During Advent, Mary takes center stage in the Biblical story. Believers who speak a historical creed speak of her as the Virgin Mary, underscoring the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. Some whose faith lives outside of the historical creeds speak of her as a young girl, pregnant before she was married; they see in God’s use of her another sort of miracle. And yet, both traditions find their souls singing the words of Luke 1:46 – 55, the Magnificat. In this telling of the pre-birth stories of Jesus, this is Mary’s response to the news that she is carrying God’s son: not the easiest of jobs even for an experienced homemaker! Luke chooses to reveal Mary’s faith and God’s world-turning ways through a song:
My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God
for he has looked with favor on the
lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great
things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to
to Abraham and to his descendants
Through Mary’s faithfulness, God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, and reaches out to us.
I didn’t think much of Mary until the day I stood with my husband David in St. Peter’s square, being soaked by rain. From high above and far away the Pope, appearing as a faint, fuzzy dot in a distant window, blessed us. I felt more cold than blessed, and mostly I worried that I would miss what I most wanted to see that day: the earliest Christian art found in the underground catacombs, the burial place of the first Christians.
After a lunch on our feet, we took a bumpy bus ride down the Appian Way and entered again into the rain and the mud. There was a sign pointing to catacombs, but they weren’t the particular catacombs I had hoped to see. It was winter. The light was quickly turning to darkness. I mentioned we were cold and wet. Stomping the ground because of my irritation with having spent time waiting for a rainy blessing on a PA system instead of making it a priority to see what I wanted, I gave in and went reluctantly into the available catacombs.
We went on the tour, going underground with flashlights and a Franciscan monk. He asked David what he did for a living; David talked about his software business. Then he asked me what I did. At that time I was studying for the ministry and I said so, hoping I wouldn’t offend. He took no offense– instead, knowing what I was doing made him more passionate about what he was showing us. He added to the usual tour. When we were done, he asked me to wait a moment. He had something to give to me. It was night–the rain had momentarily stopped–when he returned with an iconic picture of Mary, the kind you would pick up in a Catholic store. With a kind smile, he pressed the picture into my hand and said “this is Mary, the Mother of God.” And the peace of God descended upon me as it does when one has truly been blessed.
When I think about Mary and that day, I realize that God knows that a blessing from on high can easily miss us. When the rain is pouring down, when all around us seems to be mud, words spoken through a loudspeaker don’t mean much. But when the words are spoken by one willing to walk with you through the dark, one who is also a person of faith, the raging ego is calmed, the heart opened, and God can get in.
I know many of those who were brought up in non-Catholic Christianity want to run right to Jesus as the one who walks with us through the dark. Mary seems like an idol, one who gets in the way of our direct relationship with God (I’ve been told by some I’ve served that they are uncomfortable with the way Catholics lift up Mary). Consider this: there are times when even Jesus seems too distant, too perfect, too much a Lord rather than a friend. Jesus had titles. Mary has only her name, her humanity, her arms that held Jesus.
Holding Jesus is what we imperfect human beings are called to do on Christmas. We can contemplate Mary that we might be strong enough to hold and love the one who will die. We can picture Mary’s strength bringing us comfort when we feel alone in the storm. And, if in so doing, we find a like courage to joyfully sing out a faith where God disrupts the cosmos–rather than orders it according to our plans–then thank God.
Maybe then our souls will magnify the Lord.