She was an ordinary girl. We remind ourselves of it every year at this time. We know nothing about Mary except that she was pledged to be married to Joseph. Later on we get a few hints about her personality, and there is one clue even in the annunciation—the encounter with the angel Gabriel. When he told Mary that God was pleased with her and that the Lord was with her, she was very upset. Interesting. She was troubled by a great compliment. Was she shy? Would we say today that she had “low self-esteem?”
Luke writes in his gospel that Mary took things to heart, and she “pondered” them. She certainly had enough to think about, both before and after the birth of her baby. She would naturally be alert to any hint of Jesus’ future. Gabriel may have announced a great mystery, but he didn’t leave everything to the imagination. He seemed to get all excited when he told Mary the news. Got ahead of himself, really, for a poor girl who had no prior warning: “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child…” He could have let that sink in for a bit before rushing to the next part, don’t you think? But no, he gushes, “He will be great AND WILL BE CALLED THE SON OF THE MOST HIGH!” “Throne of David…his kingdom will never end…Holy Spirit will come upon you…Son of God…Elizabeth is also going to have a child…”
Did Mary hear any of it after “you will be with child”? It was all a lot to take for a young woman, of middle school age by today’s standards. Wait, Elizabeth pregnant? If this was all true, if it was not some kind of strange dream, then she would have to see if it was coming true for Elizabeth too. Her parents may have been puzzled by the sudden request to visit relatives, but they did not yet know her secret. She was keeping it to herself until she knew for sure.
She had barely made it through the door of Zechariah’s house when she spotted Elizabeth and called her name. And then Elizabeth turning around with her big belly, her smiling eyes telling Mary all she needed to know. And the angel’s words coming back to her, more clear and piercing than the first time she heard them: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Elizabeth felt her baby turning over, and she laughed, and she declared Mary the most blessed of all women, ever. She called Mary “the mother of my Lord.” Then she repeated the blessing, this time in more detail: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
We don’t know how much Mary really believed it at that point, but by this time there were prophecies happening all over the place, and this was just one more. Mary would come to trust that what was happening was God’s doing. She would gradually unfold all the layers of her responsibility. She would get plenty of practice at pondering, a skill she perfected over Jesus’ lifetime, until she could no longer contain it, and her heart would be broken open by the magnitude of the mystery and the grief at the foot of the cross.
For now, though, her heart was overflowing with wonder, and what came out was a song. It was in some ways simply the next verse of a song that had begun centuries before. A tune Abraham hummed under his breath on the long journey. A song sung by the freed slaves after they passed through the Red Sea. The song Hannah sang when she was given a child, impossibly, and she reluctantly handed Samuel over to Eli with shaking hands and a heart filled with pain. A song with countless variations composed by that skilled musician David. The song of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband.
Every verse of the song praised the God who uses divine power not to grab and oppress as humans do, but to rescue and restore. The God who finishes every story with justice. The God who blesses. The God who is faithful to keep the promises.
Jesus picked up the song himself, in what we call the Beatitudes, when he described the kind of people God blesses. Not the obvious people who already appear to have their blessings, like money and power and lots of land and plenty of everything. Instead God blesses the ones who suffer, who are humbled by their circumstances or even their own bad choices, the ones who struggle to survive, the ones who are grateful for small favors. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” is the first line of Jesus’s verse in the song.
The words of the songs sung through the ages have a similar theme, it’s true. Praise to God who deserves effusive praise (not the silly claims to fame and power attempted by dictators and advertisers alike these days). Expressions of joy that spill out of the hearts and mouths of people who knew what it was to struggle, to be oppressed or poor or unnoticed. Praise for the blessing from God who saw them and lifted them out of their misery.
But something else happens with these songs. They not only express faith in God; they also create the trust in God that they sing about. Mary wasn’t just stating facts in her Magnificat. She was throwing herself on the God who would have to get her through the coming months and years. Mary would suffer for saying yes to God.
Which is what also happens every time. She is one in the long line of God’s people we have been reading about, ordinary folks, minding their own business when God taps them on the shoulder and says, “I have a job for you.” They have a choice to say yes or to say no. Who knows? Maybe there were others God called who said no, and so their stories never made it into the anthology.
But Abraham said yes. Jacob said yes (eventually). Joseph and Ruth and Samuel and David said yes.
They are not the heroes just for saying yes. The storytellers and authors make sure we see that every one of them had feet of clay, even Mary. God is always the hero, always the rescuer, the redeemer, the promise-keeper and provider.
But because they said yes, God blessed the poor and sick and unlovely through them. God lets us get in on the blessing. Blessing is what we get when we say yes. We also get hardship. No beatitude is ever complete without it. Hardship is what makes us ripe for trusting God. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the stares and whispers behind Mary’s back. The nasty names they called her and her child.
But she said yes anyway. Timid, unassuming Mary became the God-bearer for the world because she told the angel, “Let it be to me as you have said.” She would never see with her own eyes every single thing that she sang about, but she let God’s story be her story. Before she was thrust into the long, difficult months of pregnancy, labor, and birth, she got to sing a verse of the song.
“My soul glorifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
…His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
…He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
“Magnificat” is what Mary’s verse has been dubbed, the Latin version of first words of praise out of Mary’s mouth. I heard two more versions of the Magnificat this week. No kidding. One was in the church office, with someone whose life has been transformed by the amazing forgiveness and power and love of God. “I have never been this happy and content in my entire life,” she said, her own heartfelt lyrics for the ancient song.
The other was in a hospital room, the words of a patient struggling with illness and confusion, but still coherent enough to say it over and over to God, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Hearing those songs of praise with my own ears, in our own time, makes me appreciate what Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, says about Mary. “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within my self? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to this Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
Sound strange, gentlemen, to think of being a mother? Think of yourselves as God-bearers then. Those charged with saying yes to whatever it is that God asks you to do. To see God accomplish through you that which you could never in your wildest dreams do on your own. To say yes to God, again, as Mary did.
Then you will be blessed, as surely as she was, for you have believed that what the Lord has said to you will be accomplished.