News of terrible violence continues to swirl around us. And in the midst of anger, sadness, and fear, we continue to ask what we can do. The Way of Mary, I suggested in an earlier post, is a way forward. So what is that way, exactly? In the Mothers of Israel, we have begun to seen its outlines emerging. These women recognize the threat of violence around them, they turn to those who are most vulnerable, and they demonstrate a remarkable sort of holy poise. Even in the face of stomach-turning violence, they are focused enough to act decisively at the crucial moment, and ready to take on great risk.
The question, it seems to me, is what lies behind action of this kind. What sets the stage for this sort of courage, for this sort of creative, faithful, collaboration? Here, I’d propose that we shift our gaze to another meeting of two mothers of Israel—to Mary herself, to the “new Moses,” and to the most primal gospel encounter.
It is described for us in the first chapter of Luke.
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah, 40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? 44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (NET)
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this meeting. It is, after all, the first gospel moment, the first of a familiar pattern in which an individual encounters the Lord Jesus and is transformed. The details of this encounter, I believe, also allow a defining glimpse of Mary’s way.
This encounter of the individual, John, with Christ, occurs in a profoundly communal phenomenon, one that is mediated in primal, bodily ways.
As I’ve noted elsewhere,
Mary greets Elizabeth, but it is Elizabeth’s unborn child who, hearing Mary’s greeting, reacts. Recognizing Mary as the bearer of Christ’s presence, John’s reaction is immediate and powerful: he leaps for joy. It is this wordless announcement that causes Elizabeth to cry out loudly in response, hailing both the mother and the child who is ultimately the source of joy. And, finally, in Elizabeth’s verbal response to her, Mary becomes aware of this singular chain of events, and as she does so, she herself is thus drawn into this communal event of encounter and joy.
The Way of Mary, I would argue, has its deep source here, in this embodied, communal joy, in a doxology both of speech and of bodily communion. It is this reality that will nourish and strengthen for what lies ahead. So, too, with us. The ability to act with creativity, courage, and vulnerability does not arise out of nothing. Nor is it nourished simply by strategy or calculation. It is rather grounded in a joy that knows itself to be drawn, together with others, into God’s presence and purposes. It draws its strength from celebration of the presence of the Lord, celebrations in which we know the Lord to be near and tell one another the good news with our mouths and our bodies. Those steeped in this joy can act with a kind of abandon that, though it may arise in desperate circumstances, is never simply an expression of desperation.
Mary gives articulation to this reality in the very next moment, as she sings:
My soul exalts the Lord,
and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call be blessed,
because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Now, this is a song filled with assurance. Even when pharaohs on their thrones seem an overwhelming threat, it proclaims a Mercy more powerful than any of them. It has known, and been known by, one who lifts up the humble and feeds those who are hungry.
As we shall see, however, Mary’s way is not best described as a triumphal one. Like Jochebed before here, she, too, must relinquish a son. In her case, however, he will find no quick rescue. She herself will witness his suffering, and, in this, hers will be the most terrible encounter with violence imaginable. With only a brief pause at one more moment in Mary’s story, we must move with her to that moment, to see what she can teach us there.