And Mary said: ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.’
As important as the Virgin Mary has always been in Roman Catholic spirituality, her reputation and stature soared further still during the papacy of John Paul II, who died in 2005. Marian piety was so important to JP that for a while he considered naming her a co-redemptrix with Jesus. That is to say, in Roman Catholic theology, she almost became an equal with Jesus in the crucial work of redeeming the entire world from damnation. That ‘promotion’ may still happen during the administration of some future pope.
For centuries, Rome has called her a mediatrix. That is to say, the Virgin Mary has the ability to hear the prayers of the faithful and to deliver them personally to God. Like an independent arbitrator between, for example, a professional baseball player and the team ownership during contract time, Mary can, like her son himself, mediate that sprawling gap between humanity and divinity. She is almost the fourth person in the Trinity, although, of course, the phrase ‘fourth person in a Trinity’ is an oxymoron.
Protestants have always been a little puzzled by this adulation, because Protestants, at least ostensibly, are more grounded in and governed by the Bible than Catholics, who place post-biblical tradition on almost equal footing with the Bible.
Protestants want to point out that after the Gospel nativity narratives, Mary almost disappears from the New Testament story. Among the four Evangelists, Luke gives her the most ink. Luke mentions her 12 times, but only in the first two chapters of his Gospel, and never again after Jesus reaches the age of 12.
Matthew mentions her five times, but only once after Jesus is two years old.
Mark mentions her twice, but only once by name.
John mentions her twice, in two very important stories, but never by name.
St. Paul, who wrote at least a quarter and maybe as much as a third of the New Testament, doesn’t seem to know her name, or at least not important enough to mention.
Still, more than half the world’s Christians practice the adoration of Mary. Here are some of her names: Mother of God; Theotokos, Greek for the Bearer of God–Mary quite literally birthed God into the world; Queen of Heaven; Notre Dame (Our Lady); Our Lady of Good Counsel; Our Lady of Perpetual Help; Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow; Our Lady of Perpetual Misery; Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. I think there’s only one of those, and it’s in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, but still…
Not very often, but occasionally, she is called Our Lady of Joy; not nearly as often as Our Lady of Perpetual Misery, but once in a while. In an admittedly far from exhaustive Internet search, I found four Roman Catholic parishes called Our Lady of Joy.
Our Lady of Joy is an apt title for her. So there they are, these two pregnant cousins, Mary and Elizabeth. One is 14 and one is 64, but they’re both pregnant for the first time, apparently via miraculous intervention, because the 14-year-old claims to be still a virgin, and as for the 64-year-old, “it had long ceased to be with her after the way of women,” as the Bible so delicately puts it.
And of course, what do you do when you’re pregnant for the first time? Well, you run to friends and relatives who are in the same condition to figure out what the heck to do next.
And so Mary and Elizabeth have a little encounter which is shared by every pregnant woman in the history of the world. They compare girths; they share complaints about morning sickness; they laugh, and they cry, and they plan for an unknown and somewhat fearful future; they share their anxieties about the pains of childbirth.
No Ultra-Sound pictures to pass around back then, so you do the next best thing: Mary puts her hand on Elizabeth’s womb, and the child leaps within her, apparently for joy.
And then Mary lets loose with the first, the most famous, and the most beloved Christmas carol of them all. It’s called the Magnificat, after its first word in Latin: “Magnify, my soul, the Lord, and rejoice, my spirit, in God my Savior. For God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely from now on, all generations will call me blessed.”
Doesn’t she sounds like a giddy, ebullient teenager? Can you see her flip her raven hair over her shoulder as only 14-year-old girls can? Can you see her fist bumps with Cousin Elizabeth? Can you hear the shrill shrieks that only a teenage girl can get right? In this story, at least, the Virgin Mary is Our Lady of Joy indeed.
Of course, perhaps she is only Our Lady of Joy because she does not know what’s coming next. Luke knows what’s coming next; Luke’s writing long after it all goes down.
