Hail Mary, full of grace: blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God: Pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
This was one of the first prayers my mother taught me when I was a little girl. It was probably one of the first prayers she learned.
Mary is part of our culture, not just in church, but from pop songs to sports clichés. The songwriter who wrote “Imagine there’s no heaven, …and no religion, too” was the same person who wrote, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me” And how many “Hail Mary” passes are thrown every football season?
So, why is it we are so connected to Mary? Why do we pray to her, ask her to intercede for us, to take our prayers to God? To pray with us?
This feast day celebrates Mary’s Assumption into heaven to fully be with Jesus, with God. Or we might say to join the Communion of Saints.
However, in the gospel appointed for today, the Magnificat, Mary is very solidly on earth. It is rooted in the human story
Usually, we hear it on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Do you hear it differently, here in the middle of summer, during Ordinary Time, when we’ve been focusing on Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, and the life of discipleship.
Let’s take a closer look. “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” she sings. “Surely all generations will call me blessed.” He has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, filled the hungry, sent the rich away empty… according to the promise he made to our ancestors.
It's past tense. She’s recounting the stories of her people. Why does she break out into a song about the past while putting herself into the narrative?This is the climax of a longer story; it’s Mary’s response to a series of experiences that begin with her betrothal to Joseph.
The next thing she knows, she gets a visit from the angel, Gabriel, who tells her she will conceive and bear a son. This is Good News to a young woman about to be married in a society that measure’s a wife’s worth by her ability to produce children, particularly sons.
But this won’t be just any son. Gabriel goes on. He will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High and he will be given the throne of King David. He will rule over the House of Jacob forever.
How can this be, she asks? How can I have such a son, a King, when I’m nobody – just an ordinary young woman? So, Gabriel gives her a sign so she can go and check it out. If the sign is true, Gabriel’s the real deal and she can trust what he says.
Because, you see, that’s how these stories go in the Bible. God sends a messenger, the person questions or protests, the messenger offers some assurance, and then gives them a sign to check out, so they know the messenger is truly from God.
The sign is that her cousin, who is old and barren, is pregnant. What does Mary do? She immediately goes to visit her cousin! And lo and behold, she’s pregnant. When Mary greets her, Elizabeth’s baby “leaps” in her womb and she exclaims that Mary is blessed and God’s promise will be fulfilled.
Mary breaks out in song, praising God and rejoicing not only in the remembrance of the stories of old, but in the assurance of God’s presence now, of God’s saving help in her life, here and now. God’s promises and acts of salvation are not relics of the past, but are here in the present, being fulfilled through an ordinary woman. Because that’s what God does. Now, she knows she will bear the son the angel told her about.
Mary is speaking as a prophet. She’s proclaiming Jesus’ message before he is even conceived: The Good News of the reign of God. Recalling God’s saving acts of old and proclaiming God’s presence even now, even in the midst of very troubled times. Even today.
She proclaims the Divine Purpose: a world of mercy and justice and dignity for all; a world in which all turn to look outward and see the reality of the world; the dignity of each other, the magnificence and HOLINESS of God. Even in judgment, in being “brought down,” there is salvation. The Oppressor and Oppressed don’t swap places in a never-ending cycle. Both are saved.
Of course, this is just the beginning of the story; there is so much more to Mary. She is Protector: in Bethlehem where she gave birth, in their flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree of death, in searching for Jesus when he is lost in Jerusalem, finding him in the Temple.
She intercedes with Jesus at the wedding in Cana, successfully, I might add. She is present with him all along the way, and at the cross and the tomb, in the upper room waiting for the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, and as an apostle in the early church.
And perhaps most of all, she is Mother, human, like us, like me, like you. She nursed him, dressed him, bathed him, rocked him. She was there to hold his hand as he took his first steps and heard his first words. She was the one he ran to to dry his tears when he was hurt, or his feelings were hurt.
She was the one to teach him to talk and maybe even his first prayers, how to get along with people, how to be a big brother, a good person, a good Jew, a good Son.
Maybe all that is why we talk to Mary and ask her to pray for us, to pray with us.
Ave Maria, Pray for us.