God comes into the world celebrated by an unwed mother and an old infertile woman, the least of these, at least at those times. Two individuals who would have been nearly invisible then and certainly the subject of gossip and shame. Today as we are asked to ponder love and what our scriptures tell us about love and loving we begin with two women who likely would have struggled with love, who had reason to feel unlovable, excluded, unworthy, ashamed.
In that time and culture a woman’s central role was to provide a trustworthy lineage, heirs who were their father’s sons, a legacy that could be trusted. Unwed mothers and infertile wives need not apply. Elizabeth would have known a lifetime of failure, Mary would have been subject to honor killing if her fiancee or family so chose. They were the most unworthy in the eyes of society. Yet both women found themselves regarded by God in an unexpected way, and this changed everything.
My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary sings, for he has looked upon the humble state of his slave, and now everyone, everyone, will call me blessed. Such is the power of being seen, truly seen, by love; to be regarded by God and seen as something you never thought possible. When you have been taught you are worthless and a failure but God says you are blessed; when you have been filled with shame and God says that God’s very self will come into the world-through you! Is it any wonder Mary sang? Is it any wonder that her song was filled with reversals, the weak made strong, the mighty brought low, the hungry fed while the rich leave empty handed. Her whole world had just been turned upside down.
The Stoic philosophy which was so popular when Jesus walked the earth, and still is in some places, insists that the body is the source of evil, that one needs to rise above it, to be objective and not swayed by physical or emotional involvement.
Then Jesus comes, an embodied God who delights in good wine, who shares fine food with good friends, who hangs out with prostitutes and con men, with traitors, God who simply melts with love unashamed. This was not a god who rose above messy emotional and physical entanglements but who was born of a woman, in a barn, and who died a brutal death on a cross. It was all very messy, very involved.
We too, are called to engage with the world, to be subjective and be in love, not to distance ourselves and objectify all that is, including ourselves but to be subjects in love, to be subject to love, to be involved in all the mess.
Even the early church struggled with this. Even the later church struggled with this. I think the church probably still does. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a treatise on the advantages of virginity which insisted that even the best marriage, the most loving and well put together, was a distraction from God. All that raising of children, loving one’s spouse, the need to provide, if you could just let go of all of that, it would be easier to focus on God, he said. Forget watching your children grow or play. Forget the sweet touch of a loved one’s hand on your cheek, let it all go. One of the first on record to say it’s just better not to be involved. This doesn’t concern you. But it concerned Jesus, it concerns God, who did not, does not stay separate or distant from all this mess but gets right in there, in the midst of the mess.
Stoicism established a hierarchy which privileges the spiritual, the intellectual at the expense of the physical and emotional but this hierarchy isn’t Christian. Jesus shows us a very different way of being, one which is engaged, emotional, involved, invested not only in great abstract ideas, which are beautiful, but in actually making people well, in healing and attending to their broken bodies, broken relationships, and broken hearts.
He does not stay distant from them or us in the midst of pain and brokenness but joins us, weeping, hungering, even dying. He does not take a free pass straight to the, “I won’t care and it won’t hurt,” This is not the unchanging and unchangeable god but one who instead dives right into the messy, muck of a well loved, well lived life. It is messy, there is no withholding; there is only love, full, complete, subjective love. This is what it means to be regarded by God, to be gazed upon with fierce attention which sees you and loves you, exactly as you are. It means God is involved with you. Loves you. Not in some abstract indefinable way, but in a real, tangible, touchable way.
So is it any surprise that when God regarded Mary, as she felt it in every part of her being, something new was born, changing her life forever. Mary had been seen in the very depths of her being, in all of her low-class, socially unacceptable being and God looked at her and saw more. In that moment Mary discovered that she was named and claimed forever by God and she got brave. She got Brave! In that moment a revolutionary was born. Mary regarded by God, seen, examined, admired, appreciated, regarded, held. Seen in depth, in the depths, all of her humanity, her struggles and her brokenness, all of her beauty, strength and wisdom, all of it, seen, regarded, held in God’s gaze, and loved. It was personal just as it is for each one of us.
