Church folklore is replete with delightful stories of Mary in the daily life of the Church. One story tells of an old man, intent on receiving a special favor, who prayed fervently every day at the shrine of Mary, the Mother of God. Impressed by such devotion, Jesus himself, the story continues, decided to reward such faith by appearing in person to assure the man of the blessings that would come to him. Seeing the Christ Child standing above the altar where he was accustomed to seeing the statue of Mary, the old man, intent on his prayers and irritated by the interruption, barked, “Go away, little boy. I wanna talk to your mama.”[i]
Do you now? Talking to Mary can be a dangerous thing to do. She knows things about the spiritual life that can be disconcerting. And — if you listen to her too closely — she will get you into trouble. She will raise difficult questions. So don’t be so sure you “wanna talk to his mama.”
One problem with Mary is rooted in a lack of respect for the ordered nature of things. The hymn that Luke attributes to her is filled with reversals (1:39-49(50-56). The arrogant are put to rout, mighty rulers are dethroned, the lowly are exalted. “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary’s words have been cast in purely socio-economic terms from time to time and described as if they were part of a political manifesto. As a consequence they have often been appropriated as something of a map for modern politics. But reading Mary’s words in such narrow terms misses the point. The gift of her son signals the coming of God’s Reign and with it, the need to attend to God’s way of ordering the world. The change in Mary’s own life is emblematic of the change that will come. Any order and any ideology that presents itself as a substitute for that order is subject to reversal in God’s Kingdom.
So, if you talk to his mama, you could find yourself asking questions about the things you value most and the things you take for granted. Your order could undergo a reversal. The order of everything, not just politics, can be up-ended.
So, it is worth asking ourselves, What do I value and why? Did I inherit those values from my family? From my friends? From the cultural and social air that I breathe? Do those values stand up to scrutiny in the light of the Gospel?
Those are not easy questions to ask, and most of them lack obvious answers. Nor are the results always welcome. Answer them well and you may find people saying the same thing about you that ancient writers said about ancient Christians:
They pass their days upon the earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their own lives. . . . They are spoken evil of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and yet they bless; they are insulted, and they repay the insult with honor . . . What the soul is to the body, that the Christians are to the world.[ii]
If you talk to his Mary, a second challenge you will encounter is her willingness to be overwhelmed by the power of God. Another, less fashionable word for it is submission. And that’s really a difficult one for us to swallow.
We tend to think of submission as surrender to our circumstances, tyrants or bullies. We are fairly sure that only the weak submit and when they do, they lose their rights and their freedom. But for Mary submission isn’t surrender to circumstances or bullies. Submission is a matter of surrendering to God whatever our circumstances. And by submitting to God in the midst of her circumstances, Mary finds the freedom to act in ways that break with the strictures imposed upon her by custom, age and gender. She realizes that no matter how many strictures life may place upon us that there is a more deeply rooted and radical freedom that only God can give.
That realization may be at the heart of the ancient church’s fascination with the connections between the burning bush of the Moses story and the life of Mary. The church fathers argued that both the bush and Mary were filled with God but not consumed. So widespread was this conviction that no small number of ancient icons pictured the burning bush, not with Moses, but with Mary.
Imagine what it would mean, then, to burn, but not be consumed with a freedom that only God can give. Here again are challenging questions: What would you do — what would you do differently — what would you not do at all — if that kind of freedom shaped your life?
Then, finally, there is his Mary’s notion of what constitutes a blessing. In common parlance, we think of blessings as good fortune. It’s a gift, a serendipity. To be sure, even that kind of blessing is given by God. But for us the blessings are often things that we can name: good health, the well-being of our children, satisfying work, a roof over our heads.
But for Mary a blessing is something entirely different. She could not have named the gift she was given. And the blessing had nothing to do per se with bearing a child. The blessing arose out of her new found role in the God’s work, in the coming of the Kingdom of God, in the birth of the people’s Savior. In short, for Mary to be blessed was to serve God’s ends, not her own.
Mary’s willingness to be overwhelmed and blessed by the power of God was a source of fascination to both the ancient and medieval church. And that fascination led the church to draw countless comparisons of Mary’s behavior with the behavior of Eve — who was also blessed, but refused to accept it. That is why in more than one case, Mary is described as “the mother of the church.”
A model for every disciple, ancient and modern, Mary precedes Peter and Paul in modeling a faithful “yes” to the prompting of the Spirit. Meister Eckhart went so far as to say that all believers are “’mothers of Christ,’” because they are meant to be bearers of the incarnate Word.[iii]
In other words, Mary had what Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard described as a “’passion for the impossible.’” And therein lies yet other questions we could ask ourselves today: Am I a bearer of the incarnation? Is God’s presence in the world diminished by my life, or is it given new expression?[iv]
Reversal — submission — blessing — these are words that are at odds with one another in the lexicon of American life. But they are deeply rooted in the movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s a dangerous thing to say, “Go away, little boy. I wanna talk to your mamma.”
[i] Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Ligouri: Ligouri/Triumph, 1999):93.
[ii] From The Epistle of Diognetus, written in AD 130. See: John R. Tyson, ed. Invitation to Christian Spirituality, An Ecumenical Anthology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 59-60.
[iii] Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations (New World Library: 2011), 148.
[iv] For the quotations cited above, see: Robert Barron, The Strangest Way, Walking the Christian Path (Maryknoll: Orbis, Books, 2002): 117-118.