I pulled out my bible at the airport yesterday, and turned to the beginning of Luke. I figured it was a good place to start, what with Advent about to begin and everything. Of the gospels, Luke seems to me to have the strongest sense of exile and its coming end, especially because of the Magnificat and the story of Simeon and Anna.
Upon meeting the infant Jesus, Simeon says to the Lord:
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation... a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to you people Israel" (Luke 2:29-30, 32).
It's the poignant exultation of a faithful Israelite which expresses both the weariness and relief of a people who had been living for centuries with the central hope of their religious-ethnic identity in shambles. It was like if there had been several centuries between the middle and end of Avatar. The word for this in biblical parlance is "barrenness." It specifically refers to pregnancy and the inability of a woman to conceive, and its use has been a part of Israel's history since its beginning in Abraham. Everything in God's redemptive action can be summarized in that story, where the word of the Lord came to a barren couple with the promise of a child.
When God's people found themselves in the prolonged, dire barrenness of exile, God didn't answer them with fanfare and a quick fix, but rather with furtive promises on the edge of their corporate consciousness. The end to his centuries-long silence comes to Zechariah in Luke chapter one, promising the coming herald John the Baptist who would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk 1:17). Such a situation rewards the careful contemplation of Mary, rather than the casual inattentiveness of nominal religion. It is because of her silent pondering of the words and events she witnesses that she is able to burst into the rich and theologically-reflective song of the Magnificat:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant... His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation... He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty... according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (Lk 1:46-55).
It's a magnificent summary of God's redemptive history with Israel made present tense and realized in the person of Jesus. Mary serves as our exemplary model in these early chapters, standing alongside Simeon and Anna as properly comprehending and responding to the arrival of Christ.
For those of us for whom salvation seems far off, or hidden, or even non-existent, these stories from the beginning of Luke call us to quiet ourselves and listen. Because even in our hour of darkest need, we see that God may very well not come to us in the way we would like him to, but on his own terms. In a way that asks us to be faithful long-term, like Simeon and Anna, even when God's answer feels like it will never come. I have my own struggles with hopelessness, despair and frank impatience with God's timing; these stories encourage me to seek the hope of Christ even when I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's not about insisting to oneself "One day all my problems will be solved and my hopes fulfilled!", but, rather, that there is a way of being faithful in times of exile, there is a living God waiting for us on the edges of our awareness--waiting for us to pull away from despair and towards the groaning expectation of those who put their trust in him.
"Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the Lord. Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns. Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of you widowhood you will remember no more. For you Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like the wife of a man's youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer" (Isaiah 54:1-8).