I’ve started reading through the book of Luke, after a really revelatory experience of reading straight through Matthew. And the other rainy afternoon I combined that discipline with another, Centering Prayer, as part of a goal to incorporate at least ten minutes of silence a day in this journey through Advent.
I expected, if my memory served me correctly, that this morning’s text, a song from the woman who “treasured all these things in her heart”(2:19), would be full of flowery language, personal reflections, poignant, emotional thoughts.
But it’s not.
Mary’s song is certainly a deeply personal reflection on her own “lowliness” in contrast to God’s “blessing,” but it’s also a prophetic proclamation of praise into a world deeply in need of a savior. “[The Lord] 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,” Mary sings.
It was so powerful to me this afternoon to read these words and see that from the very beginning, the months leading up to Jesus’ birth, and truly the hundreds of thousands of years before it (after all, the song ends, “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.”), the gospel is revolutionary, unsettling, earth-shattering, and fundamentally, unexpected.
Mary seems so evenly aware of her own humble place in God’s plan and yet also prophetically insightful as to the nature of God’s power on this earth, as demonstrated in the past, and to be demonstrated through the son of a carpenter, and a perfect sacrifice.
Richard Rohr in his writings on “women’s stuff” speaks not only of letting Mary be a woman not a god, but of what kind of God it is who we serve, and how we might learn more about that God and our Jesus by way of an openness to traditionally “feminine” behaviors or attitudes. In his book Simplicity, Rohr writes (p. 130-31),
The feminist insight explains the vast majority of Jesus’ teachings, a male acting very differently in an almost totally patriarchal Jewish society. Like Mary, the Church also has ‘treasured these things in her heart.’ (Luke 2:19) Only in time are they ready to come forth, like Jesus from her womb. Jesus would never have broken through as the fresh Word of the Father if he had, for example, acted nonviolently in a feminine body. It would not have been Divine Revelation because we expect and demand that women be patient, nurturing, forgiving, healing, self-effacing, and self-sacrificing. Women are expected to be nonviolent in a violent male society (look at our one-sided attitude toward rape, adultery, physical abuse, and, in many cultures, divorce), but we are still not prepared for males or institutions or nations to act nonviolently. That is why God had to become incarnate for us in the body of a man. Unfortunately, we kept the name and image of Jesus to exalt male leadership, but basically rejected most of Jesus’ teachings as impractical and unreasonable in the pyramidal ‘real world’ of Church and state. As indeed they are! We conveniently fit Jesus back into our more practical way of being a religious institution–and lost most of his unique and revolutionary strategy for dealing with human evil. Now we find ourselves helpless and without the tools to deal with war, greed, and the endless whimsy of the individual ego.
As a woman, I’m often uncomfortable with Rohr’s categories of “feminine” and “masculine,” because I see these adjectives as culturally constructed, rather than biologically evident, and etched in stone. But if I understand Rohr correctly, he’s aware of those cultural constraints, and his claim is that God was and is, as well, and our Jesus fundamentally challenges all of the human constructs that blind us to God’s goodness, peace, and movement in our world.
I find Rohr’s words above, and Mary’s a poignant reflection on advent: the sense that God has already gone before us and accomplished “bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly,” and yet, we find ourselves again “helpless…without the tools to deal with war, greed, and the endless whimsy of the human ego.” Good thing God kept God’s promise and will keep it this season, bringing forth a new Jesus from Mary’s womb.
Will we perceive this new thing? Will we recognize God this season, in whatever gender she or he comes to us? I know one thing for sure: God will once again shatter all our expectations.
And that’s a good thing.