Singing with Mary
If you were like me this week, you had a lot of trouble assimilating the incongruent words and images and coming up with a response.
The newspaper offered almost daily reminders of how life was moving on in Newtown, Connecticut. There were the pictures of bright and shiny faces of first-graders juxtaposed with candle light vigils and reports of traffic congestion from too many funerals happening at the same time.
And then there was the public conversation attempting to explain how something so unspeakable could happen. The conversation has been about guns, mental illness, and where God was on that dreadful morning.
There was the story that went viral of a mother sharing her own personal struggle to find support and answers as she raises a child with mental illness.
There have been many words about guns and the gun laws of this country. There has been a rush on gun permits. Then there was an announcement on Friday proposing armed guards in every school.
Conversations at MCC following the tragedy at Sandy Hook led to an appeal that constituents petition their congressmen to have a serious conversation about gun violence. Some constituents protested that MCC is engaging in political activism.
So while the families at Newtown were eating the bread of their tears, many were rushing to fit this tragic event into their narrative. We were jockeying for position over whose theology, whose political interests will control the narrative.
I found my spirit crying out with the psalmist: O LORD God Almighty, how long will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful. (80:4-5)
All this and the Mayan apocalypse is the context in which we hear once again Mary’s story. It is a story of how God enters our world. It is a story of what it looks like to be human and participate with God’s work in the world.
As I reflect on Mary’s story, I notice three things. First, I notice that… she allows God’s words to gestate.
After the angel had left, Mary was alone. She had expressed her desire for God’s words to be fulfilled in her. Mary receives the words spoken to her by the angel and allows them to gestate.
But how does one process the invitation to become a God-bearer?
I imagine Mary pondering these things and working while the words settle into her soul. I imagine Mary going about her daily tasks. Sweeping the floor and pondering. Fetching water and pondering. Preparing food and pondering. Wondering what all this will be.
Solitude provides good space for paying attention to the movements of God in and around us—for doing our work. Solitude and physical work. Some folks do their best spiritual work at the gym. For others chopping wood is a good spiritual discipline.
A lot of good work happens in solitude, but we also need community to do our work. Someone has said that what is in us is often only an idea until it is shared with another and the other responds.
Luke’s account says it wasn’t too long before Mary sought out companionship. In those days, she hurries to the house of Zechariah in the hill country of Judea.
I suspect that Mary is curious about what the angel told her concerning Elizabeth. Perhaps she is curious to find out what it has been like for Elizabeth to be pregnant in her old age after being barren for so many years. Perhaps she is curious to hear how God’s word came to Elizabeth. Perhaps she is eager to hear how the community is responding to all these things.
As an unwed young girl, she may have had her own questions and concerns about how folks would respond to her story of being pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
So Mary seeks out a place to share the words that have come to her in solitude. For Elizabeth, who has sequestered herself from community, Mary’s visit must have also been a welcome opportunity to process her experience. After all, there was not a lot of conversation happening with mute Zechariah in those days.
There is this beautiful line from the poem Tell Me, She Said, by Sally Atkins: “Pay attention….we are listening each other into being.”
The second thing I notice in Mary’s story is that she finds a hospitable space to share her story at the house of Elizabeth.
The gift that Elizabeth and Mary offer to each other is the gift of listening each other into being. It is the gift of authentic community. It is the gift of being open to the surprising ways God is at work.
Elizabeth is paying attention. She is aware of God’s work in her own life. She is also attentive to God’s work in Mary’s life.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, the words pour out of Elizabeth. They are words of blessing. Elizabeth affirms what is being formed in Mary. Blessed is the fruit of your womb. Elizabeth affirms the work that Mary is doing. Blessed is she who believed the words spoken to her.
The hard work of community is about learning to provide this kind of space for each other. It is about learning to sing God’s song together. We may not always see how our parts go together. Some of us have learned to sing with shaped notes. Some of us are comfortable with four-part harmony. Some of us prefer to let our bodies move when we sing. Some of us prefer not to sing at all.
The gift of authentic community is that there is room to receive all the gifts God gives. Learning to sing together means listening each other into being and welcoming new and surprising gifts that are wanting to be born.
Elizabeth provides this space for Mary.
The hospitality of Elizabeth becomes the space in which Mary sings a song of gratitude. It is a song of gratitude for the way God is working in her life and in the world. This is the third thing I notice in Mary’s story.
Mary sees herself as blessed. She is grateful that God’s work in the world includes her—even in her lowliness.
Richard Rohr says that we must first be willing to admit the contradictions inside us, and still let God love us in that partial state. Once we agree to see our own shadow side, our own foolishness, our own sin and still know that God has not abandoned us, we become a living paradox that reveals the goodness of God.
Once we know that God lives inside our contradictions, and God’s love is not dependent on our perfection, the other peoples’ contradictions don’t scandalize us or surprise us anymore.
Because Mary deeply understands that God has embraced her in all her lowliness, she sings a song of gratitude. In her poverty, Mary is not bitter or fearful as she looks at a world dominated by the rich and powerful. She is grateful because she understands that God is at work scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.
Mary’s song echoes the prophets of Israel who envision God’s work in the world as being about justice, mercy, and humility.
So what is the invitation to us this morning? How are we singing with Mary?
We are being invited, together with Mary, to allow God’s words to gestate in us.
This calls us to pay attention, to develop habits of prayer, silence and contemplating the movements of God within us and around us—even when God’s initiative calls us to embrace that which is deeply inexplicable among us.
We are being invited to provide hospitable space for those who are together singing God’s song in a different way. We are being invited to receive the gift of authentic community which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the midst of a weary world we are being invited to see that God’s work does not depend on our perfection or on the ability to control wealth and power. We are being invited to see the world, as Mary does, through a lens of gratitude for the way God is showing the strength of his arm through those who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
As I reflect on my experience over the last few weeks, I hear echoes of Mary’s song…
I hear Mary singing when a basement on Ross Street becomes a venue to creatively bring together art, music and community in Lancaster city.
I hear Mary singing when I hear the church listening to the questions and stories of young adults who are exploring faith, vocation and community in new ways.
I hear Mary singing when I see the creative work David and Anna Landis are doing building peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims through the Abraham Path Initiative.
I hear Mary singing when I listen to people talk about a passion that is stirring to gather food stories and to harness the power of entrepreneurial capitalism to empower the poor.
I hear Mary singing as the church finds a way to talk about the problem of gun violence and what it means to be a people who embody the peace of Christ.
May we, like Mary, be open to the work of the Spirit who comes to us in our humanness and forms us to be bearers of God in a violent world. May we, like Elizabeth, pay attention to the ways God is at work around us and help listen each other into being. And may we, together with Mary, sing a song of gratitude.