May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to God.
If you have ever held the impression that Mary, mother of Jesus, was meek and mild, I hope that today’s sermon will dispel that notion. Christmas pageants and stained-glass windows usually portray Mary with head bowed and hands folded—a perfect picture of submission, uttering few words except those acquiescing to the will of God. Mary was the flawless handmaiden of the Lord—and Margaret Atwood has shown how dangerous that image is for women.
This meek and mild portrayal of Mary is not even biblical. Recall the tussles that Mary had with Jesus. When he was twelve years old, he ran away from his parents to listen to the rabbis in the temple. It wasn’t just for a few hours—it was for three days. When Mary and Joseph finally found him, it was Mary, not Joseph, who reprimanded him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” Jesus talked back in typical teenage fashion saying, “you should have known where I was.” Mary was having none of that and young Jesus quickly fell into line and “was obedient to them”.
When Jesus was a young man, he attended a wedding in Cana with his family. When the wine was running out, Mary told Jesus to turn water into wine. For some reason, Jesus was offended by Mary’s order and replied, “Woman (not even Mother), it’s none of my business nor yours.” Undeterred by Jesus’ rather rude response, she told the servants to do whatever Jesus asked of them. Jesus, not Mary, then acquiesced and complied with Mary’s order.
When Jesus was crucified, it was only his mother Mary with a couple of other women, and possibly John, who had the courage to stay with him through his torturous death. Her broken heart and grief strengthened her resolve and courage to never leave him, even though she risked much by publicly aligning herself with him.
None of these biblical stories portray a meek and mild Mary. Nor does today’s reading, even though it does seem to support this image on first reading. But let’s look at this biblical passage more closely.
“Mary,” came a voice she didn’t recognize.
She turned around and saw a stranger, who somehow knew her name. She quickly realized that this stranger knew more about her than her name.
“Greetings, favoured one. God is with you.”
“What a strange greeting,” she thought to herself. With a perplexed and wary expression, Mary’s eyes stayed on him.
As Gabriel began to prophecy her pregnancy, she protested, “This cannot be!” Only after Gabriel told her about her aged aunt’s miraculous pregnancy did she allow the words to sink in. Gabriel ended his visit by saying that with God, nothing is impossible. It was at that point that Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
There is a German word, gelassenheit, which is sometimes translated as resignation or acquiescence. But it is more accurately translated as serenity and equanimity. Instead of “giving up” or “giving into”, as acquiescence implies, gelassenheit means to receive what is with tranquility. If it were used in the context of this passage, it would mean that Mary was receptive to this news and considered it deeply, debating it at first, until she was able to entrust to God whatever might be.
This takes incredible spiritual strength. It is not a meek and mild submission, even though it may look similar. Rather, it is an open-hearted, open-minded response to challenging news. We must remember that Gabriel’s pronouncement was not, at first, good news for Mary. It carried massive implications which could ruin her life. But rather than giving up, giving in, or being defeated, Mary rose to this news with tranquil gelassenheit.
Why do I read Mary’s response this way? Because only a few sentences later, Mary’s Song of Praise—the Magnificat—is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Mary’s Song, echoing the song of Hannah, has been considered one of the most radical, revolutionary songs in the Bible. So much so that it was banned being sung or read in India under British rule. In the 1980s, it was banned in Guatemala. During the 1976-1983 war in Argentina, the Mothers of the Disappeared attached the Magnificat on posters in the capital plaza. The military junta responded by outlawing any public display of Mary’s song in Argentina.
In a time of brutal Roman oppression, Mary’s calm gelassenheit to the news of her pregnancy empowered her to help prepare the way for her child. It gave her voice on behalf of all of her people–Jews who were heavily persecuted by the Roman legions. Listen to these two verses: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” No one who is meek and mild, submissive and acquiescent could have sung these words.
After a careful read of our gospel lesson, my conclusion is that Mary is an incredible example of spiritual strength. She was able to receive devastating news and offer it to God with open hands. Instead of her world collapsing in on her, she was able to stand, with God’s strength, and be open to come what may. Even more, her openness gave her the ability to stand courageously for justice.
Anglican priest, writer and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault describes how a three-step process of letting go can help us respond with gelassenheit when we have received challenging news. The first step is to focus on the news, let it sink in, feel it in your body and stay with it, as painful as it might be. The second step is counter-intuitive. It is to actually welcome the feelings—not the news, but the feelings the news produces. The third step is then to let it go as many times as you need.
If, for example, you have received news of a mouse infestation, try not to scream. Identify the feelings that are quickly arising, whether they be fear or dread or frustration. Breathe. Welcome the feelings and then release them, along with the furry creatures, into God’s hands as you calmly move into appropriate response.
A more serious example is if you receive bad news about a medical diagnosis. Stay with the news and the feelings it evokes—shock, grief, worry, fear, anxiety, anger. We usually have a whole myriad of emotions to challenging news. Where does your body hold these emotions? What are your physical responses? Then gently welcome your feelings, your physical sensations. Welcome your body’s response. It doesn’t mean to welcome the diagnosis itself. Rather, you are welcoming your own response to it. You may need to go through these two steps over and over, day after day. These first two steps are the most important. Only when you are ready, offer your physical and emotional reactions to God. You can’t rush into this third step. But when you are able to let go of the stranglehold of intense emotions, you may be able to receive the news with a peace that only God can give, knowing that God is walking every centimeter of the path with you.
Mary is our guide, who showed us how to receive very challenging news with tranquil gelassenheit, entrusting to God whatever might be. If we can release the paralysis of our body’s response, we might be able to find Christ’s light of peace in the shadows. Even more, we might be able to find joy once again, for joy does come, even in the wilderness. As Mary has shown us, nothing is impossible with God.