Readings: Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56
In the last few years I’ve been very taken by one line in the Gospel we celebrate for the Solemnity of Mary’s Assumption: Mary set out to the hill country in haste. It’s a verse of transition and speaks of movement, just as the image of “assumption” is one of movement and transition.
I’m not thinking of allegory and symbolism but of the trajectory of Mary’s calling. Doesn’t this verse spring from the Annunciation to Mary without a break?
I think it’s significant that the first reaction of this teenage girl to her extraordinary motherhood is to set out into the hills to be with her cousin Elizabeth. She doesn’t worry about her condition–she just goes. Yes, she goes to give help but also goes to receive understanding. Admitting the need to be understood–and not just tough out being misunderstood on her own–really impresses me. Mary does not just presume that God is with her; she knows that God will work with her through other people. Even the most unlikely people, like an older woman stigmatized for being barren.
Mary is not too proud to admit she needs help and understanding. When I was her age, I wanted the understanding, but I usually wasn’t ready to admit it, nor could I admit that I needed help! I wanted to do it my way. Mary knows better.
I say this because, for several years I’ve been trying to perceive the difference between the Annunciation to Zechariah and the Annunciation to Mary. It’s not in the words; their dialogues with the Angel Gabriel are similar; it has to be in the attitudes. Effectively, I believe, Zechariah’s question protests, “This can’t be!” and Mary’s asks, “OK, how are we going to pull this off?”
Zechariah was confident that he understood the world, how God operates and what can’t possibly happen. He’s a priest and he’s exhibiting the worst symptoms of clericalism. Over the next nine months he’ll change and exhibit the best of being a priest: humbly demolishing the idol he’s made of what he knows about God and communicating his encounter with the living, mysterious God. But that cost him his narrow expectations that made reality so simplistically clear.
Mary seems to be unfettered by expectations about God in her life. She’s not afraid to be wrong–Mathew’s Gospel tells us that Joseph thought she was wrong and would terminate their betrothal. She’s ready, instead, to find a way, even if she has to climb uphill to achieve it.
I’m not suggesting that her life unfurled easily, inevitably, like an acorn growing into an oak. It was a uphill climb. Luke’s Gospel tells us, she pondered these things in her heart. That means she didn’t understand what was happening to her or why, so she reviewed and retold her story to herself. And she kept going. She could keep going because she did not confine God to any expectations. Perhaps that’s why we theologize about her Immaculate Conception; her life was no easier than mine, but she was always receptive. I, like Zechariah, have to learn the hard way, the humiliating way. But both ways end in a canticle of joy.