Wednesday, December 20, 2006

When Metaphysics Trumps Epistemology

Two Gospel readings in a row (yesterday's and today's) from Luke contrast for us the difference between Zachariah's response to God's message and Mary's. When I first converted I often wondered what the difference was supposed to be--why was God so much harder on poor old Zachariah than on Mary? Something about humble acceptance of God's will as opposed to skeptical stubbornness. Over time it gradually dawned on me, but today, sitting in the Church and listening to the lector--the same guy who was lector yesterday, so there was a certain continuity--I suddenly saw it in rather different terms.
And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.
...
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
I don't know why I didn't see this before: Whereby shall I know this, as opposed to How shall this be? One is an epistemological question, the other a metaphysical, one a question about personal psychology, the other about divine reality.

I suppose this is something that sharper tools in the shed have seen all along, but I'm still marveling over the richness of biblical texts that can say so many different things to so many different people with such an economy of words. Being versus knowing, humility versus skepticism; Mary humbly accepts that God's will is just a manifestation of how things are, while Zachariah wants, principally, to be given a satisfactory account of how things will be.

A particularly humbling text for the philosopher, most of whom deserve a more permanent version of Zachariah's punishment.

6 comments:

Chris Burgwald said...

Dr. Carson,

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the monthly liturgical/prayer guide Magnificat, but the Advent Companion which is published by the same folks has a very similar reflection for yesterday's reading. You might want to take a look if you haven't already.

Scott Carson said...

Thanks Chris! I haven't seen that guide in a while (I think I may have looked at it some last year), so I'll have a look. I can't decide whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that I had the same thought as something in one of those daily meditation things. Maybe I should get a job at Hallmark.

bedwere said...

I think it's good to know that even the philosophers (the Magi) made it to Bethlehem, albeit after the shepherds ;-)

DimBulb said...

Luke loves to use parallels and connections in his writings. The annunciation and birth of John parallel those of Jesus. A careful reading will show that within those parallels there are some important contrasts. These are contrasts not only between John and Jesus, but also between Zechariah and the Blessed Mother.

For further details you can consult THEOTOKOS, A THEOLOGICAL DICTIONARY-ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY by Michael O'Connell. If I remember right, he deals with the subject under the heading: "ANNUNCIATION, THE".

Fahter Eugene laVerdiere, a well known Lukan Scholar has also written extensively on the infancy parallels.

Luke also likes to parallel the Jesus of his Gospel with the disciples of Acts; most notably Peter and Paul, but also people like Steven and Philip. I'm told that all of this contributed to Byzantine spirituality.

Father Martin Fox said...

That's a good catch.

A lot of folks wonder why Zachariah "gets punished" but Mary doesn't, even though both asked questions.

Well, your catch highlights part of what's different.

Notice also that when Gabriel begins addressing Zachariah, he says, "your prayer has been heard." What prayer was that?

Well, given no child and what is revealed, it must have been a prayer for a child. But given their advanced age, my guess is that it's been a long while since that prayer was uttered.

Finally, Zachariah asked for a sign; so was his being struck mute merely a punishment -- or was it also the sign he asked for?

When you read Scripture closely, you find that God is hardly the petty, short-tempered fellow many (including dopey "scholars") think he is.

Scott Carson said...

Thanks for some great insights, Father!

I didn't really want to write "punishment" in that entry, because I myself don't really think that God "punishes" people, at least not that way, but I didn't know what else to write. "Sign" is a much better alternative!