This is an interesting day and an interesting set of readings. For those non-Catholics who might be reading this, this is a day when we’re all (Catholics, that is) supposed to go to church; it’s a special day when we commemorate Mary, the mother of Jesus, being taken up into heaven, body and soul. Kind of an unusual way to get there; but then, we are told, she was something of an unusual woman.
Take today’s reading from the gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verses 39 to 56. Even if you’re allergic to religion on every scale, this is just an interesting story, theology and dogmas aside. Here you have this young girl, by most modern accounts around 15, and she suddenly gets pregnant in circumstances which could be very difficult for a young, as yet unmarried girl of that time. But she’s happy because she has this spiritual insight about the baby she’s carrying. But, let’s stick with the human side of this story. She’s young, she’s engaged but not yet married, and she’s newly pregnant. At the same time that she hears she’s expecting, she also finds out that her cousin, who is well beyond child-bearing years, has also got a bun in the oven. Now, I suppose that at this point I ought to give my impression of pregnancy. I’ll never forget flying out to visit my sister some 11 or 12 years ago, she must have been 6 or 7 months pregnant with her 2nd son, and in spite of carrying a little person around inside of her she showed up at the airport to pick me up, all smiles, all made up and looking so composed. And I was taken aback; I couldn’t help thinking, if I were pregnant, I’d crawl up in bed as soon as I found out and would just call out for ice cream. I wouldn’t set foot outside the house for 9 months, and maybe even beyond the birth, just to take a few months to recover.
So here’s this young thing, just finds out she’s pregnant, and then hears that her old cousin is also pregnant. I would think that it would have been great for Mary to write a letter or find out if anyone in her town was going to her cousin’s town and maybe have them pass along her congratulations. But that’s not enough for Mary. She hops on the back of a donkey and heads out into the dusty byways of first century Palestine to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. That astounds me; just the human devotion of hopping on the back of a donkey for a couple of days with a baby on the way, just to visit your cousin.
Now, the scene which unfolds when Mary gets to Elizabeth’s house is sweet, although I think it could come off as a bit cloying to some. So let me unwrap it a bit. Mary gets to the house, she’s doubtless tired, maybe a little nauseous from carrying a baby on a donkey, and she walks inside and calls out for Elizabeth; Elizabeth, hearing Mary’s voice, feels her own baby jump in her womb. Now, for a long time I thought that was some miraculous thing, that at the sound of Mary’s voice the still-incubating John would jump up. Well, as I thought about it tonight it occurred to me that babies, so I am told, jump around all the time; they kick, too. So Elizabeth calls out the famous line, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” After another line or two from Elizabeth, Mary then launches into her own soliloquy, a famous poem known as the Magnificat, from the Latin version of the first word in her monologue. I have heard that her response is likely a popular poem or song from that time period; I like that, because it just makes it a bit more human to me to think that Mary was quoting, rather than thinking she just walked around making gorgeous speeches. So, here’s my interpretation. You’ve got two women, relatives; and clearly, there’s a lot of affection between them. And they’ve both lived their entire lives in a very conservative religious context, in a society where science hasn’t really been introduced. So, in order to make sense of new experiences, they couch things in religious and miraculous terms. And both of these women are experiencing their first pregnancies, each in rather surprising circumstances. Elizabeth, because she’s very old, and Mary, because she’s very young. And they want to get together, to support each other, to lean on each other, probably to compare notes and laugh and cry together.
So why am I bringing this up? Well, it struck me in a new way tonight; it struck me because I was listening to it through the lense of the second reading, where we are told that, at the end of all things, Jesus will have “destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for ‘he subjected everything under his feet.’’ We Christians talk a lot about eternal life, and the life to come, and all this about life. And we are told that Christ came that we might have life, and have it to the full. But what does that mean? I’d always imagined that when I die I’d get a robe and a harp and all that, and I’d go to heaven and would sit around eating ice cream all day and never getting fat. But is that what it means to have life to the full?
I’ve been having a lot of intense conversations with some of my friends lately, talking about bad habits and patterns of selfish thinking, and so I’ve been especially conscious of egotistical thoughts lately. And I’m realizing that somehow, in the midst of trying to be a good husband and brother and son and uncle and coworker and friend, I’ve got to strike a balance between serving others and taking care of myself. For much of my life, I thought that the way to do that was to neglect myself and try to save others. But all that did was make me unhappy and useless because no matter how hard I tried, people just didn’t want to accept my brand of saving, and then I’d get cranky and pout because I had been neglecting my own needs. And I’m coming to realize that being focused on others is very different from saving them, and that the first step to being an effective servant is identifying my own needs and meeting them, but taking care to distinguish wants from needs. I’m reminded of a line from the novel Middlemarch: “And certainly, the mistakes that we [...] mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.” And that’s what I’m coming to realize; when I try to plan my own time, my own life, on my own, then I tend to make a big mess of things. And so, when I’d found out my cousin was also pregnant, I’d have said, “that’s nice,” and kept on about my business. And while I would have been comfortable at home, I would have been missing out on a chance to experience something with a loved one. And so I’m learning not to idolize my comfort; because if I’m to have any hope of eternal life, or even a full life, then I must lean on the hope that Jesus brought. And if I’m to hope that he will offer me the promise of eternal life, well, as it says above, he must “destroy every sovereignty and every authority and power.” And that means, really, that I have to let my own power, my desire for control, be destroyed. I have to recognize that I need other people, and quit being so doggedly self-reliant. I need to be willing to change patterns of behavior and give up comforts, so long as what’s being offered in return is real growth. And I’m finding that, for me, the ultimate sign of growth is the increased ability to care for other people.