb and gives a mighty and prophetic kick. At that same moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and with a mighty shout, she prophesies the message that her unborn son cannot yet proclaim: namely, that Mary and her child are uniquely and supremely blessed by God.

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At this point, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth begins to look like something out of an American musical. For Mary responds to the prophetic blessing with a song, a somewhat revised version of the Song of Hannah, found in 1 Samuel. This Song of Mary is more commonly known by its Latin name, the Magnificat.

Our English translation somewhat waters down the opening line of the song. A literal translation would go something like this: My life magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon the humiliation of his slave girl. Surely, from now on all generations will consider me fortunate.” This 15-year-old girl has no false pride when it comes to her relationship to God. How many of us would be feel comfortable calling ourselves God’s slaves, I wonder?

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Mary’s Song proceeds to turn the focus onto God: on what God has done in the past, what God is currently doing, and what God will continue to do in the future. In the English translation, the tenses of the verbs are all present perfect. So we might think that this song is all about what God has done at some unspecified time in the past. But the Greek system of tenses does not correspond well with the English system. In Greek, the tense used throughout the Song of Mary is used to refer to events in the past, present, and future. Only context helps us determine how best to render the time of the actions into English. In this Song, the context is ambiguous. God has done great things in the past, most certainly. God customarily does great things and is currently doing a great thing in sending his Son to save the world. And God will undoubtedly do great things in the future, things such as to bring about a New Creation and establish the Kingdom of God.

When we hear the Song of Mary, we should keep in mind that this song applies to past, present, and future equally. It is not just a song about God’s past accomplishments, but also a song about what God was doing at that moment, what God is always doing, and what God will assuredly do.

It is this ambiguous temporal aspect that makes the Song of Mary so appropriate in Advent. For here in the present time, we prepare to celebrate a past event, the birth of Jesus Christ, while simultaneously preparing ourselves for a future event, the Second Coming of our Lord. And if we would be well prepared, we should pay close attention to what St. Mary tells us. In the Kingdom of God, things as we now know them will be turned upside down. The proud, the rich, and the powerful will know humiliation. The meek, the poor, and the vulnerable will be exalted. Liberation theologians refer to this as “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Yes, God loves us all. But God loves the oppressed people of this world just a little bit more. Perhaps because they need God’s love just a little bit more.

In a capitalist society, such as ours, it is not readily apparent why God has a thing about rich people. Our society has long encouraged the unlimited accumulation of wealth. But that approach to wealth is unbiblical. In the view of the Bible, the good things of this world are limited in number. So if one person has a vast amount of wealth, it means that others will be deprived of what they need to survive. Americans, until quite recently, have acted as if the good things of this world are in unlimited supply, as if the accumulation of vast wealth by a tiny minority makes no difference to other citizens. I think we now know better. God knew better all along!

The upshot for us is that it is OK to have good things. God loves us and wants us to be happy. But it is not OK to have too many good things, to have things we don’t need and will rarely use. It is not OK to hoard wealth and not share what we have with those in need. If those among us who live in comfort would avoid being humiliated before God at the Second Coming, then we need to have the Christmas spirit year round. We need to share year round. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews put it, “Through Christ let us continually offer to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his Name. But do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

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Mary’s Song demands that we make a choice between the values of God’s Kingdom and the values of this world. This choice will not only affect how much we give to charity, but how we use our natural resources, what we do with our money, and how we vote. God requires that we consider the vulnerable and the oppressed first, if we would be among those whom God will exalt, and not among those whom he will humiliate. God requires that we care for the poor and the hungry of this world. And if we don’t, we will be on the wrong side of salvation history. And what’s worse, we will be on the wrong side of God!

On this last Sunday of Advent, I pray that both our lives, and our lifestyles, may magnify the Lord, so that we, along with St. Mary, may be raised up and exalted when her Holy Child returns to judge the world. Amen.

© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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