At this time of year, the world is celebrating the birth of Christ. The Christmas story is read frequently, by those new to it and by those of us who have heard it since the time we were babies. The beauty of this is the familiarity. The shadow side is the apathy that can come as I take these wonderful people for granted.One such character is Mary, the mother of Jesus. I began to pay attention to this woman when as a teenager I read the book “Two from Galilee” by Marjorie Holmes. This is a fiction of the life of a young girl who began the mother of the Savior of the world. It’s been a long time since I read this work, but I appreciate the manner in which it opened my eyes to Mary as a real living breathing person. What stands out to me about her is her humility and her courage. The gospel of Luke gives an account of this first meeting.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
From the very first encounter we have with her in scripture, she recognized her stature before God “I am the Lord’s servant,” and had the courage to agree to be part of God’s plan.
And what a plan! Pregnant without a husband, journeying to another town (on a donkey, no less!) when she was about to give birth, and fleeing with her young child to protect his life. And that was just the beginning. It is said that parent is as happy as their saddest child. My, the turmoil that this mother must have felt as she watched her son step into his role and eventually be killed for doing so.
I believe that God chose Mary to be this vessel because she was the type of person God wanted to raise his son. Her humility is key. She seemed to understand that God was in fact real and was able to fulfill what he promised.
The connection between humility and an intimate relationship with God is shown over and over in the ancient church writings. St. Benedict correlates humility with spiritual maturity in the rule he wrote for the monastic community. As one advances in ones relationship with God, they become increasingly humble. Their center (on whom they place their focus) shifts from themselves to God. And so it is with us. It’s an awareness of who we are in relationship to God. As we come to know God at a deeper and deeper level, the scales fall off our eyes and we recognize who it is that we are really dealing with—the creator of the universe. We relate to God in a different manner when this reality comes home to us. We no longer expect or demand that God be our servant. We stop demanding that God give us what we want. It is not that we are conscious of these demands. They are most apparent when we do not get what we have asked for. Then we are disappointed or angry and distance ourselves from God.
I do not want to negate the pain of asking for something that we care so deeply about. We have all prayed for the healing of someone who we love. This is so difficult as we recognize that God is not healing this person. And we do need to ask and even plead with God for those things that are significant to us. Any parent can attest to wanting their child to feel safe coming to them. Yet, what we begin to recognize is that God is God and that it is not we who demand obedience from God. On the contrary, it is we who are in the position of servant. We seek to be available for what God is doing in this world—even when we do not understand it. Our deepest desire is to enter into God’s work in this world and to be fully used for those purposes.
This is a different type of relationship with God. It necessitates a realization that God is truly alive and active in this world. It necessitates that we believe that God is about love and about inviting us to participate into being that healing love. When we know this deep in our being, we will continually offer ourselves for God’s shaping to be useful as God’s instrument. We learn to be comfortable with the mystery—to let go of the need to understand. We place ourselves in God’s loving embrace. Walter Brueggeman expresses this understanding of God in his prayer “Not at your beck and call.”
We call out your name in as many ways as we can.
We fix your role towards us in the ways we need.
We approach you from the particular angle of our life.
We do all that, not because you need to be identified,
but because of our deep need,
our deep wound,
our deep hope.
And then, we are astonished that while our names for you
serve for a moment,
you break beyond them in your freedom,
you show yourself yet fresh beyond our utterance,
you retreat into your splendor beyond our grasp.
We are—by your freedom and your hiddenness—
made sure yet again that you are God…
beyond us, for us, but beyond us,
not at our beck and call,
but always in your own way.
We stammer about your identity,
only to learn that it is our own unsettling
before you that wants naming.
Beyond all our explaining and capturing and fixing you…
we give you praise,
we thank you for your fleshed presence in suffering love,
and for our names that you give us.
As we enter into this season when the world is remembering the birth of our Lord, let it remind us of the courage and humility shown in the example of this teenage girl from Galilee.