Archives, Pondering, Songs of Assent

Engaged to Gratitude

Mary is waiting. When Gabriel arrives, she is waiting to marry Joseph. She is engaged, or rather, in more hefty biblical language and meaning, she is betrothed. She is technically married to Joseph. Now she is waiting out the prescribed year of preparation before she goes to live in Joseph’s house as Joseph’s wife.

But by the time Gabriel finishes his visit to the young girl, she has entered into a second engagement. A fiat with God. A “let it be to me according to your word.” She waits in a posture of complete receptivity to God, a depth of open-heartedness that Thomas Traherne defines in this manner: “To receive without meriting is to become subject to another, to forfeit one’s liberty, and be engaged to gratitude.”

Her cousin, Elizabeth, is six months ahead in this spiritual engagement, a posture already predicted by Gabriel who tells Zechariah that he will “have joy and gladness” (Luke 1:14). In the custom of the time she has been hidden for five months, but this declaration has echoed in her wake, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days that he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people” (Luke 1:25).

Elizabeth’s song of gratitude has been gestating with John, and when Mary hastens to find her, the Holy Spirit fills the ready heart of this wise old woman, “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 1:43).

I can think of one overarching reason: Mary needs to be in the presence of a wiser, older friend who can help her navigate the singular path that she is being called to walk. If the greatest gift of Gabriel to the world is the announcement of the incarnation of God’s son, perhaps the greatest gift to Mary was his rather “oh, by the way” comment that Elizabeth had conceived. No one-even the mother of Jesus- is asked to carry such a gloriously agonizing secret as Mary’s without human support.

David F. Ford writes about wise friends in general, and I have “Elizabeth” written in my margin on that page. He writes, “Because wisdom is so much a matter of making the deep connections in the midst of the complexities of life, there is no substitute for seeing how someone does it. But more than just seeing, it is a matter of being seen. The wise see in us our potential. They listen with the ‘inner ear.’ They open us up, inspire us, energize us, allow us to blossom, and give us a sense that there is always more…The classic sign of this [kind of relationship] is an immense gratitude, increasing as the wisdom is tested and developed, together with the desire to pass it on” (The Shape of Living, 95).

These two women trip over each other in their proclamations of gratitude to God. To Elizabeth’s affirming “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord”, comes Mary’s Magnificat, beginning with “my soul magnifies the Lord”, and ending only after she has expressed her gratitude to the Lord who not only is doing great things for her, but has continually shown mercy, exalted the humble, and filled the poor with good things from the moment of his covenant with Abraham. That’s a whole lot of gratitude.

Mary will need this deep engagement to gratitude firmly wrapped around her heart as she returns to Nazareth three months later, knowing two things for sure: she is pregnant and God is good. Period. And for the rest? She is waiting.

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