This is an excerpt from a retreat talk, incarnations of which Jen has given at retreats in Northern and Southern California.
Hearing about the Assumption of Mary has made me wonder about why Mary has such an important place in our tradition since I was a little girl. This leads me to confess my struggle in my relationship with Mary. For a while, I didn’t think that she and I would get along very well. The way I saw Mary depicted in much of Catholic life–artwork, homilies, prayers–brought together an image that was overwhelming to me. I wanted to understand why she was so important to people in our tradition, especially women, but I didn’t feel like I could relate to her. My relationship with Mary has shifted over time, helping me understand that the Mary of our tradition can hardly be pinned down into one image that stands alone and for everyone. Rather, the images of Mary in our tradition are expansive enough to embrace women and men who bring a number of joys and sorrows into the mystery of the Body of Christ.
The first time I started to really think about who Mary was was the Christmas after I turned 13, when I was given a solo in an arrangement of “O Sing of Mary” for my high school choir’s Madrigal Feast. I took my responsibility quite seriously, reflecting on what our director told us about Mary being our age when the Angel of the Lord appeared to her, when she said yes to becoming the mother of Jesus. I don’t think I understood that most 13-year-olds during Mary’s time would have been thinking about marriage and motherhood, and I was struck by what a daunting task that would’ve been.
During the Advent seasons that passed as I grew into a young adult, we sometimes would sing that song in Mass on Sundays. “O sing of Mary, pure and lowly, Virgin Mother undefiled. O sing of God’s own Son most holy, who became a little child. The fairest child of fairest mother, God the Lord who came to earth. The word made flesh, our very brother, takes our nature by his birth.” And I started to feel overwhelmed by Mary again, but this time in a different way. I wasn’t sure what it meant to be pure, and I was fairly certain that I’ve rarely been lowly in the quiet sense. My personality is a big one, I’m always up for debate, and I’ve never fit the demure images of Mary that I’ve seen in Catholic art.
So I took a break from Mary for a while. I didn’t say Hail Marys during my individual prayer time anymore. I figured that it wouldn’t be honest of me to pray to a Mary that I wasn’t sure I believed in.
And then I met the Mary of the Annunciation, who was more complicated and challenging than I had ever seen her described before. Her words, “Let it be done unto me,” are the most compelling expression of faith in things not seen that I have found in all of Christian Scripture, especially given her circumstances. In that short passage, my image of Mary shifted completely. No longer was she the quiet woman with an almost expressionless face, the way she was depicted in a statue outside my kindergarten classroom. Rather, this was a Mary with anima, with spirit, with agency. She was poor, and I eventually learned that this is the kind of lowly to which the song and the Gospel of Luke refer. And she was an unmarried Jewish girl living under Roman occupation, a member of an oppressed minority, when an Angel of the Lord presents her with a choice, the response to which no less than alters the course of human history.
Later in the story, she “made haste to the hill country” to be with her cousin, Elizabeth. When we meet Elizabeth, we must remember her story, as well. We later learn that she was past the age of childbearing when she found out that she was pregnant with her son, who would become John the Baptist. Her husband Zechariah is so surprised that he is struck dumb when he hears the news. Yet here the two women stand, neither having anticipated that they would ever be in the situations in which they find themselves. And in their shared vulnerability, Elizabeth names Mary. “Blessed are you…the mother of my Lord.” The child within her moves, passing on to her the knowledge of the child within Mary.
There’s something powerful about this kind of vulnerability, which allows us to know another and to truly be known. It cuts through the concerns of the world outside and into the core of our being, naming with just a few words exactly who we are called to be. It offers a prophetic conviction of aspects of American culture that encourage the kind of rugged individualism that prevents us, as women and as men, from entering into deep relationship with those with whom we share the everyday-ness of our lives, that stands in the way of us entering into solidarity with those who suffer the consequences of such individualism. This kind of vulnerability gives power to the most authentic of friendships, the most loving of romantic relationships, the strongest bonds of kinship, the most humble of spiritual connections, between two people.
Maybe that vulnerability that Mary and Elizabeth shared is the place from which Mary draws the strength to proclaim the Magnificat during her conversation with Elizabeth. Hearing the Magnificat at a time in my life when I was nearly convinced that my Catholic community had lost sight of its commitment to the poor brought me back in touch with the importance of Mary in my life and in our shared tradition. The Mary of the Magnificat is bold and prophetic, proclaiming a message that calls the structures as they stand into question, giving us pause for reflection about the implications of our actions on those around us. This is a Mary that I’d like to get to know again.
Image: “From This Day” by Jasmine LeeHang-Austin
Jen Owens is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, and a co-editor of From the Pews in the Back. She looks forward to growing an intentional community in Kensington, CA, this academic year.