Mary Visits Elizabeth. Mary's Magnificat.
Growing up Catholic and female, I thought Mary was the quintessential example of who I was meant to be. Meek. Mild. Wear pastels. Say, “yes, whatever you want, God, Dad, nuns, boy bands, magazine ads, Ralph Macchio.” Be quiet. Be humble. I wanted to be so good at this. If I was really good at this, I’d get the honor of crowning Mary with a ring of flowers - an eighth grade tradition of dressing up and processing down the center church aisle and singing a song and then putting this crown of pink roses on her head. It used to be that the eighth grade class would vote on who would get the honor. Usually, the most popular girl who had mastered the art of big bangs and light hairspray was the one who’d win the prize.
But for my year, the teachers decided to change it up a bit. We’d all get a chance to “earn” the honor. One ticket with your name on it for every “Mary-Like” thing you did. That year, I crowned Mary. My mom dressed me in this pink thing with flowers and puffy sleeves and pink tights and pink patent leather shoes that didn’t really fit. I started to cry as she pinned the flower barrette in my hair. It was torture.
My earliest memory, I think, is of me sitting at the bottom of our stairs. It was January 14. I know this, because the next day was my birthday. My mom came up to me and asked, “What do you want for your fourth birthday, Jennifer?” (I was ALWAYS “Jennifer” with my mom). I told her I wanted three things:
1. I am not going to be four. I’m going to turn five.
2. I am going to get a Dukes of Hazard Big Wheel with the side brake.
3. I’m not going to be a girl anymore. I am going to turn into a boy.
And then my birthday came, and I got one out of the three things I wanted.
I honestly don’t think I was suffering from gender dysmorphia. I think I just knew, even at almost-four, that boys got to have something that girls couldn’t. Was it just the cool toys? Was it the jeans and t-shirts covered in holes and mud? Was it because He-Man was way cooler than She-ra and her stupid flying horse? Or because Wonder Woman had to run around in her bathing suit all the time? Or was it something deeper, something I just felt, some kind of unnameable secret code that got you in to the recess soccer games or the special fancy bar with the briefcases and the business cards and leather stools in the airport? Some feeling that, somehow, boys had it better than I did. And Mary’s story always seemed to reinforce this idea.
I have spent most of my life trying to be small. I was tiny as a kid. Always in the 1st percentile, sometimes not even on the growth charts at all. I still got piggyback rides in Junior High. My first drivers license says that I’m 4’11” and 75 pounds. As much as I bemoaned not fitting in with the other kids, I had a niche for myself - the small one. The tiny kid. The one everyone could pull in their wagons and had the smallest strike zone. The one who never did anything wrong and her worst grade was a B- in handwriting. I thought, maybe, if I make myself so small, so good, people would see me. I’d find my own Horton to hold me close to his ear while I called out “help!” I even joined the cheerleading squad, thinking that even though I hated the tiny skirts and the hair bows and the ridiculous tight-elbowed clapping, I’d at least be seen as I climbed to the top of the pyramid, as I was thrown into the air and as I prayed that someone would catch me on the way down.
And then I became an Evangelical Christian. And not the cool kind. And I was, finally, rewarded for being humble. (which is hilarious if you think about it…). The good Christian girls waited until they were married, stuck with their daily quiet times, met for Bible study before school, and were happy to be the last in line.
And as much as I’ve become “enlightened” and “liberated” by my Women’s Studies May Term and my Feminist Theology and my feminist husband and my boys who love purple nail polish, I’ve got this passivity and submissiveness thing so deep in my bones that even when it looks like I’m rebelling and speaking out and being ornery, it’s still calculated, suppressed, forced into a patriarchal mold. And when I think about owning our identities and speaking out without fear and embracing our belovedness, I always take the back of the line. Typically, I have believed that I am the exception.
Everyone who gets good grades is really smart, well, everyone except me.
Everyone else is attractive and unique in his/her own way, deserving of intimate relationships. Everyone but me.
All the people who pray the Jesus prayer and give their hearts to Jesus will be saved, except me.
If you work hard and you put your mind to it, you can do anything. For everyone but me.
All sins are forgiven, unless of course, you’re me and you’ve thought the things I’ve thought.
Sure. God loves us all… all of us except me.
Grace is for the drunks and the addicts and the broken and the muddled and the manipulative, and the lonely, all of them except me.
So often, folks remind me of things that I have preached. They say that I need to take a dose of my own medicine. And I tell them, “don’t you see? What I preach is true for everyone —everyone, but me.”
And anyway, even if I’m not the exception, I could never admit it. That’s not humble. That’s not meek and mild. That’s not Mary.
Yesterday, Jonah kept track of how many times he burped throughout the day. He made it to 30. And that got me thinking about all the things I do on repeat all day. And I wondered how many times I say “sorry” throughout the course of a day. How many times I take on the full responsibility of everything that is bad or wrong or hurting or confusing. How many times I refuse to believe that I might be wanted, that back in the day, I could have been a “catch,” that someone might want to buy me a drink, or that I had enough smarts to learn all the chemistry and bone parts and get that degree and become the pediatrician who saves the poor kids in Rwanda.
