“Kneel,” he says, and I flinch.
Growing up in a Chinese evangelical-ish church, kneeling was taboo unless it was to God. At my grandma’s funeral, our family had even been excused from the traditional Buddhist prostrations before her casket. Yet here is my art history teacher, already getting on his knees before the painting of Mary inside Cavalletti Chapel.
We are in Rome, in the middle of my Baroque art history class. Maybe it’s okay because we’re in a church, I thought, and gingerly squatted down.
My teacher explains that he wanted us to be in the same position as the peasants in the painting, and the worshippers who would have come to pray at this altar. We gaze upwards, looking at barefoot Mary holding Jesus in her arms. I shift and kneel, feeling the cool tiles press into my knees.
I’ve never looked at Mary like this before.
How little we know about Mary. Could we study Mary seriously, the way evangelicals do Paul and Moses? There’s not much material to work with, and most tellings or her stories highlight her importance only because she is the patriarchy’s ideal woman: both a virgin and a mother. It’s tempting to concoct whole personalities for her just to make an oversimplified point about purity or submission.
In a Bible scant on female voices, I wish Mary’s narrative was more complete. But here’s what I do notice: When Gabriel told Mary about her assignment, her response is a question: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34a). I love that Gabriel then gives her a companion in Elizabeth, whom Mary immediately hurries to share her news with. Elizabeth is overjoyed for Mary, and declares “Blessed are you” (Luke 1:42) not once, but twice. It is only now, after Elizabeth’s affirmations, does Mary rejoice, claiming in song that “generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48b).
Mary sings of the Lord’s mercy and holiness. I can’t imagine celebrating if I were Mary; I’m too insecure to even bear the judgement of other people who will condemn me for being pregnant before marriage, not to mention the responsibility of parenting a king whose kingdom is eternal (Luke 1:33).
What does it take, then, for a scary and weighty calling to become a source of joy? How will this be? Maybe it takes an Elizabeth who applauds you for believing God’s word, who has a miraculous pregnancy six months before you do, and who sees your identity as blessed even before you can articulate it. Maybe it takes women empowering women. I’ve been supported by other women in my community so often in my faith. Freshmen year, my suitemate spent an hour listening to me rant about God even when she had finals the next day. Thank you.
Mary’s life was not easy. We see her anxiety as she searches for Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:48), her marvelling at future prophecies (Luke 2:33), her presence at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies (John 19:25). There, too, she was joined by other women: Mary Magdalene, her sister, and Mary the wife of Clopias. Did she speak then?
Did she think of her song? Is it mercy to have your son hung on the cross? Is she still blessed?
No words were recorded. I am so glad she was not alone.
In what ways have you studied or thought about Mary and has it changed over time?
How has your community influenced your faith and your perspective on God’s work in your life?
Whose voices are missing within the Bible and church?
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