I sometimes ask myself who, among all the characters in the Living Nativity, would I most like to meet? And this year, my thoughts turned to Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus. I wonder, who is this elusive woman that some revere and some almost ignore? What wisdom does she have for us on preparing for the coming of her son this Advent?
Who is Mary? It seems like everyone has a different answer to that question. To our culture Mary is a figure in a snow dome, silent, immobile, gazing at the manger. A plastic figure to be taken out of the box of ornaments for a few days a year.
To Roman Catholics, she is a venerated figure. I once made a list of all the Roman Catholic churches in the town and nearby city where I served in Pennsylvania. They included Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Grace, Queen of the Universe, and Our Lady of Good Counsel. Those church names say a lot about who Roman Catholics believe Mary to be in relation to their faith. Mary acts as a go-between with us sinners on earth and God in heaven. During the Middle Ages, when the church's leadership became more and more distant from the people, Mary became important in the prayer lives of the common folk. She was seen as one who could empathize with their plight and mediate forgiveness. In the councils of the Church through the centuries, she gradually gained in supernatural qualities. She was declared absolutely free from personal sin before her birth and to this day. She remained perpetually a virgin. She did not die a natural death, but was taken directly from earth to heaven. Protestants may feel Roman Catholics overemphasize Mary's role.
For many Protestants, Mary is just a peasant woman chosen to facilitate the arrival of the Son of God into the world. Roman Catholics may feel that Protestants underemphasize Mary's role in salvation history.
Both worship of Mary and reducing Mary to her biological role miss out on something very important: Mary's example as a person of faith, struggling with the daily demands of her life. It is this Mary who can help us prepare spiritually for the coming of her son. Where do we go to find such a Mary? Not to Mark, who never mentions her. Not to Matthew who focuses on Joseph. Not to John who tells us that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," but doesn't elaborate on the details. It is the gospel of Luke that portrays the fullness of Mary's humanity as an example of faith for us. Luke cracks open the snow dome and lets Mary out to stand flesh and blood, life-size, before us and invite us to participate with her in giving birth to, raising, mourning, and eventually, following Jesus Christ our Lord. He portrays her in a startling role: one that shakes up the way we've been brought up to think of her and invites us to stop observing her and start imitating her.
For Luke, Mary is first a prophet. We think of Mary, not as outspoken and bold for justice, but as quiet and passive. Yet in the Canticle of Mary (Lk. 1:46-55) she sings a song of praise to God who shakes up the status quo, who lifts up the humble like her, and chooses her, rather than a high born woman, to be bearer of God's Son. She foreshadows her son's ministry that will likewise lift up the lowly.
If we have trouble seeing gentle Mary meek and mild as a prophet, we need to remind ourselves that her call mirrors those of the Old Testament prophets. Her call to be a prophet follows the Old Testament's four-part pattern of prophetic commissioning: call, objection, God's ignoring of the objection, and God's final assurance that God is committed to the prophet and his mission.
1) The Call of God
First comes the call of God to the prophet. Isaiah and Ezekiel saw visions: Isaiah of a great heavenly gathering, Ezekiel of a cloud and four winged creatures. Jeremiah heard only a word, Elijah a still, small voice in the silence of his heart. In Mary's case, God sent the angel Gabriel to confront her. Then God tells the prophet that he has been chosen and what he is to do. God told Jeremiah, "I have appointed you to be a prophet to the nations."
The angel says to Mary: "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus . . ."
2) Objection to the Call
The prophet objects to the commission by protesting his inadequacy or pointing to some factor that makes it impossible. Jeremiah said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." Moses protested that he wasn't a good public speaker.
Mary said, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"