My Soul Proclaims:
Submission and Subversion in Mary's Magnificat
A guest essay by Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (2007). Sara is the director of ministries at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where she founded The Food Pantry.
For Sunday December 16, 2007
Third Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
Psalm 146:5–10 or Luke 1:47–55
Mary, Mary, Mary. Gentle virgin, meek and mild. For centuries, the church has tried to portray Mary as submissive, and thus paradigmatic for female lives on earth. The church has suggested, not subtly, that just as Mary turned over her will to God, so should women turn over their wills to God’s representatives on Earth: that is, to serving the church and its officials.
This archetype of Mary glosses motherhood––the fiercest, most powerful and passionate occupation known to humans––with sentimentality. It bathes a revolutionary risk-taker with the glow of goodness and docility. It twists Mary’s obedience to God into the suggestion that the weak owe obedience to powerful humans: priests, husbands, masters, rulers.
But listen: in this week’s Gospel Mary sings a new song. The Magnificat (so named from the first word of the text in the Latin translation called the Vulgate) follows Mary’s astonishing encounter with the angel Gabriel, and her running to Elizabeth as an evangelist to share the good news.
It is, of course, profoundly unsettling news: Mary doesn’t need a man to have a baby. She isn’t going to follow worldly social norms. In fact, she prophesies the overturning of the whole social order, proclaiming that the lowly will be lifted up, the rich turned away empty. She doesn’t ask permission of kings or family to step off the precipice into unprecedented experience. Her proclamation that God is at work in her body shows us, even before Jesus does, what it means to truly submit––not to the world but to God.
Today, in America, truly submitting to God—surrendering yourself body and soul, womb and lungs, heart and mind and hands—remains a profoundly transgressive and unworldly act. Submission isn’t something we talk about a lot in this culture unless we’re talking about sexual kink. Or about coerced obedience to armies and laws, powers and principalities.
Mostly, though, our systems, religious as well as secular, work on the principle of individual gratification: self-awareness, self-improvement, self-esteem. We believe in “being true to yourself,” “ finding your own way,” “ standing up for yourself,” buying or willing your way into an identity. The defended, defined, individual self, along with its purportedly individual salvation, is at the center of most American theology—theology that echoes the perspective of the ubiquitous market that rules our secular lives. Why be a servant, when you could polish your own soul the way you shape your body through exercise and surgery? Why be weak and helpless when you could be powerful? Why not choose your own beliefs, why not will your own sins away? Why surrender to God, when you could be a self-made man or woman?
But the prophet Mary stands among us, breathing quietly and humming under her breath. Now, as then, she addresses the emptiness of the pretense that we’re in control of our lives.
Mary proclaims that after the annunciation and everything that follows, all generations will call her blessed. But Mary’s obedience to God doesn’t yield the kind of blessing most of us ask for when we pray. She has said yes without knowing what God will do. She is submitting to humiliation, physical pain, dislocation, terror, loss. She loses her self to become Theotokos, literally, "the bearer of God."
It is really hard to bear God. It is, in fact, unbearable. . . . without God. Any woman who’s borne a child, any man who’s fathered a child—any person who has truly loved another person—has been in Mary’s position, a God-bearer carrying love through this violent and dangerous world that we are unable to control.
And, like Mary, we cannot choose how God will bless us. We might receive a blessing as terrifying as having a child tortured and killed, as impossible as having the hungry filled. We are not passive in this process, any more than Mary was. We must work and pray and imagine and act as bravely and intelligently as she did. But, like Mary, we must say yes without knowing what will happen next.
Mary’s Magnificat is a song of joy and shared rejoicing. And it also points directly to the cross, foreshadowing the passion of Jesus. It’s the closest we get in Advent to the darkest, most frightening, most transcendent moment in the Gospels, when Jesus surrenders his will, his hope, his very life and puts everything in God’s hands. My soul is in torment, he says: but what should I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it’s for this that I came. Father, glorify your name.
Jesus’s obedience is not a ritual obedience but a passionate surrender. It’s at the heart of his humanity, the heart of his divinity. And he learned it from his mom.
So, like the God-bearer, Theotokos, let us pray this week to take the Spirit of God into our own bodies. Let us submit to God’s blessings. Let us share the good news of the world turned upside down with our sisters and brothers. And let us dare to follow the way proclaimed by Mary’s song. It leads to new life, and it leads to the cross. And it leads to new life.
For further reflection:
* What is the image of Mary that you grew up with? What does Mary mean to you now?
* How do you understand Mary's meaning for the Church?
* What might it mean for you to submit to God's blessing, without knowing the exact consequences for your life?
* Meditate on Mary's song: "You feed the hungry good things. . . . the rich you send out empty." What does this piece of Mary's song mean in your life?
* To look at some of the ways Mary has appeared in different times and places, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale, 1996). A comprehensive website on Mary is at www.udayton.edu/mary/.
Image credits: (1) Yolanda Lopez, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, http://www.ic.arizona.edu/~ws5001/virgin.html; (2) Joseph Sciorra, 2000, http://www.nyfolklore.org/pubs/voic30-1-2/madonna.html; and (3) Balkan Icons Online, http://www.balkan-icons.com/Theotokos%20-%20Very%20Rev.%20%20Fr.%20Stamatis%20Skliris.jpg.