Preached on August 14, 2016 (the transferred Feast of St. Mary the Virgin), at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Seattle.
She has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy.
Twenty years ago this summer, when my mother was dying, my father started organizing all the papers she kept in remembrance of her children, cards and notes and certificates and report cards, letters and school pictures, a vast collection of memorabilia. In the box labeled “Stephen,” I found a card that her mother, my grandmother, had sent her a few days after my birth.
On the card her mother wrote, “This is a little something for the bambino,” probably referring to an infant outfit of some kind. And then she wrote, “We were so glad to hear that that horrible pregnancy is over.” My mother had told me that later in her pregnancy with me, I kept stepping on a nerve and causing lots of pain for her. (I was also the only one of seven children who cried when being baptized, so it seems I have an infancy narrative full of worrying omens.)
We children were occasionally a pain for our mother, and our father too, but there are no harrowing stories of trauma or loss. Other parents aren’t so fortunate. Last month our nation was introduced to Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq. She chose not to speak at the Democratic National Convention, allowing her husband to speak for both of them, because she was overwhelmed with emotion, standing in front of a huge screen bearing the image of her son.
Later, in an op-ed article, Mrs. Khan spoke of her dead son in the present tense: “Humayun is my middle son,” she wrote, “and the others are doing so well, but every day I feel the pain of his loss. It has been 12 years, but you know hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live. Just talking about it is hard for me all the time. Every day, whenever I pray, I have to pray for him, and I cry. The place that emptied will always be empty.”
“Hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live.”
Ghazala Khan sings an ancient song, the song of a mother whose heart is forever broken open by her child. She shares something with many mothers, including Mary, the broken-hearted mother of Jesus, the broken-open Mother of God.
When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, another mother, we hear her sing triumphantly, long before her heart would be pierced by the complicated, dreadful, and wondrous life of her son. Her song is filled with imagery from the Hebrew Bible, but its cadence would also sound familiar to the Greek audience of Luke’s Gospel: this is a beautifully constructed victory anthem, a lyrical, exultant manifesto. It was likely a hymn sung by many of Mary’s companions after the resurrection.
In Mary’s song, the Mighty One takes her child, Israel, by the arm, lifting him up. With that same arm, she throws the proud, powerful oppressors down, and fills her child with nourishment. The Mighty One and her child are caught up forever in a shared life.
“She has helped her servant Israel, in remembrance of her mercy,” Mary sings, and as she sings, this pregnant teenage girl becomes Israel herself. Mary knows inside her body that the Mighty One remembers her mercy, the mercy she has shown to Israel throughout history, and now powerfully in the shared life of Mary and Jesus.
Please know that while I am being unorthodox, I am not being careless when I change the gendered pronouns in this verse of Mary’s song. In Hebrew, the word rehem means ‘womb’ or ‘uterus,’ but in its plural form, rahamim, its meaning expands to refer to the abstract concept of loving mercy. In her study on sexuality and the Hebrew language, Phyllis Trible shows how, in our language about God, and specifically when we speak of the mercy of God, the womb does not remain simply an organ in the female body, and a point of connection for all human beings: it becomes a potent metaphor for God’s mercy. When we sing, “Lord, have mercy,” which we will soon do in the work of our common prayer for the world, we sing to the Mighty One, our Mother, begging her to remember her motherhood. Her mighty arm draws us close.
Perhaps instead of “Lord, have mercy,” we should imitate Mary and sing, “Mother, remember your mercy.”
But then we discover that God’s mercy is shared, this being a womb, after all. If God’s mercy is a womb, then we participate in that mercy, we remember it ourselves, we remember it in our merciful relationship with our neighbors, and we are even emboldened to say that we offer that same mercy back to God.
As a mother, Ghazala Khan understands this pattern. On the day she saw her son Humayun alive for the last time, he was heading for his deployment. She wrote, “We asked him if there was some way he could not go, because he had already done his service. He said it was his duty. I cannot forget when he was going to the plane, and he looked back at me. He was happy, and giving me strength: ‘Don’t worry, Mom. Everything will be all right.’”
“He was happy, and giving me strength.”
Mothers and children are caught up in each other. They share pain. They die at different times. They intersect and enmesh painfully. Perhaps this explains why it can be hard in our spiritual practice to differentiate Mary from Jesus, and Mary from God. For Christians, Mary can reveal the feminine nature of the divine, and while we do not ascribe divinity to the person Mary of Nazareth, we recognize God remembering God’s mercy within her physical womb, in her lifelong relationship with Jesus, and through the ages in her vaunted role as the God-bearer in our life as the Church. She is our exemplar, revealing how we, too, bear God painfully into the world, but it can be hard to tell who is bearing whom, who is comforting whom, and where the child ends and the mother begins.
We are all born of women. We are baptized into the death and resurrected life of Jesus. We sing that we are members of his Body. We will never resolve this creative tension. This is just how the womb works.
Wombs are messy. The Mighty One remembers her mercy in a way that draws us, mother and child, into a dreadful, intimate communion. And the singing mother Mary shows us how to bear that same mercy in painful, creative intimacy with our neighbor.
“Hearts of pain can never heal as long as we live,” Ghazala Khan says. God’s open heart of pain does not heal. The mother never recovers from the life-and-death relationship she has with her child. We will now sing our prayers to the broken-hearted Mighty One, holding us close with her mighty arm. We will now sing to her, begging her to help us lift all the hungry, lowly ones around us into her motherly embrace.
 Work consulted: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/13/opinion/is-god-transgender.html?_r=0
 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, cited in Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, 101.