THE SONG OF MARY
Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2009
The Magnificat (Mary’s Song of Praise) goes something like this: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . for he has looked with favour on a lowly servant . . . the divine strength is revealed, scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, and dismissing the rich to a life of emptiness.”
Who would sing a song like that? This is the voice of the oppressed, the obscure, the powerless. Soren Kierkegard, after attending a church service, apparently said sardonically: “They stood up in their furs and jewels and sang the Magnificat, and nobody laughed!” The Church has never quite connected the dots with this mysterious woman whose role in history was so critical. Apparently, in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned this song because it was “considered subversive, and politically dangerous. Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot” (Scott McKnight in Christian Century). Mary Immaculate as a subversive? As a threat to the powerful? It hardly seems possible.
I was ordained a priest on December 8 (1981), the festival of the Conception of Mary, and as a result I have always tried to allow Mary to be something of a mentor to me, and allow her to shape my ministry.. For the faithful, Mary has been many things: she is the Mother of God; Madonna; the Blessed Virgin; the Immaculate One. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been overly idealized and virtually worshipped – often placed above the saints, and even, at times, above Jesus. But we have usually approached her story from the doctrinal side first and then tried to interpret the scriptural witness from the theological definition. We hardly know her apart from church statues and icons and stained glass windows and Nativity scenes. To see her first of all in human terms, and in terms of what her choices might have meant on a personal and social level, seems to me a better way to get to the heart of Mary. And it’s worth getting there – because this is a woman with a gracious and loving heart.
Mary’s story represents a shift in human consciousness, from an old way that dictated that only the strong survive, only the strong have rights, toward a new way being revealed in the coming of Jesus that says all people have value, all people have rights, and all people are created in the image of God. (The human race is still getting there with that one!)
The theology the early Christians created to try to explain the magnitude of her story suggests an amazing woman with the ability and courage to make a choice about her own destiny based solely on her own relationship with God. Her freedom to choose was portrayed as independent of human process – as something between her and God. That was a radical departure in an era when women did not make decisions without reference to some male authority.
Mary’s openness to the activity of the divine in her life has always been a model and metaphor of the spiritual life. It reveals that God can dwell in human beings – that God is found within our human life – and is also a call to be open to that same Spirit that created new life in Mary. That life is expressed in various ways: in the Eucharist, in contemplative prayer in pastoral care, and in parenting.
The Church needed her to be a model of purity and obedience, so they suggested not only the virginal birth of Jesus but also her perpetual virginity. They were equally embarrassed by the humanity and sexuality of Jesus. But by making her into a paragon of impossible virtue, her witness has been distorted, and her value diminished. I believe her true witness speaks powerfully in the song that was ascribed to her. It is an echo of the song of Hannah, and of all the women in history who have found themselves outside the walls of approval and belonging and success. Today’s Gospel portrays Mary venturing out, apparently on her own, pregnant, from Galilee to the hill country of Judea, in order to connect with another woman (Elizabeth). Where was her family, her husband, her community? This could have been an arduous and potentially dangerous journey for a vulnerable young woman. This detail alone speaks volumes about her
God obviously did not choose a celebrity mother. Mary’s story and song speak of a young woman being raised out of obscurity, out of potential disgrace, and into greatness. Where do we meet the Mary’s of the world? Not in some pristine and ethereal vision of our projected perfectionism. We meet Mary in the streets, where we find the rejected members of society. We meet her in the single mothers – cast off by their family and community because they have been an embarrassment or an inconvenience. We meet her wherever people are scorned and shunned for not doing the appropriate or expected thing. We meet her in the faces of the young and innocent who are so easily victimized and taken advantage of.
In a world of “should,” Mary the mother of Jesus stands out as someone whose life did not fit the mould. How could she explain her pregnancy? Girls of that era were typically betrothed to a potential husband by the age of 12 or 13. Can you imagine any 12 or 13 year old girl being taken seriously when she tries to explain that she is pregnant by divine intervention? Somehow, by a mysterious process, Mary came to believe that this child was from God.
