Protestants have never paid enough attention to Mary. During Advent and Christmas, however, we allow her briefly to be a part of our piety. We sing about her in carols that describes her as “Gentle Mary, Meek and Mild,” a rather docile and unremarkable figure. We forget that she was the first disciple, the one who believed before she conceived.
In countless Christian pageants little girls in white robes and blue veils quietly represent her as the only thing female in the story of the nativity. They sit in wordless contemplation, as if somehow cut off from the reaction of the miracle of Bethlehem.
It was the “wordless contemplation” requirement that prevented me from ever getting to play Mary in the Christmas drama. Since I had a voice that could easily be heard throughout the sanctuary, I got to be the head shepherd. My line was, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem . . .” (with appropriate hand signal!)
This third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, which is a call to rejoicing. And Mary is our teacher in this. The greeting Gabriel offers calls her to rejoice as one “full of grace.” She did not receive this greeting with immediate joy, however. Initial confusion and uncertainty in the face of an epiphany is normal in the biblical text. Her faith has to grow in the twilight of doubt until rejoicing is authentic.
It is time that we pay attention to Mary, this one woman whose trust in God allows the Word to be made flesh, after our likeness. The New Testament does not idealize Mary. She is a poor and oppressed woman of Galilee, where her life is completely immersed in the social, political, and religious situation of her people.
It has been too facile for the church to imagine, as Leonardo Boff writes, that “all was easy and clear for her—that she knew she was the Mother of God, that her Son Jesus was the Son of the Most High, or that she was the most highly blessed of all women.” Her story is like ours; she had to walk in the darkness of faith. For this we should call her blessed.
And Elizabeth does. After the blessing of Elizabeth, Mary breaks forth in an exquisite song of rejoicing. It has dense theological meaning, but it is foremost the song of “a young women shyly placing one hand upon a swelling belly to touch the miracle unfolding within her,” as Wendy Wright puts it.
In the miracle of her baby, in her own private joy, Mary perceives the blessing of justice for the people of God. In this celebration, Mary stands squarely within Israel’s prophetic tradition. This faithful justice of God does not come without pain. Mary can hardly fathom the pain that will be hers as she lives out her vocation as God-bearer. Nor can we.
Mary longs for God to turn things upside down, as her great hymn the Magnificat insists. For centuries the church has allowed these revolutionary works to sustain hope. We learn something about the nature of rejoicing from this text.
Rejoicing is not simply flowery words detailing how wonderful the world is. Rather, it takes on the urgency of petition, calling God to be faithful to God’s own character. That is why Mary’s rejoicing sounds as if these mighty acts have already become true. We can participate in making it so.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders to work for justice in the world.