Moments of Grace

An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson,
Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor

Lowly and Fierce

Posted by Grace Burson on Tuesday, January 2, 2018 @ 1:59 PM

Holy Trinity, Newington

Advent IV, Year B

December 24, 2017


“Mary, blessed mother mild”

“a virgin mild”

“gentle Mary meekly bowed her head”

“Mary, chosen virgin mild”

“Mary was that mother mild”

“the virgin mother kind”

Are we maybe sensing a theme here?

Yes, of course there are other ways to refer to Jesus’ mother that are found in our hymnal and prayers.  But the idea that Mary was “meek and mild” is so embedded in our traditional worship language that I think it’s become in many ways the default image of her.  All kinds of ideas that aren’t spelled out in the Biblical text have become attached to this image: that Mary was in her early teens; that she was poor; that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life; that her own parents had been past the age of childbearing and that she herself had been a miraculous, God-ordained birth.  Mary has been mythologized almost past recognition.

From one phrase – “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” – we have extrapolated an image of a woman whose obedience to God is perfect – which of course means that she is humble and lowly, never gets angry, is always smiling, is an endlessly patient self-sacrificing mother, is defined by her sexual status and reproductive potential, and spends her life with her hands folded and her eyes downcast in prayer – right?


Well, let’s check into what happens after “the angel departed from her”.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Two Spirit-filled women, both of them carrying children who were destined to play a role in the salvation story, both of them giving birth outside the normal familial structures of the time, recognizing God’s presence in each other and feeling their babies leap in their wombs with that recognition, and then exclaiming “with a loud cry” in joy and wonder at God’s goodness.

It’s not sounding so meek and mild anymore, is it?

And in response to Elizabeth’s words, Mary sings the great hymn of the Magnificat, in which – yes – she refers to herself as God’s “lowly servant”.  But this lowly servant has an agenda that is anything but obedient to the powers that be, as she sees them around her in the form of the Empire of Rome.  Mary confidently declares that God has scattered the proud and cast down the mighty from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.  This Mary is radical.  This Mary is revolutionary.  This Mary is fierce.

The Magnificat itself has been watered down by centuries of being sung by angelic-looking choirboys in languages their listeners don’t understand (don’t get me wrong, I love choral Evensong); even the lilting cadences of the Holden Evening Prayer version are perhaps a little too familiar to pack the kind of punch that the words deserve. But if we actually pay attention to this text, we realize that God’s intention for the lowly is not to pat them on the head and tell them how mild and virtuous they are, but rather to lift them up, to make them part of  God’s plan for turning the world upside down.  Mary’s fierceness is the fierceness not of rebellion, but of radical obedience to God’s subversive plans.

And are “lowly” and “fierce” really such contradictory terms, anyway?  After all, the word “humble”, often paired with “lowly” as a synonym, derives from the Latin word for soil, earth, ground, “humus”:  to be humble and lowly is to be close to the ground.  (The second verse of the Magnificat in Latin:  quia respexit humilitatem meam.)  If we’re near the earth, at ground level, we see what’s going on, up close.  We don’t have our head in the clouds floating amidst abstractions; we’re rooted in the dailiness of life, and can witness to the plight of those who are needy and hurting.

This is a kind of lowliness that is very likely to result in fierceness once we decide that something has to be done.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is both lowly and fierce.  She has her feet planted on the earth; she is rooted in the truth of things, and she stands near those who are likewise lowly, those who have nothing but God to rely on.  And because of this humility, this connection to the earthly humus of human life, she sings aloud a fierce and holy song, a song that claims and proclaims the goodness of a God whose plan is to turn the world upside down, through a child born of the womb of a lowly and fierce young woman of Nazareth.

A couple of years ago, my friend Layton Williams, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote this poem:


An Almost-Mother’s Song

When I was fourteen
My biggest fear was the virgin birth
there was nothing on earth
I could imagine worse
I mean, it kept me up with bad dreams
This is a thing, it turns out
for religious girls
fear of a life unasked for
a crash course in unearned “impurity”
and no one to believe.

See, it was all too heady for me then
I wasn’t ready, then
But lately I have been
thinking about Mary
and feeling her in me
and wondering.

I’ve never yet been a mother
so maybe I can’t speak
but then neither had she,
till she was.

What I know is this:
when my nephew was born
my world shifted
it lifted my self-centered haze
And I woke up with nightmares for days upon days
worried for love of this tiny new child
hellbent on sparing him all of life’s trials.

So I wonder

That night, when the angel came
called her by name
and said she’d conceive
by miracle means
And become a mother

That the flutter
in her womb
would soon give birth to God’s son.
Did she shudder?

When he told her:
Fear not God is with thee
Did she want to raise up her brow
and say: Are you kidding?

I wonder how
many fearful thoughts
got caught
in the space
it took her to become
Mary, full of grace.

Did she fear it would hurt?
That the child she’d bear
would tear through her
with pain
even as he came
into this world?

Did she fear he’d get sick or hurt?
Hate her or take after her father?

Did she question if kings
would hate him
and make them
all refugees
forced to flee
for the safety
of other unfriendly lands?

Did she picture his hands
bent in prayer at the temple?
Did she dare to expect
he’d be strong in his faith?
Did she suspect they’d reject him
when he cried out for change?

Could she even imagine
in her mind’s eye
the last time
she’d cradle her son to her chest?
Could she guess he’d be dead?
Did she know that his body
would carry the weight
of a young man unjustly
killed by the state?

Of course she could not have known then
all these things
But no doubt she was worried
what might come to be
So I can’t begin to imagine or dream
of the strength
that compelled her, in the face of all that,
to sing.

My God, she sang brightly
My soul magnifies you
I won’t deny you
I’ll just hold on tightly
to this promise
you’ve made me
this night

See, she chose hope
As the answer to every what if
to this risks, to the list
of new questions that filled her
to the known and unknown,
to it all
to the scope
of her fears,
She chose hope.

This is the wonder of Mary, I think
This is her grace,
She trusts and believes
Not that nothing will happen
no trouble befall her
but to know above all
her God will prevail

That though powers
wage war
And hours seem dark
Still the last word belongs
to the long-bending arc
of justice and love.
that good will drown out
all the hard, hateful things

She believes.
And with courage to open her lips
Mary sings.

We are all almost-mothers
like Mary once was
conceiving within us
the promise of love
We can trust and believe that justice must win
and then
Give birth to the goodness
we were made to create
and bear grace
to a world lost in fear and hate

We too can sing, Mary tells us.
However shaky our voice is
the choice is still ours
to choose hope and to sing and to know we belong
to a God once born from the very same song.



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