Incline your ear
Psalm 31, Acts 7
May 18, 2014
by Isaac Villegas
“Incline your ear” (Psalm 31:2). That’s a line from our Psalm for today. “Incline your ear to me.” It’s a prayer to God, a plea for recognition, for acknowledgement, for the Psalmist to know that she or he has been heard by God, that God has listened.
We spend much of our lives trying to get someone to notice us, to recognize us, to see and hear us. To be thanked for our hard work. To be identified for a gift we may have, a skill, a talent — for someone to know that we are good, that we do good, that we are caring and loving.
When we are in pain, we want someone to notice our suffering, to show us that they have some inkling of what we are going through: the support of someone’s compassion, the consolation we feel in someone’s act of kindness, the comfort we experience in someone’s gesture of solidarity.
We want to be known by someone; we want to be loved and held; we want to be seen and heard by someone, anyone. We want our voice to matter — our perspectives and insights, our concerns and questions, for someone to take the time to see what we see, to hear what we hear, to depend on us, for someone to react to our temper, to endure our sadness, to notice our absence and miss us.
At the most basic level, when we strip everything else away, we want to know that we are not alone: that I’m not alone, that you aren’t alone, that we haven’t been abandoned, that we haven’t been abandoned by God.
“Incline your ear to me.” When we pray this prayer, we hope that God is there, that we are not alone in the world.
“Incline your ear.” The prayer is an act of faith, of trust that God listens.
If that’s what we want — if we want to be heard, to be known, to be loved, not to be alone, for God to listen to us… If that’s what we want, what does God want?
God wants creation, God wants life, God wants us. That’s what we were created for — we were created for the sake of sheer life, because God loves life, and because God’s wants to share life with companions.
I love the scene in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve hear God taking a walk in the garden — “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” (Gen 3:8). Apparently God likes to take walks in the garden, an evening stroll. Then it says, in the next verse: “And the Lord God called [out] and said, ‘Where are you?” (3:9). A solitary walk is not enough. God wants to enjoy the walk with friends, so God calls out to Adam and Eve, to come along for the walk. “Where are you?” God calls out. That’s what God wants. God wants friends to walk with.
The Bible is a recording of a long series of conversations, of God calling out to human beings, of human beings calling out to God. “Incline your ear to me,” people pray with the Psalmst. “Where are you?” God says to the people.
The rhythm of the Bible is a call and response, call and response, repeated again and again, from Genesis to the book of Revelation. God calling out to Abraham to leave his homeland and to go on a journey with God. Hagar, alone in the wilderness, calling out to God for a future for her son Ishmael. The people of Israel, slaves in Egypt, calling out to God for liberation. God, speaking from a burning bush, calling out to Moses. The prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the others — God calling out to them, asking them to speak for God, to carry on God’s conversation with the people.
And Mary: the one who hears God’s Word — and who not only hears God’s Word, but receives God’s Word in her body, where God’s Word, God’s communication, God’s conversation, becomes flesh in Mary’s womb. The words of God becoming a body, Jesus, in Mary.
There are medieval icons, where artists paint Mary as she conceives Jesus. In them her head is slightly tilted, with one ear towards heavens, as the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends to her, and the dove speaks breath, spirit, into Mary’s ear, or sometimes the dove speaks a scroll, a long scroll, full of words, full of God’s words, into Mary’s ear.
It’s almost as if, in the scene, God is speaking the words of the Psalmist to Mary, from heaven:“Incline your ear to me.”
Mary receives the Word of God as she inclines her ear to God, as she tilts her head, as she listens for God’s voice.
Athanasius of Alexandria, in the fourth century, put it like this: he wrote, “Come and gaze upon this marvelous feat: [Mary] conceives through the hearing of her ears.” And Ephrem of Syria, also in the fourth century, wrote: “Mary brought Christ into her…through her ear the Divine Word…entered and dwelt secretly in her womb.”
These are a few bits and pieces, scattered throughout the history of the church, about Mary’s ear, about how she receives Christ through her ear. Here’s one more. This one is from thirteenth-century England; it’s a song: “Glad us maiden, mother mild / Through thine ear thou were with child / Gabriel he said it thee.”[i]
It’s as if God says again what God said in the garden, what God has been saying ever since the garden, to Eve and Adam, to God’s people, to us: that same question, “Where are you?” And Mary responds, and her response is not like Adam and Eve, because they hide when they hear God, but Mary doesn’t. She’s says: “Here am I… Let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And then it’s as if God says to her, “Incline your ear to me.”
This is the conversation we’ve been invited into — between God and Adam, Hagar and God, God and Moses, Mary and God, each speaking to the other, calling out, and waiting for a response.
The church is a prayer to God — a prayer we offer with our bodies, with our lives, as we gather, as we sit and stand, as we sing and share, a prayer we offer with our hands as we share Christ’s peace, as we make food and drink, a prayer for God to enter our lives, to heal us, to redeem creation. Sometimes wordless prayers, as we gather together to offer the silence of our thoughts, the breath of our spirits, the soundlessness from our hearts and minds, turning God’s ear to hear us — and not just hear us, but to hear the cries of the people around us.
“Incline your ear,” we pray.
We gather for a conversation with God; our worship is a conversation with God, where we join our lives to all the ones who’ve come before us, all the others through the centuries who have assembled as God’s people to pray: “Incline your ear to me.”
We are people who listen — to God, to each other, to strangers, even to enemies. That’s why we refuse to kill. To kill is to silence a voice. In Acts 7, the murder of Stephen happens after a long speech — a speech that the crowds cut short, because they can’t bear to listen to Stephen anymore. It says in verse 57, “they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” They covered their ears. They kill because they can’t bear to listen anymore — killing as impatience lashing out with violence. And they drown out Stephen’s voice with a loud shout, it says. “They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”
I’m impatient. And I’m sure some of you are as well. Who have you refused to listen to? Whose voice do you ignore? Have you covered your ears?
Church is a rhythm, a call and response, where we learn how to speak and listen, where we join a conversation, centuries long, with God — and where we learn how to listen for God’s words in our words, as the Holy Spirit descends upon on us, like a dove, speaking into our ears, so that Christ may be conceived in us, like with Mary, so that Christ may live in us.
Tilt your head. Incline your ear.
God is calling out to us, and your sisters and brothers are calling out to God.
[i] Quoted in Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (Oxford University Press, 2013 ), 38