“My soul magnifies the Lord…”
When I was growing up, the nuns who taught me religion made much of Mary’s faith. Her greatness, they said, lay in her obedient disposition to believe the angel’s message and accept unquestioningly the mysterious assignment to be the virgin mother of the Lord. She may have wondered aloud to the angel how such a miracle was to happen, but she never doubted that it could.
Mary’s faith was what we used to call “blind faith” before we became more sensitive to the fact that blindness does not mean you cannot see. In the religious world of my childhood, blind faith was the best faith you could have. We knew none of us had it, or would ever have it, at least not in the measure of Mary; but we were brought up nonetheless to be fundamentally biased towards belief.
No matter how much I now cherish the practice of doubt and question, I am still persuaded that there is a lot to be said for a second-nature reflex of faith, an instinctive willingness to give God the benefit of the doubt. I give my ancestors in the faith the benefit of the doubt too, which is why I still love the ancient creeds and keep them as the bedrock of my faith. After all, just because people lived in the past doesn’t mean they were naïve. Or stupid. This benefit of the doubt is not blind faith, but it’s my way of saying “yes” to things that lurk in a blur at the corner of the heart’s eye, waiting to clarify in time.
That said, however, I no longer admire Mary’s blind faith. I admire her perceptive faith—her capacity to perceive clearly a promised but (for most of us) still blurry world of divine justice and righteousness. And I admire her ability to inhabit that world now—to act and speak according to promised new conditions that have yet fully to appear. I admire Mary for her religious and moral imagination.
This wondrous imagination of hers is not the fantasy of a utopian dreamer, an escapist or a Pollyanna. She is, the gospel tells us, “lowly,” and the Greek original clarifies the meaning: not “humble” so much as “poor.” Dirt poor. Mary does her imagining the way dirt poor people always do—“amid ten thousand losses,” as Patty Van Ness puts it; or, as Kate Layzer writes, “amid the hard griefs of this world, its bitterness and need.”*
Mary imagines and inhabits God’s new world while embedded in the mystery of human privation, her own and her people’s. Perhaps that’s the only place where such imagination is even possible.
Like her singing sisters before her—Hannah, Judith, Deborah, Miriam—she intones a song whose verses leave no room for doubt: this hard world is real and it is miserable–and it is not all there is to say or see. Its suffering and injustice are horrific, and they are decidedly not the will of the God of “swirling joys.” And so her imagination sings about tyrants dethroned, poor bellies full, mercy extended to the umpteenth generation. But note how she sings of these things with thanks and praise: it is as if God had already done all the rearranging that the world so desperately requires. That’s a holy, and a true, imagination.
It’s a fierce and dangerous set of verses, this Magnificat. I’m told that an Anglican bishop once prohibited missionaries from reading it in the presence of the local chiefs, knowing that its implications would not be lost on them. It would be news all too welcome among them, and the Church couldn’t stand to lose what it stands to lose.
You’d be taking your life in your hands to use Mary’s song as the opening prayer of a board meeting of most Fortune 500 companies too (or in a meeting of the president’s cabinet.) The gift of a new world and the sway of its just Ruler is not receivable everywhere. It is not even seeable in some places. It takes a lot of imagination. But Mary is undaunted. She is pregnant with imagination. And pregnant with a child. And like most pregnant women, she believes that a new world is being knit together right in her own womb, and that her own child will be the one who makes all the difference.
You don’t have to be a woman, much less a pregnant one, to imagine what Mary imagines. But you can’t imagine anything at all—anything true, that is— if you can’t see beyond your own privilege to confess that things in the world are not the way God intends.
You can’t imagine anything true at all if you can’t contain your getting and spending so that you can receive the vision of the Day of the Lord with an uncluttered heart.
You can’t imagine the new thing God has in store if you don’t regularly feed your soul with the unspeakable misery and ineffable beauty of the world and all its creatures, putting yourself regularly in the company of real suffering people and real amazing joy.
You can’t imagine a new way of life if you try to go it alone without the generations of the faithful alongside you, without a community with whom you faithfully practice imagining, a community within which are told and retold a thousand thousand times the stories of God’s dream—a dream, as Will Willimon writes, “larger than the desperation of any of our particular moments.”
And if you cannot imagine, you cannot hope. If you cannot hope, you are left to your fear. And if there is only fear, you know where that leaves you, where it leaves all of us, and where it has always left the world.
So this Advent, wait and watch, ponder and pray, light candles and do whatever you do; but more than anything else, dare to imagine. Imagine a poor woman named Mary, singing. Imagine a baby leaping in a cousin’s barren womb. Imagine an infant surprise wailing in a manger under shooting stars. And see that old fox, Herod, jittery and wobbling on his lofty throne.
–Visitation, African Gospel Mafa
*Text of the Cantata, “Advent,” by Patricia Van Ness, Composer-in-Residence, First Church in Cambridge, Congregational (United Church of Christ).
Amidst ten thousand losses and swirling joys
At this very instant
On this sacred Earth
Come to us,
Beauty, Wisdom, Goodness, Peace,
Solace, Grace, Counsel, Love.
Through the open archway this cold night
Air, rich as gold, flows.
Fine snow glistens on our faces.
Every exquisite crystal blossom
Is a covenant of your love
Told a thousand thousand times.
*Text of the hymn, “Called from the World to Mystery,” by Kate Layzer
Called from the world to Mystery, from mystery to love,
we hold the hope within ourselves of certainties above;
and you, O God, who plant this hope in us and scatter it like seed
amid the hard griefs of the world, its bitterness and need,
have sent us as your laborers in fields sown by your grace–
the harvest and the harvesters caught in divine embrace–
for you in Christ held nothing back; may we likewise be free,
until when we have poured out all, we merge with Mystery.