"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
I am in my seat with my seat belt buckled and the tray top in front of me upright and locked. All my belongings are stowed: my suitcase in the overhead bin and my backpack under the seat in front of me. We have finally been cleared for take off. I hear the engines rev up and in a moment we are off. Faster and faster we go until I feel the front wheels lift off the ground. And at once two things happen: I think to myself: "Here I go dangling myself up in the clouds again!", and I do something I have come to do on every flight: I take my hands that have been sitting in my lap and I turn them palms up toward the sky.
I admit it—I’m afraid of flying. And so right at the moment when the plane leaves the ground, my instinct is both to open my hands in a kind of personal surrender and, for a moment, to pray for all of us on the plane as we put ourselves in the vulnerable position of having nothing underneath us to catch us should we fall.
Our gospel for today are the words of one who at the time had little if anything underneath her to catch her should she fall. Our speaker, of course, is the teenage pregnant Mary who has hastened on her own to see her cousin Elizabeth with some startling news.. But before Mary can tell her cousin her news—the story of her strange angelic visit and her pregnancy—Elizabeth greets her in a way that tells Mary and us that Elizabeth already knows what Mary has come to say.
In response to this greeting, Mary sings a song about God: God, Mary declares, works through reversal, lifting up those who have no money, no resources and nothing underneath them to catch them should they fall. And God casts down those who are flying high under their own power and hoisted up above others through their their own might and their own resources.
In saying these things, Mary speaks of a God the Jewish people know intimately but from time to time have forgotten, for in their history they have turned aside from wild charismatic prophets for powerful kings and they have forsaken ragged movable tents holding the tabernacle of God for large, fine temples. But through it all, somehow the theme has persisted, the one expressed in Mary’s pregnancy and in the Magnificat she sings: it is in and through and from the low places, the empty places, the obscure, the hidden and forgotten places that God chooses to enter human life.
This is perplexing for us, for if you and I were honest, we would admit to ourselves that we would do just about anything to steer away from lowliness, to fill our emptiness and to escape being obscure or hidden or forgotten by the world. And so Mary’s song startles us because she tells us that these very places are the places where God chooses to dwell—and not just dwell but move, remake, upend, and transform.
And so I wonder: where is something lowly being lifted up in your world? Where, by the power of God, is something or someone empty or hungry being filled? Where is God moving you to remember something obscure or hidden or forgotten and bring it into the center of who you are and what you are about?
Or another set of related questions: Where is something flying high in you or in our world that is being brought low? Where is something in you that was sated but that is being led into hunger again? Where is God dissasembling what you or others thought was the center to make room for the obscure the hidden or the forgotten?
The Virgin of the Sign, the new icon of Mary we’re blessing today, is a visual expression of a God who lifts up the lowly, fills those who are empty and remembers the obscure, the hidden and the forgotten. The icon, called the “icon of the sign,” takes its name from the words of the prophet Isaiah. "The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (i.e. God with us)”. Unlike our Lady of Vladimir icon which focuses on the tender intimacy between mother and child, this icon focuses on Mary as the God bearer as the one who in her obscurity and peasant lowliness became the sign that God had not forgotten his promises to his people to stay with them. And so in this icon Mary stands clearly at the center with the Jesus within her, with the letters above on either side of him reading Jesus Chirst and the letters on either side of her reading Mother of God.
But this is not all the Virgin of the Sign icon is about. For both Mary and the Babe are looking directly at us, Mary in prayer with her arms lifted up beside her, hands open and palms turned toward the heavens and the babe within her, in a gesture clearly depicted as the Son of God. And so here she is in many ways doing what I instinctively was did on my flight this last week: open-handedly surrendering to God and at the same time lifting us, those looking at her, up to this very God—praying for and with us that we too might come to an experience of God working in and through us in with all the mystery and interiority of pregnancy.
This last week some of us gathered for our annual daily Evening Prayer Services that focus on Mary. As it turns out these services are pretty emotional for some of us. To be fair, some of us come to this experience just plain hungry to pray the Evening Office together in that by the time we get to this part of the summer we’ve been on hiatus from Morning and Evening Prayer for over a month. But this alone does not explain the tears that come for some as they pray this Marian Office together. No, it’s something more, something that our new icon is at least in part expressing.
Being more intentionally with Mary, unabashedly asking for her prayers, asking for her uplifted outstretched hands with palms turned upward toward heaven on our and the world’s behalf, is in my experience so shot through with surrender and heart that it’s difficult to get through it. For she is the mother of all mothers, the sister of all sisters. She is vulnerable, even defenceless and yet powerful. She is one of us and yet set apart. She is here and now and yet lives in eternity.
In some special and particular way that resonates with us, she knows the path of vulnerability that describes so much of what it means to be alive. And she knows what it means to house the gradual and mysterious growth of God within us in the midst of such vulnerability.
And so today on our celebration of her feast day, look upon her gaze, the gaze of one who carries God within her. Look upon her hands turned up toward heaven in loving surrender to and acceptance of that God as well as in prayer for the world she looks upon. Look upon her and count your life and its circumstances as a part of that world she is praying for.
But don’t stop here. Call upon her with your lips or in your heart. Let go of the fear that you will somehow turn her into a God that will do you harm. Let go of the fear that she will either overwhelm you or abandon you as your own mother did or as you feared your own mother would.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
For she is:
Mother of God
Disciple of Christ
Woman in Waiting
Splendor of Pentecost
Hope of the Poor
Strength of the Marginalized
Relief of the oppressed
Sign of the God’s Nearness
Sign of God’s Mercy
Sign of God’s Fruitfulness.