We need to add the spiritual discipline of attention to self-mastery. We want the mastery because we want control. It’s the way it’s always been, we like control. It makes us feel safe. But the discipline of attention, of being present to another with love and justice, this is out of our control. It changes us and it scares us. But it is by being at the disposal of another that we are drawn out of ourselves (ekstasis) and this drawing out is wild and uncontainable, it’s ecstatic and mystical. It’s plain old scary.
You might feel for the stoics, I know I do. After all, being in love and vulnerable is scary stuff. Love has a way of shattering all our preconceived ideas about who we are, what’s important, and what might be. It might feel better to put all that stuff away, not feel, not be vulnerable. To just know the rules and abide by them and one can be certain of success. Just give me a formula I can follow. Just don’t get caught up in the messiness of love. It ruins everything. It draws you into situations which you don’t want to be in. It breaks your heart and muddles your thinking. It’s a wonder that we can speak at all intelligently about something that blows our lives up as much as love does. It is easy to understand why so many want to avoid it, control it, contain it, keep it proper, but it just won’t be contained or explained. It won’t be proper.
Just as it was for Elizabeth. That surprising moment, when you’ve given up all hope that you might have some worth, some value, some meaningful contribution to give and someone sees you and calls you out. Yes you. Called out. You have something to give, to offer the world, a legacy that you might leave behind. Something good and unique, a gift that is uniquely you. That moment when you get the message that God isn’t done with you yet.
When Elizabeth saw her niece appear, pregnant and unwed, we might have expected Elizabeth to look at her and judge her, shame her, kick her to the curb, but this doesn’t happen, she steps outside of her culture and praises Mary. It’s startling really, that Elizabeth sees more in Mary, that she is able and willing to confirm for her the good thing that is happening. There is some part of us that needs this confirmation, that needs to be seen.
And then Mary bursts into song. This is the great reversal of fortune, not to be a disgraced and ostracized teenager or a shamed infertile woman, both to be forgotten and dismissed in the course of history but to be eulogized, memorialized, remembered forever as blessed, as the most fortunate of women. Our God is a god who reverses the fortunes of those who are lost, in pain, broken, who have failed and missed the mark, who are covered in shame and regret. Our God is a god who restores all of us to a wholeness that we could never know alone.
The incredible thing, the astonishing thing, is that we are called to participate in this great reversal, to see one another through the eyes of love, to regard one another as God does. We are invited into a spiritual practice of gracious, loving attention. To look with intention, seeking the child of God in every broken or hurting person, every self-righteous or proud person, in everyone.
We are called to see one another with the eyes of love and mercy. To look upon everyone we meet with kindness, to be attentive to them, to see them with a loving and just gaze that they might become who they really are, who they were created to be.
This is the gift of love, to see with eyes wide open, all the hurting and broken pieces of a person, of life, and to not withdraw one’s gaze until love has filled in every cracked, broken piece. Do not withhold yourself, do not look away. Look with the eyes of love and participate in the great reversal; join God in God’s work of restoration, actively participate in the mission of God. Risk being fully vulnerable and letting love change you, blow apart your self concept, change your world, to be a new creation and nothing will ever be the same again. Know that while loving others will change them forever, it will also change you.
We have never been called to a personal security at the cost of love but rather to be changed, transformed, made new through a self-giving love of others. This is the way that Jesus came that we might see, that we might follow on this way. It feels like losing, losing control, losing safety, security, losing certainty, but there is something beyond this, a reversal of fortunes, for those who seek to save their lives will lose them. Those who give, who love freely and fully and who allow this to change them, to change their lives, their selves, will be a new creation.
And then we too will join Mary singing:
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, one really good look. God regarded me,
and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
His mercy flows in wave after wave over those who are in awe before him. All your breakers and tides have rolled over me.
He bared his arm and showed his strength, but his strength was not what we expected, all our preconceived ideas are blown apart, our lives are shattered and rearranged. We are held eternally in a loving gaze that knows justice and mercy, that restores us, that heals all wounds, that won’t let us fall. Just like He promised.
And then we will look with the eyes of love, and we won’t stop loving, not ever.