We ask ourselves several basic questions repeatedly in our lives. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?
The Church answers these questions in regard to Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus. Who is she? The Church answers, “The mother of God.”
Where does Mary come from? Nazareth, naturally. But when the Church ponders this question theologically, the Church says, “This woman—full of grace according to the angel—must have been conceived without sin.” This woman comes from God in a special way. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson notes the dogma of the Immaculate Conception has served to distance Mary from being one with the rest of us sinners. But it need not.
“The Immaculate Conception is not so much about the absence of sin as about the presence of grace,” says Johnson, “And about Mary’s vocation in salvation history. This dogma testifies, “God’s grace is more original than sin” (Dangerous Memories, 35).
Where is Mary going? The gospels don’t speak to this question. The Church answers with the Feast we celebrate today, Mary’s Assumption into heaven, a dogma that Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950, a big Marian year some of us may be old enough to remember. This feast seems new but it is as old as our faith that God raised us Jesus to new life. The Assumption celebrates that Mary, Jesus’ mother and model believer, shares Jesus’ victory over death—as we do.
The gospels have no account of Mary’s Assumption. Luke’s gospel describes Jesus’ Ascension by saying simply, “Jesus was carried up to heaven.” As I flew through great thunder clouds recently, I thought what incredible thrones clouds make. How irresistible to picture Mary rising through the clouds to meet Jesus seated on a cloud. But we’ve tamed the skies. Heaven can’t be up anymore. Today we talk of communion in God, of lasting relationship. At death we are stepping into mystery, into faith and promise.
The gospel for this feast is the incredible encounter between two pregnant prophets—between Mary and her older kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth pregnant with John the Baptist, each pregnant with hope for a world God fills with transforming grace as their bodies and words testify.
Mary the prophet walks into the scene from a 75-mile hike along the ridge paths from Nazareth in Galilee to a town near Jerusalem in Judah. When Mary greets Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. The Spirit fills Elizabeth with an ecstatic testimony that Mary is three times blessed: blessed are you among women, blessed is the child of your womb, and blessed is she who trusts God’s words will be fulfilled.
Then like Moses’ sister Miriam, like the judge Deborah after saving her people, like Hannah after becoming pregnant with Samuel, like these great women of Israel, Mary sings prophetic praise of God’s saving acts in the history. We know this song as the Magnificat, named as its first word in Latin.
What a dangerous, prophetic prayer we dare to pray when we repeat Mary’s song! She is a singer of justice and liberation. Mary magnifies God’s greatness and declares her spirit finds its joy in God, whom she calls “my Savior.” Then she speaks from her social location: she says God has looked upon her, God’s servant, in her lowliness. This is more than a humble attitude. Mary comes from among the poor. Nazareth is a small farming village where families lived in houses with dirt floors and cooked outside with animals sharing the space. Like the rest of her people she lived under triple taxation, scrapping by at the subsistence level while paying taxes to the Empire, to Herod the local king in charge, and to the temple.
Mary bubbles with enthusiastic praise for the great things God has done for her:
Holy is God’s name.
Great is God’s mercy.
Strong is God’s arm.
Her God is stronger than empire. Mary was a young teen in 4 BC when Herod the Great died and the peasants in Galilee revolted and attacked the city of Sephoris, four miles from Nazareth. It was the center for collecting taxes. Roman soldiers put down the attack and rampaged through the villages of Galilee doing violence. Mary lived through our headlines like our own today. 2,000 men were crucified in Jerusalem.
Remember when Mary and other family members come to see Jesus in Mark 3 when he begins preaching after the Baptist’s death. The gospel says his mother and family thought Jesus must be out of his mind.
The God of Mary’s prophetic song is stronger than empire.
God’s arm scatters the proud and brings down the powerful from their thrones.
God’s arm fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.
This pregnant prophet announces God’s intent to transform history for the poor, the marginalized, the lowly, the abused and violated. In his life and teaching Jesus acts out the reversal this song envisions. The apple did not fall far from the tree. This is a song so subversive that the government of Guatemala forbade its use in the 1980s.
The Mary who sings the Magnificat is not a retiring, obedient handmaid. This is a mother who calls her son into action, who notices they have no wine and organizes the servants to help. This is a prophet we might hear nudging us into action, “They have no jobs, no housing, no food.”
Mary is one of the poor. God’s preference for her is God’s preference for the poor and unprotected in our world. Mary leads an active listening life and acts on the word she hears. She calls us to partner actively with God as she did in repairing the world.
Our Mexican brothers and sisters have shown us Mary as the human face of God in Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her skin is brown like the earth. She promises to hear the prayers of a people utterly defeated by war and disease, to open a future for those without one.
We gather to celebrate her feast and take up her unfinished vision.
Delivered at St. Joan of Arc Minneapolis, MN