Luke knows about that 100-mile walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the ninth month of pregnancy; three ten-hour days of walking.
Luke knows about the ‘No Vacancy’ signs that will greet them when they finally arrive at their destination.
Luke knows about the spare, drafty stable that will be her labor and delivery ward. Luke knows she will endure her labor in a cattle stall and lay her firstborn son in a feeding trough as his first baby crib.
Luke knows that in a moment of forgetfulness Mother Mary will almost lose her 12-year-old son in a sprawling metropolis.
Luke knows that the life of her beloved son will be conflicted and controversial and misunderstood and ultimately very, very short. Luke knows Mary will outlive her eccentric child, and is there a fate worse than that for any earthly mother?
Luke knows that for centuries Christians will remember Mother Mary as Pietà, with his beaten, bruised, bloody body in her lap and tears on her cheek. And that’s why more Christians remember Mother Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow, or Our Lady of Perpetual Misery, than remember her as Our Lady of Joy.
A minister friend sent me an email the other day. We served a church together for several years, but I moved away 25 years ago and she stayed put, so now we only hear from her once a year at Christmastime.
She makes her living as a family therapist, so she doesn’t preach much anymore. She wrote: “I’m wondering what I would preach about this Christmas Eve: The Slaughter of the Innocents continues.”
I wrote her back: “Were you thinking of those Pakistani school children?” I asked. 132 dead children. A New York Times reporter on the scene wrote: “Peshawer has become a city of small coffins.”
She responded: “Yes, I was thinking of Peshawer. And of Newtown. For two years, I have not been able to sing a Christmas carol without weeping.”
Last week for CBS News, Jane Pauley interviewed four of the teachers who were there at Sandy Hook on December 14, 2012, and survived, with all their students. Adam Lanza did most of his damage in two first-grade classrooms. Across the hall, two second-grade teachers locked their doors, but heard the whole thing, of course. Adam Lanza fired 154 shots. To the teachers, it seemed like it went on forever; in reality, it was just five minutes. One of those teachers said, “Not one of us dove under a desk for cover. We gathered the children into our arms and sang songs and read stories, to distract them from what was happening just outside their classroom.”
In January, they all came back, to a borrowed building in a neighboring township, and did the best they could to guide their shell-shocked students through the rest of the worst school year in living memory. They made me think of Mother Mary, caring for her eccentric son the best she could, through all the years of his short life.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings the Virgin Mary at the beginning of her twisting maternal journey. Luke knows what’s coming next for Mother Mary, but he places this boisterous song on Mary’s lips at the beginning, because Luke knows not only what’s coming next; Luke knows what’s coming at the end. Luke knows about the victory of life over death, the vanquishing of darkness by light; resurrection triumph over what had seemed to be the grave’s ubiquitous and invincible power. Luke knows a beauty east of the sun and west of the moon, a joy beyond the walls of this world more poignant than grief.
And so Mother Mary is Our Lady of Joy, a joy that is not blissfully ignorant of, but resiliently impervious to, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that afflict us all.
Right here, right now, my beautiful, capable young friends, a new mother and a new father, watch and wait fretfully, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, over the health of their tiny, vulnerable babies. They cling to each other, and they hold their babies close, because they know, with the joy of Mary, that nothing is impossible with God.
Right here, right now, my friend, at the apex of her powers, at the bloom of her career, at what should be the unmitigated happiness of good fortune, faces a frightful medical diagnosis.
Right here, right now, a beloved friend and colleague who has, time and time again, by his almost unearthly talent, pierced the dome of the skies to give us echoes of the music of the spheres, wrestles with an ominous illness, and we do not know if he will prevail.
But we know not only what is happening next, but also what will happen at the end, and the end is resurrection, the end is glad reunion, the end is God.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Ismail Khan “Horror Paralyzes Pakistan After a Methodical Slaughter,” The New York Times, December 18, 2014
These last two sentences are filled with words I stole from the conclusion to Frederick Buechner’s book Telling the Truth (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 90-98.