Mary, the mother of Jesus, has inspired me to be countercultural this Christmas. I can’t stop humming “Gabriel’s Message,” a traditional Basque carol that recalls the archangel’s famous visit to the Holy Virgin. (Speaking of angelic voices, you can listen to the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles perform it right here!) This catchy carol briefly, but beautifully, sums up Mary’s unusual predicament in Luke 1:26-38:
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame;
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
“For know a blessed Mother thou shalt be,
all generations laud and honor thee,
thy Son shall be Emmanuel, by seers foretold,
most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name.”
Most highly favored lady, Gloria!
Of her, Emmanuel, the Christ was born
in Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn
and Christian folk throughout the world will ever say:
“Most highly favored lady,” Gloria!
What’s countercultural about this holiday tune? It’s so simple you could easily miss it: Most of us, even Christian believers, don’t share Mary’s basic confidence that God has a good plan for our lives.
We may vaguely believe we’ll go to Heaven — perhaps via that famed “tunnel of white light” — when we die, but in the meantime, people live as if we’re alone on a lonely planet. We try to be totally self-sufficient, make our own goals and plans, and focus on getting our desired results in a hurry. Mary’s story, as told in “Gabriel’s Message,” invites us to pause and rethink our default attitudes — especially if we identify as followers of her son. After all, Emmanuel means “God with us,” so why live life like it’s just a self-determined solo act?
Here are my takeaways from “Gabriel’s Message,” which I’d like to carry with me into 2014. I’m hoping that some of these will resonate with you:
So many of us are lost and wandering in life. We pour years of our precious time and energy into jobs, material things and relationships that ultimately do not satisfy us. Traveling through our existence on secular autopilot, we passively allow our minds to be ruled by our emotions and impulses. Our day can even be derailed by whatever random thought pops into our heads! Is it just me, or can you relate?
“Gabriel’s Message” challenges us to quit going through the motions and practice awareness. I love how Mary listens to God’s call on her life. She’s able to “believe it and receive it,” as my nondenominational Christian friends would say! Mary is not a slave or a doormat, just a humble person who trusts in the goodness and wisdom of her Lord. As we read in Luke’s gospel, Mary questions God’s surprising plan — “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” — as any sensible, discerning woman would. In the end, though, she hears Gabriel out and wastes no time in accepting a great offer: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Of course, Mary is the only person who will ever get tapped to be the Mother of God. But like Mary, each of us has our own vocation (or calling) from God, the creator and continuing source of our lives. Most of us won’t receive a special invitation from an archangel with “wings as drifted snow” and “eyes as flame.” Still, would you like to hear from God? Are you looking for that thing that will bring fulfillment and meaning in your life? Well, Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). So let’s try being like Mary — let’s decide to believe God’s word is true and get into agreement with it. Dedicate some daily time to personal prayer and reading God’s word in the Bible. If you’re Catholic, you might try going to Mass during the week sometimes, not just on Sundays.
The point is not to become more “religious.” It’s to step out on God’s word in faith — making a daily effort to show up to your personal relationship with God — and really expect something good to happen.
“Gabriel’s Message” also reminds me that it’s best to give up negative thinking and speaking about yourself, others, and situations in general. After making up her mind to do things God’s way, what does Mary do? She opens her mouth and gives God praise: “My soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name.”
Faced with what modern Catholics would call a “crisis pregnancy,” the teen mom does not refuse the baby or complain about the inconvenient timing, the disruption of her previous plans or what others (including her fiancé St. Joseph!) will think. Faith helps her find the courage to trust God in the midst of uncertainty, and we can, too.
If we want to be “highly favored” like the Blessed Mother finds herself in this carol, we should be awake and intentional. We should be attentive and open. And we should be ready to welcome God into our lives in whatever way God wants to show up. Let’s be countercultural in an individualistic society and partner up with God. It’s going to turn out much better than trying to do life on our own.