At first glance, today’s Old Testament reading looks like a dull list of numbers we can scan through quickly before getting on with breakfast. However, there are a few interesting points.
A census is taking place of who can fight in the Israelite army and the total number of men comes to 603,550. This is a pretty impressive fighting force. We need to take a count sometimes of who can fight alongside us. At 06:00 this morning, my fighting force appeared to comprise of just me and my dog but later my wife joined me for breakfast to discuss today’s New Testament reading – which is outstanding. However, it is important that we Christians are always part of a vibrant church community. There can be no lone-rangers in Christianity. We all need back-up. Just as we should never be impertinent to a single police officer because they represent the entire law enforcement community and can call on backup from the army if necessary, I know that all my Pentecostal friends are there for me during any personal or spiritual crisis and, as I am also a member of the Catholic Church, I can call on thousands of my brethren all the way up to the Pope if needed. All practicing Christians, who are active members of a parish community, have an impressive army backing us up twenty-four hours a day.
It’s fascinating that the census of fighting men is God’s idea (Numbers 1:2) even though He would already precisely know how many fighting men there were. The data is for Moses’ information. However, later (1 Chronicles 21:1): ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel‘ and David gets in major trouble with God as a result, culminating in 70,000 men falling dead with a plague. It’s a puzzle as to why carrying out the census in Numbers is ok but the later one is not. The first point is that we shouldn’t do anything that Satan incites us to do but it can be difficult to discern whether something was our idea or whether it came from an outside influence. The general consensus about why the census in Chronicles was a bad idea is that David was starting to rely on his own resources and power rather than God’s. He wanted to count his people so that he knew he could launch an attack on enemy forces and win – without needing to ask God for help. He wanted reassurance that he had enough assets to be independent from God. I often get the temptation to check how much money is in my pension fund – to see if there is enough for my whole retirement. However, I should just relax and know that God will make sure I have sufficient provision – as he has done for my entire life – when the time comes.
This passage is a handy list of the tribes of Israel. It’s a good mental challenge to try to memorise the names of the 12 tribes – just like trying to remember the names of the twelve apostles. I find the names of the 12 tribes somewhat elusive because there are still 12 names in this list of potential soldiers, even though the Levites are excluded (as they are going to look after the tabernacle rather than fight) which makes 13 tribes. How can this be when Jacob ‘only’ had 12 sons by 4 different women (sounds exhausting)? The answer, if you look closely, is that Joseph had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh – and the descendants of these two are counted separately.
(Num. 1:51) states that anyone, other than a Levite, who goes near the tabernacle shall be put to death. This is a long way from being able to come into God’s presence today and address him as ‘Abba (Daddy), Father’ thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus.
This is the first time we hear about Mary in the Nativity story and what an amazing introduction it is.
Mary and I go back a long way. I was brought up as a typically slack Church of England Christian. My parents might have attended church twice a year at the most. My primary school was actually called St. Mary’s and I remember, at the age of seven, reading out Luke’s nativity story in the neighbouring St. Mary’s church as part of a carol concert. Even at this young age, I was impressed by the role of Mary and didn’t quite understand how throughout my entire Anglican school education little thought or reflection was dedicated to the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
When I became a Catholic, there was a lot more attention given to Mary. I even found myself carrying a statue of her through the rainy streets of Holywell on a pilgrimage while a bystander with a megaphone shouted at us that we were all ‘idol worshippers’. I am not a big fan of huge statues and parading in public but the fact is that it is harmless. I think a proper parade in a devoutly Catholic country like Spain would be awesome. The simple fact is that Catholics, exactly like Protestants, worship God alone. They do not worship idols and they do not worship Mary. A statue or a painting of Mary is used in exactly the same way that we might refer to a photograph of a member of our family. It’s just a reminder of what they look like. None of us will worship the painting that advertises today’s blog.
Anglicans seem to warming up a little towards how incredible a disciple Mary was: ‘In the greatest and most decisive act of faith in history she offered herself to God as a clean page on which he could write what he wanted’ (Nicky Gumbel (153)).
There are several doctrines about Mary that need to be carefully considered. Having spent 40 years as an Anglican, 14 years as a Catholic and the last 2 years mixing with Pentecostals, here is my view:
God sent the angel Gabriel ‘to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph‘ (Luke 1:27). Don’t be confused that this was going to be a normal kind of marriage, that they were going to settle down and have children, this was something completely different. When the gospel says the angel was sent ‘to a virgin’, Mary’s virginity wasn’t a temporary biological state. Being a virgin was her job! Her vocation was to be a virgin. After she is told she is to have a son Mary says ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?‘ (Luke 1:34). This is her stating that her job is to be a professional virgin for ever. She is never going to have sexual relations with anyone ever. She was dedicated to God as a young child and is His bride already. Instead of punishing her, as the same angel punished Zechariah in yesterday’s reading for being impertinent, the angel could have said at this stage: ‘Good point!”.
Books like the non-canonical ‘The Protevangelium of James‘ give some tantalising glimpses into Mary’s infancy leading up to these events, with Mary being dedicated to God at the age of 3 by her parents and brought up in the temple, but as this book was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405, we can’t take anything from it as the ‘gospel truth’ even though details like the names of Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, have been accepted by the church.
When discussing Mary’s perpetual virginity, many people point out that the Bible mentions that Jesus had ‘brothers’. However, these didn’t have to have come from Mary. The Eastern Church tradition is that Joseph was an old man when he agreed to be Mary’s guardian / ‘husband’ as she needed to be removed from her home in the the temple before she reached puberty. Joseph had already had children by a previous wife and was now a widower and so Jesus had older ‘step-half-brothers’, who had neither Mary as their mother nor the Holy Spirit as their father. The Roman church states that ‘James and Joseph’ are the sons of ‘the other Mary’ referred to in Matthew 28:1. Half-brothers and brothers are often rolled together in the Bible. For example, Joseph had 11 ‘brothers’ but only one of these, Benjamin, had the same mother as his. It doesn’t really matter. Even if Mary had become a normal wife and mother after having Jesus, any children she produced wouldn’t have had the Holy Spirit as their father and so they would have been half-brothers at best. We can all agree to disagree, but I know that if was a very old man and had witnessed my very young wife give birth to the son of God, with angels and visits from the Magi – I would want to just be her friend and protector.
It is difficult not to be slightly irritated by modern translations of Luke 1:28. I long to see the traditional ‘Douay-Rheims’ version from Saint Jerome’s fourth century Latin translation: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace‘. Virtually every modern Bible switches to a variety of ‘highly favoured’. Even my Catholic Bible has ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour‘ which is horrible in comparison. There is a hymn called ‘The Angel Gabriel from heaven came‘ which has the final lines: ‘Most highly favoured lady! Gloria!‘. A priest gleefully pointed out that many people sing: ‘Most highly flavoured gravy‘, which I can never un-hear. I am sorry if I have just ruined your life as well. ‘Hail Mary, full of grace‘ exactly implies that Mary is exactly the right person, predestined by God before she was conceived, to be the mother of Jesus. All creation paused in silence, waiting for her to give her perfect free-will consent.
Mary’s pregnancy must have been awesome – to have her own blood separated by just a thin placental wall from the perfect blood of Jesus for 40 weeks. She provided life support to God. There is also a good chance at the time of delivery that some of a baby’s blood cells will enter the mother’s bloodstream. How awesome is that?
God is always keeping a loving, close eye on us to rescue us and keep us alive if we have a holy reverence and love for him.
‘But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love (Psalm 33:18).
The Protevangelium of James
Picture by: Luca Giordano, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons