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