It’s always bugged me that in Mary’s song, it’s like she’s boasting. “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” She’s not being very humble about her humility. “You’re all going to think I’m the greatest!,” she says, “Look at me! God has done great things for me and I “magnify” the Lord - I can change how all of you see God, I can expand that box you’ve all placed God in.” She’s not gazing at the floor, averting eye contact and continuing with the wash. She is shouting that she is blessed. The Greek there is “makarizo” - which means “to bless,” sure, but literally, it means “to make long, to extend.” Mary is a fourteen year old peasant girl who has been made long, extended, expanded, made bigger, and singing out, “I am going to take up space!”
This isn’t what Mary should say. The meek and mild mother of God should not assume her greatness among the generations. The powerless and passive Hebrew peasant girl shouldn’t sing aloud about the condemnation of the powerful and belovedness of the weak.
You can’t say that, Mary. You can’t say that all generations will call you blessed. You can’t draw so much attention to yourself. That’s so…bold…so loud…so assured.
You should at least pretend that you’re the passive empty vessel, at least to appease the patriarchy, at least to convince the guys that you’re on their side so you can infiltrate them from the inside.
You should say that you’re so humble, so much a pile of nothing, such a passive receiver, that God chose you to be Jesus’ mother. You’re supposed to be small. You're supposed to be quiet. You’re supposed to wear a light blue veil and pray as you sweep the dirt floors and live with grace and gratitude even in the midst of an oppressive government regime.
You’re supposed to give birth in a stable and not complain and never take the last donut and always refill the coffee pot. You should always be the one who settles the restaurant tab when you go out to eat with the Nazareth gang. You should let the boys answer the questions. You should never say anything unless you’re sure it's what's best for everyone. You should suffer. You should degrade yourself. You should think that the only reason you got the job or the degree or the relationship is because there was no one else around to do it. You should believe what the boys tell you about your body while running on the playground and around the track in gym class. You should hide your sexuality and suppress your creativity and teach yourself to say the right things and accept the world as it is. Right? Shouldn’t you? Isn’t that you, Mary?
Good lord. It’s as if I’d never read the Magnificat before. It’s as if I thought Mary and Elizabeth were whispering about “being in the family way” over tea in some 1950s sitcom and not shouting with loud cries and singing exuberant songs about God.
But that’s not what’s here. That’s not her song. Her song is a song about how she is not the exception to the long line of Hebrew greats who fit the bill. She gets to hang out with the big guns, she becomes the godfather, she’s Don Corlione, she makes, or maybe accepts, the offer you can’t refuse - the offer to bear the incarnated one. She’s not the overlooked one. She’s not small any longer. She’s taking up space. And that’s how God wants it. That she is exactly who she is supposed to be — without apology. She is made great. She has a voice. She has brave words to say against the oppressors of her time. She proclaims that she is who she is because that is how God made her. And she claims that this is good.
And I know we’re not Catholic. Please don’t mistake this as me saying that Mary is some kind of demigod or should be worshiped or added to the Trinity to make the…quadity? (Not that the Catholics even THINK this...) But I am saying that even today, even in our supposedly “liberated” culture, we have missed her. We’ve overlooked her. We’ve forgotten that she’s kind of a big deal. She's a badass. She’s so exceptional because she shows us all that none of us are the exception. None of us gets put in the corner. None of us is the wallflower. Not one of us gets to say that everybody else gets the love and the grace and the power, except me.
And then she becomes the punk with the black eyeliner and the neck tattoos and the torn jeans and the anarchist agenda.
She says, “Because of me - because of how God made me - everything is going to be flipped upside down. Because I’m the mother of Jesus, God has scattered the proud and brought down the powerful from their thrones. And God has lifted up the lowly, fed the hungry, and sent the rich away with nothing but lint in their pockets.”
Mary is owning her power. Power given to her by God. She’s proclaiming a world changed. She’s positioning herself in history, in the long story of the Israelites full of powerful kings and warriors with their swords and their armies and sexual prowess and long hair. This is Mary refusing to deviate from that gift of God’s strength and power and grace and greatness. She’s not the exception to the history of powerful men; she is the culmination. She is the theotokos, the “God bearer” - the fleshy one who brings holy flesh into the world.
And I don’t think it is just the women in this room who feel the need to channel a little Mary in their lives.
We need Mary’s power today. In our lives, in our government, in our churches. We need to embrace the boldness of this song. Not the acquiescing passive one we were taught as kids. Not the false narrative that is meant to keep us in our place and in line and thinking that we have no power. We are not the exception. We are not the only nobody. We do not have to be small. Because if an unmarried pregnant punk of a peasant girl can be great, so can we. That is a gift God gives us all through the birth of Christ. You are not the exception to God’s love and grace and power and belovedness, no matter your place in life, no matter where you were born, no matter if you’ve spent your whole life trying to get small. You are not the exception.
Just remind me of this when I want to get small again, when I want to cower before folks I think are better than I am, when I don’t trust my own instincts, or when I let someone else take control of my feelings. Help me know that “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” Can you remind me that I am not the exception? And if you can’t, it’s ok. Because there’s always Mary.