Ely Cathedral’s powerful statue of Mary, by David Wynne
As we approach the third sunday of Advent, the word we turn to is Joy. And, as part of that turning to joy, many also remember Mary. In particular, her response to the angel’s message when she was invited to participate in this story of “God-with-us”… but more on that later.
As I look at this statue, I find Mary’s stance compelling. It is open and powerful, it feels like a “yes” which accepts and trusts what will be, even if it is beyond the mind’s understanding. Pictures of Mary often show her looking more afraid, more passive. This work captures a moment of glorious, positive choice. But there is something else. The slight downward tilt of her head seems to acknowledge the difficulties caught up in this acceptance, and the enormity of that choice. There is awe and vulnerability here too – vulnerability captured in that bare foot peeking out.
Here is the story, from my book The Bible Retold
Among the fields and vineyards of Nazareth, in Galilee, lived a girl named Mary. She was soon to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, who could trace his family back to David, the shepherd king.
Then, one day, astonishing news burst into Mary’s quiet, hopeful life. The angel Gabriel came to her with a message.
“God is with you, Mary!” Mary gasped, and fell to her knees. “Don’t be afraid. God smiles on you!” The angel spoke the astounding words gently, lovingly. “You will have a son and name him Jesus. He will be called great – the Son of the Most High God! The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and his kingdom will never end!”
For a moment there was silence, as Gabriel’s words filled the air – and Mary’s mind. “But how can this be, as I am not yet married?” Mary asked.
“God’s Holy Spirit will enfold you. Your child will be holy. Even Elizabeth, from your own family, is going to have a child, despite her age! She is now in her sixth month. So you see, nothing is impossible with God!”
Mary raised her eyes to Gabriel’s face. “I am God’s servant. Let it be as you say.” And the angel let her alone, her mind spinning with the strange words.
Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.” She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.
As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands. At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her. She understood at once what had happened to Mary.
“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said. “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeth laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”
Then, Mary speaks out extraordinary words, which in turn echo the words of Hannah when she said goodbye to her long-awaited son, Samuel (I Samuel 2) . You can read Mary’s words – the Magnificat – in my version here, and also more about Mary and Elizabeth’s time together.
It strikes me how deeply Mary entered into uncertainty, with her acceptance despite her questions – “how can this be?” She is setting out on a path that will cause her pain, but the angel’s words focus on a bigger picture, an unknowably big picture. There is a vision of what will be, the good that will come from her choice. There is tenderness and reassurance here as she asks the question, honouring her uncertainty, the impossibility of comprehending what this may mean. And there is also a gentle, tactful suggestion of a path to be taken. A path to her cousin Elizabeth – who is also caught up in this great bursting through of hope and joy into a world marked with difficulty and pain. And that path will bring her companionship with someone who will believe her, and will support her, and to whom she can offer love and encouragement in turn.
Sometimes, during Advent, we are also reminded of John the Baptist – Elizabeth’s son – and his question to Jesus when he was in prison: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” You can read the account here. What I love about this reading is the way Jesus reassures John in a way he will understand, echoing the prophet Isaiah. There is a tenderness and deep compassion here too. We can almost hear an echo of their mothers’ relationship in this question, this uncertainty, and this reassurance. Jesus then goes on to speak to those listening who may, we presume, be shaken by John’s question – or critical of him for doubting. The compassion of Jesus’ response can reassure all of us. It is hard for us to understand, and doubt and question and uncertainty are here embraced and not feared.
So our focus on joy is one where joy can be experienced despite our frailties and uncertainties. It does not come with knowing the answers, having things all neatly wrapped up, but in the courage to enter into the mysterious life of something beyond and greater than ourselves. Perhaps here is the only place it can be found.
We mentioned Isaiah above. Here is part of the passage paired with the reading about John in the Church of England readings for this week. You can read it all here.
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
Once again, we have a vision of how the world could be, restored and flourishing. A highway through the wetlands bursting with life, and even those who lack strength and steadiness will walk it.
And I call to mind COP15, the biodiversity conference currently taking place in Montreal. When so much of the beautiful life of our world is diminished, we so need this vision of restoration and abundance. We need this vision of life and joy, of a better way of being in the world. And then we need to walk into it.
We thank you for being born among us,
sharing with us what it is to be human.
we thank you for showing us a way to live,
full of grace and truth.
Light up our path, and let us walk with you.
From John 1
From Prayers and Verses