Mary made a choice to see her pregnancy not as a moral failure or as a disaster but as a gift, as a sign, as a call and mission from God, rather than allowing it to be defined by the limited moral framework of her culture. Mary’s courage in making that choice is awe-inspiring and painful – awe-inspiring because by acting in faith she allows it to be transformed it into a spiritual event, but also painful, because people so often do not comprehend the movement of the Spirit, and reject it because it doesn’t fit their expectations. Mary’s expectations were different, unique, and so the child to be born to her would be holy, and not a disgrace. The life of Jesus was to be her vindication.
Mary exemplifies courage, faithfulness, the childlike trust that Jesus so honoured, grace, inner strength, and suffering. How does someone 12 or 13 get so deep – so mature? When I was 12 or 13 I was a twerp, and I know 50 year olds who are still twerps. Mary’s life is an example that reveals what it means to take part in a decision or movement of God – to allow your will to concur and cooperate with God, and to accept that it is not always going to meet with approval and acceptance but often with bewilderment and hostility. A choice for God can be very isolating. Ask any person who has dedicated their life to the call of God – whether priests or nuns or missionaries. St Teresa of Avila was struggling one day with the isolation, misunderstanding and mockery that came her way after she dedicated her life to God. And she perceived God saying to her: “This is how I treat my friends.” And Teresa, a woman obviously on very familiar terms with God, retorted: “If that’s how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
Being true to your call and the integrity of your own journey may separate you from some people, but being true to yourself and to God creates its own kind of life and its own kind of community. That is what the church is meant to be – a community of those who have been called by God – a community of people who know what it means to live in the Spirit. When people are going through tough times, when the world seems to turn against you, what a blessing to be able to find people who will befriend you and take you in, as Joseph and Elizabeth did with Mary.
An ancient Jewish proverb said: “God could not be everywhere, so God created mothers.” Whether or not we agree on the possibility of virgin birth, virtually all Christians can agree on this: Mary was entrusted with something sacred – a huge responsibility: the guidance and nurture of the most important human being ever to walk the planet.
Mary has provided an important motherly and feminine dimension in a church which became obsessed (and often still is) with power and control. Ministry does not mean controlling people or creating dependencies by making ourselves indispensible; it means encouraging and loving people into being. When the Church is tempted to become domineering and harsh and controlling with people, Mary’s example recalls the church to the essential role of care-giving and compassion, and of being willing to see the broken and weak of the world not in judgment but in mercy and in solidarity. Especially in Luke’s Gospel, it is the powerful and prominent who are shamed, and not the marginalized.
How many children are there who are unwanted, resented, and abused, in good part because of the hostility of the world toward them! Mary chose to give birth to her shame and disgrace, and to embrace it rather than denying or hiding from it. She chose to love the baby Jesus into his own destiny, and as a result she found her own calling and destiny.
Above all, as John the Baptist did, Mary points us to Christ. In Christian art Mary is almost always portrayed looking lovingly at Jesus. The way she looks at Jesus is the way we are to look at all children, because they need that – every child needs to know that he or she is seen by the ones closest to them that they are nothing less than a gift from God, and may carry the potential to change the world, as Jesus ended up doing. Her loving and godly gaze on the Child is a reflection of the way God looks at us. And it is the way we are to look at Jesus himself, especially at this time of year. Mary’s love urges us, compels us, to look again – to look into the story of Jesus instead of AT it – and to allow the same Spirit who brought life to her to move us to this powerful place of love and faith.
What does her story have to say to you? I really can’t tell you that – you have to discern it. That is what the Gospel writers had to do in the first place. But I hope that by reflecting together about her, we may come closer to her in some way, and to those pieces of ourselves that are misunderstood or disowned or embarrassing, that we may allow the light and the love of God to shine upon us as children of God also. May her love, and the love of God, always bless you.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers