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Irish writer Colm Toibin once authored a controversial novella about the mother of Jesus called The Testament of Mary. Around the time of its release, I listened to an interview he gave on NPR’s All Things Considered, in which he was asked about his provocative take on Mary. “I realized as I working,” Toibin responded, “that I was breaking stained glass.”
We need to do some stained-glass-breaking, too, if we really want to acquaint ourselves with the mother of Jesus.
Often, we picture Mary as meek and mild, passive and distant, draped in Carolina blue. As we meet her in St. Luke Gospel, however, she’s a model of risky trust in the living God. Indeed, Raymond E. Brown points out in his The Birth of the Messiah, that Mary stands out in the New Testament as the disciple of Jesus par excellence: Mary is a “model disciple in receiving and reacting to the Gospel message.”
Gabriel is dispatched to announce the Gospel to Mary: she would be given the grace of becoming mother to God’s own incarnate self. She’d have a little boy who would be “Jesus”- literally “YHWH saves!” Her boy would be God saving us, intervening once and for all in the world in justice and grace to heal it, reclaim it, rule it. Her son would be God’s Son, the long-promised Son of David would who rule God’s good world forever.
Mary welcomes this impregnating gospel word: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1.38) This isn’t mere acquiescence; you can hear the tenacity in her voice if you listen. I prefer the way one biblical commentator paraphrases her: “Here am I, the Lord’s servant- let’s get on with it!”
She knows she’s committed herself to a painful, dangerous course – this is why she’s initially “much perplexed.” Being pregnant out of wedlock in Mary’s world was potentially a capital crime. And even if her life wasn’t taken, there’d still be all the questions and snickers, the shaming, the sideways looks. But Mary prays God’s action into her life anyway.
There was pain ahead, too, that she couldn’t have anticipated. Soon enough, aged Simeon would warn her of what lay ahead: “ a sword will pierce your own soul.” (Luke. 2.35) Life with the living God is always like this: fraught, uncertain, dangerous.
There’s a moment in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring in which Frodo and his band of hobbits have embarked upon their grave journey, and come upon some elves in the woods. That evening, after his companions have fallen asleep, Frodo asks a wise old elf named Gildor about the Black Riders- the evil wraiths hunting them. Gildor realizes that no one’s told the hobbits about the danger the Riders pose, then tells Frodo, “I think it is not for me to say more- lest terror should keep you from the journey. But,” Gildor reassures, “Courage is found in unlikely places.”
Mary doesn’t know all the soul-piercing pain ahead of her – maybe that knowledge would have kept her from the journey. But she finds courage in unlikely places: the ancient words of God; the Gospel promise growing inside her; the announcement from the heavens that ambushed her. So: here am I; let it be. Let’s get on with it.
In his book The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson shared a hunch about Mary that I think is spot-on. His holy guess is that Mary taught little Jesus this prayer as he grew. She prayed fierce trust in the Father into her son, the Son’s, life. And this prayer that formed Mary in her motherhood of the Savior, thirty years later, would prove formative for Jesus.
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22.42)
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The mother of Jesus shows us that a life centered on the Gospel will be perilous, fraught, soul-piercing. More than we even know. But, because of Jesus, God is there- with us, for us. And because of that, we can pray, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let’s get on with it.”