Each year the season of Advent forces me to re-examine my long-standing on-again, off-again relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus. As a former Roman Catholic and, yes, a would-have-been nun, I have been surrounded by Marian devotion for as long as I can remember. The images are so familiar and vibrant: Mary as adoring mother in blue craning over the sweet baby Jesus in the crèche, Mary weeping at the foot of the cross or holding her son’s lifeless body in her arms, Mary as protectress and intercessor spreading her cloak over kings and bishops as they plead for intercession with her divine son. The lore surrounding Mary and reports of her appearances and interventions in human history permeate our tradition and continue to develop even today.
For me this begs the question: how did this young Jewish woman caught up in a divine sex scandal capture the imagination and unswerving devotion of the Christian church centuries later? What kind of role model is she for me and for the church?
The gospel accounts give us very little information about Mary. The details of her life and background are sparse. However, in Luke’s gospel, Mary catches hold of the prophetic imagination which envisions a God actively engaged in the work of re-creation in a way that sets her apart. Each night at Evening Prayer we echo her Magnificat, her proclamation of God’s faithful and active presence in the world.
When I was 15, my mother volunteered me to participate in a Festival of Mary at our church. I was a dancer, so my task was to represent the young Mary at the reading of the annunciation and to dance “reverently yet joyfully” as the Magnificat was sung. When it came time to sit near the altar in front of the congregation and listen to the reading, it suddenly struck me that if I had been young, unmarried Mary and an angel told me that I was pregnant, I would not have said, “Let it be done to me according to your will,” and danced joyfully as my mother looked on approvingly. The terrifying nature of the angel’s revelation sank in. How could this young girl not fear abandonment and ostracism? How could she instead rejoice? At the time, I dismissed her seemingly simple-minded obedience and overlooked the profound prophetic hope that her joy brought to life.
During this season of Advent, we are called to get caught up in the prophetic imagination and joy of Mary and all of the prophets who called for the radical dismantling of the kingdom of fear, oppression, slavery and death. This work is still underway in our hearts and our communities today, and the church is called into this prophetic ministry by virtue of being part of the Body of Christ in the world. Walter Brueggemann explains that the prophetic task is “to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” This alternative is the kingdom of God. Of this kingdom we dream with prophets; for its coming among us we hope and rejoice with Mary; for its fulfillment, we act together.