I saw Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ soon after it was released in 2004, and I clearly remember having a reaction which I never expected. There was a lot of hype surrounding the movie, and people were having a wide variety of reactions to it by the time I saw it, but of all the comments I had heard from friends or the media about the movie, no one else was expressing the thought which sank deeply into me the day I saw it and about which I still have some of the movie's images in my mind: No one else in history has ever had a role like Mary's, and many of my fellow Protestants and I have paid far too little attention to her. Any of us would certainly benefit tremendously from following her example of humble openness to God, regardless of which Christian tradition we are a part.
That should have been obvious to me ever since I began to read the Bible, but it took the film's portrayal of Mary, including scenes from different stages of Jesus' life (from her caring for him as a young boy to her presence at his crucifixion), to bring my prior disregard of Jesus' mother to my attention.
There are many other Biblical characters in whose place I can imagine myself, but I can't do it with Mary. Perhaps some of that reason is due to my being a man and my total unfamiliarity with what it's like to carry any kind of child––not to mention if that child happened to be God. But my inability to imagine myself in Mary's place in the stories goes deeper than the nature of our genders. There simply could never be another person to have had the role in Jesus' life that she had, nor to be impacted by him in the ways that she was. In other words, as one powerful scene of Gibson's film portrays, no one else who saw Jesus bleed on Calvary could have had flashbacks to picking him up as a toddler and caring for his scraped knee.
Once again, N.T. Wright describes it well when he gives a brief overview of the twists and turns that only Mary's life with Jesus could have had:
"A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he's twelve. She will think he's gone mad when he's thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her....All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won't be taken away."(1)
As worthy of our consideration as any of those parts of Jesus' and Mary's story are, here at the end of Advent, with Christmas approaching soon, we need to consider the way that only Mary waited on God, and what her waiting can teach the rest of us.
Luke's gospel gives us the fullest description of Mary's waiting, and part of the way he does so is to contrast her with the character we considered yesterday, Zechariah. The story of Gabriel's visit to Zechariah in the Temple (1:5-25) is followed immediately by the story of Gabriel's visit to Mary in Nazareth (1:26-38). Even though Zechariah was described as being righteous and blameless, Luke doesn't portray him as a hero, but rather with the kind of confused and baffled response to God's message through Gabriel that most of us might have had. The news was hard to believe, so Zechariah said he needed a sign to know that it was from God. Mary, on the other hand, responds with absolute humility and obedience. She too asked a question of Gabriel, but she asked for more information, rather than for proof.(2)
Zechariah thought Gabriel's message was impossible, asked for a sign, and ended up unable to speak until his son was born. Mary thought Gabriel's message was improbable but responded in humble obedience and ended up praising God through words that have been prayed, sang, studied, and meditated upon by Christians for two millennia:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)
In considering the profound way in which Mary waited for Jesus' coming, her song again reveals an inescapable aspect of learning to wait well. We saw it yesterday in Zechariah and will see it again in our character tomorrow: Mary had soaked her mind in the scripture and the story revealed there of how God was working in human history. While perhaps we could naturally expect a high degree of scriptural literacy from Zechariah since he was a priest and had served God faithfully for a lifetime, our expectations of peasant teenage girls isn't quite so high. Yet it appears that not only had Mary absorbed the message of the Hebrew scriptures, but that she had particularly set her mind upon the story of another remarkable mother in Israel's history, Hannah. The similarities between Mary's song and Hannah's prayer are striking:
My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. ...Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. ...The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Samuel 2:1,5,7-8, NRSV)
Mary was able to wait on God by responding in humility ("Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."), and by having already soaked her mind in the scripture. Also, before moving on, we do Mary's example injustice if we fail to consider the bodily, physical, very human nature of her obedience to God. We too often think that if we are to live the kind of life that would be pleasing to God––or even just to wait on God during Advent or celebrate Christmas well––that it would primarily be something "spiritual" and we rarely if ever consider the irreplaceable role that our bodies have in our lives with God. Mary, however, didn't have the opportunity to make such a mistake since what God was asking of her involved her body to the furthest possible extent.
If you and I have the courage and humility to experiment with praying Mary's prayer ("Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.), we will also find that our bodies are always included if we are to follow through in obedience. We will be given opportunities to praise God with our mouths, love people with our hands and feet, study with our eyes, and worship with every part of us. In other words, we will be asked––as Mary was––to wait on God by allowing the Messiah to dwell in us, so that our bodily lives may bring his blessing to those around us.
As you enter into this final time of preparation for Christmas, what is one way today that you can wait like Mary and open the deepest parts of your life to the one who says, "Abide in me, and I will abide in you"?
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) Wright, Luke for Everyone, 14-15. (2) Ibid., 12.