Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
WHAT IS YOUR image of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Who is Mary for you? As we celebrate today the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our mother, I ask you, which image of Mary is accurate: Is Mary like Rizal’s Maria Clara – icon of beauty, genteel, ladylike, mahinhin, or is she more like Wonder Woman, the Amazon Princess—a warrior, a heroine, a feminist? When you imagine Mary, what do you see? Is she like a Queen Elizabeth or a Tandang Sora or a Gabriela Silang? Mary is the patroness of the Ateneo, but are the royal blue, fit for a queen, and the pure white, which we sing about, really her colors?
Our answer to those questions should bring us to a journey back to, no, not the people and times of the Gospel scene today, but even earlier than that. Let us time travel to the 14th Century BCE or before the common era. What was happening at that time? It was the time of the Old Testament Exodus. Remember, for centuries, the Jews were slaves of the pharaohs of Egypt. Their colonial rulers were ruthless – they subjected the Jews to forced labor, to poverty and oppression and many Jews were killed at the whim of their superiors. In this darkest hour in Israel’s history, many lost hope and lost their faith. Except one woman. And her name was Miriam.
Miriam, in Hebrew, has two root words: mar which means bitterness and meri which means rebellion. Indeed, Miriam tasted the bitterness (mar) of the suffering and oppression of her people, and against this, she led a rebellion (meri), a silent revolution. The Jewish Talmud cites many instances of Miriam’s rebellious streak. First, when the Pharaoh declared that all male infants should be killed, Miriam, who was only six at that time, and Yocheved, her mother who was midwife to the Egyptian hierarchy, were at the palace at that time. Like a muscle reflex, Miriam blurted out something like, “Woe to this proud man, when Yahweh gets his vengeance!” If not for her mom’s pleadings, Miriam could have been beheaded right there and then. As a consequence of the Pharaoh’s decree, the Jewish men then decided to divorce their wives so as to prevent the murder of innocent infants. Again, Miriam protested to Amram, her father, telling him in strong, scathing words: “You are worse than the Pharaoh; the Pharaoh decreed against all males, but you are decreeing that our people should be bereft of both males and females! Furthermore, Pharaoh is doing evil only in this world. The murdered infants are innocent and have a portion in the world to come. But your decree will deprive them of the next world; for if a child is never born, how can he gain a portion in the future world? You must remarry mother; she is destined to give birth to a son who will set Israel free!” (Wow! What a child!) Amram did as bidden by our little prophetess and as Amram was considered a leader of the Jewish people then, all the men followed suit, re-marrying their wives. And our little rebel’s prophecy, indeed, came true; her parents bore a son, Moses, who would lead their people to liberation. The Jewish Talmud would say: “There were three excellent leaders for Israel. They were Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” All siblings. But the one who stood out was Miriam because she kept the faith, in the darkest period of their history. She knew bitterness (mar), but she was not swallowed by it; her faith inspired her to rebel against despair, against self-pity, against hopelessness, against apathy!
And what of Mary whose nativity we celebrate today? Certainly, she would not be far away from her kinswoman, her proud and legendary ancestor. Mary is of course Miriam in Hebrew and so like the 14th century BCE Miriam, Mary knew bitterness from the suffering of her people, this time under a new oppressive colonial power: the Roman Empire. And like Miriam of old, Mary would also lead a rebellion, a quiet revolution. You may balk at the mention of that word, revolution. But that is how even Pope Benedict XVI describes the mystery of the incarnation as God initiating a revolution, and all those who become part of the radical change God has begun as “revolutionaries,” as “radicals” as change agents.
Mary, of course, was leading the charge for this sacred revolution. Just listen to her Magnificat (which is our Psalm today).
“God’s mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. He has shown might with His arm, He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.”
Read it again. Listen to it again and again. Sing it even. And realize that that is not an innocent, innocuous song of praise. Rather it is a manifesto! A declaration of faith and hope in God’s justice, in God’s promises in the midst of life’s difficult and painful challenges and circumstances. Mary chose to believe, and like her kinswoman Miriam, rebelled againts apathy, despair, self-pity, meaninglessness.
My dear brothers and sisters, that is who Mary was essentially. It can be jarring for us to think of her this way- a radical, a rebel – because we have gotten used to our docile images of Mary. But that is what biblical history and theology bear out. And more importantly, that is what our Faith is all about—it is a “revolution” as Pope Benedict tells us. We are not to simply go with the world’s currents but to stand up for what is right, for the truth, for justice. Or as the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines put it, we are called by our faith to be subversives, to be countercultural, like Jesus. Like Mary. My dear young friends, will you join Mary in this crusade, in her rebellion, in her revolution. In the midst of the darkness that seems to have engulfed our world, your world, will you like Mary and Miriam rage, lead the charge againts apathy, despair and hopelessness?
EPILOGUE. After crossing the Red Sea, and with God obliterating their enemies by drowning them all, the Israelites were beside themselves with joy and jubilation. Salvation, liberation at last. They wanted to celebrate and thank God for their liberation, but there was no food or wine available. As always, the women, led by Miriam, took charge. Their amenities were gone but they brought with them their tambourines. Why? Because no matter your situation in life, you can choose to sing and dance. The tambourine is therefore their symbol of faith, of Miriam’s rebellion against despair and hopelessness. And so with their tambourines, the Jews sang and dance, thanking and praising God. Hallelujah, hallelujah, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Delivered at the Ateneo High School, 8 Sept 2018