Since childhood I have loved visiting art museums and I have loved hiking in the woods. Though as an adult I have done both of these activities alone, I find them more rewarding experiences with a friend. In the company of a true friend, a painting or a mountain become whole sentences in God’s language of Love for the universe. And in the midst of that sacred conversation between friend, painting, God, and me, the most mundane observation or the silliest non sequitur, the tiniest spark of an insight or the warmth of living silence all find their place.
On my journey of faith, Mary has become that kind of Friend, and our shared experience of Jesus has become that sacred communion. He invites me into her presence with contagious joy. She points me to him with fresh insight and renewed simplicity. The Holy Spirit awakens interconnections between my life and hers, my life and her Son’s life, my life and the life of every child of God.
While I feel a warm familiarity in the company of Mary, I am none the less aware of how different we are, and how irreducibly “other” she sometimes feels to me. I am wary of presuming to understand her experience as a woman, for instance. Many pronouncements and proclamations have been made about her over the centuries, mostly by celibate men. In light of this, I echo the sentiment expressed by scholar Elizabeth Johnson: “First and foremost…It is the luminous density of her historical existence as a graced human person that attracts my attention.”[i]
Mary has many titles and roles, many of them rich with meaning in our tradition and many of them meaningful to me personally. But I sometimes imagine her laying aside these brocade mantles, embroidered with the words “Virgin,” “Mother,” and “Queen,” as I offer her a chair and prepare to listen to her, and not what I have heard or read about her. I especially lay aside the roles I may have unreflectively projected onto her, and I make myself humbly present.
The gospel of Luke is a great aid in listening to Mary. “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” the woman in the crowd exclaims. In the woman’s words we find a double blessing, a “typical Mediterranean expression that praised a mother for the fine qualities of her son.”[ii] Her language is rooted in the experience of the average woman of Jesus’ day, gesturing concretely toward the miracles of birth-giving and breast-feeding that sustain human life. It is refreshing to hear this woman raise her voice and utter a woman’s blessing.
Jesus’ response can seem troublingly dismissive of Mary and insensitive to this woman’s blessing if we take this translation at face value: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” This word translated as rather in the English of the NRSV implies a contrast, whereas it can equally be translated as an intensifier. The New Jerusalem Bible reads: “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Johnson paraphrases Jesus thus: “What you said is true as far as it goes, but there is more to be said.”[iii] The woman’s blessing is true to her experience, and it captures a facet of the truth about Jesus and about his mother, Mary. Jesus deftly affirms this, and then gently expands upon the woman’s blessing by zooming the camera lens outward. The highly specialized and individual vocation of birth-giving, breast-feeding, and parenting Jesus is indeed awesome, such as Mary fulfilled it. Even more awesome is the universal vocation of hearing and acting upon God’s word, such as Mary fulfilled it. And such as this woman in the crowd and anyone else listening to or reading Luke’s gospel can also fulfill it.
This woman’s blessing of Jesus and of Mary contains a wisdom that we are in danger of overlooking in our time and cultural context: the wisdom that comes with listening to our bodies and naming our experience as embodied beings as a starting point for prayer. A woman, in Jesus’s time or today, will not experience Jesus in the same way as a man, nor will she experience Mary the same way. A woman who is a mother will not experience Mary in the same way the woman who is a virgin might, and a woman who is neither will have an altogether different experience.
Every creature on the face of the earth has a body. In the body that is God’s gift to you, how can you bless Jesus and Mary?
How can you bless them with a blessing that is unique to your body, as it is today? Our bodies enfold many dimensions of our selfhood: our sex, our gender identity, our age, our race, our sexual orientation, muscle memory, health, weight, ancestry, libido, physical ability, wounds, trauma, addiction, and the vast range of sensory engagement. In taking human flesh by the gift of Mary’s collaboration and consent, Christ has entered into our fleshly life and made it a means of grace in all its possible circumstances and contingencies. Your body is a stem grown from the root of Christ’s Humanity. Bless His body with yours.
Blessed be our sister, Miriam, in the luminous density of her historical existence. Blessed be St. Mary: Virgin, Mother, God-bearer, and graced human person in the eternal communion of saints.
[i] Johnson, Elizabeth. Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. p.101.
[ii] Ibid. p. 247.
[iii] Ibid. p.247.
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