On the second Sunday of Advent, Hallowood Institute provided some space for clients and friends to prepare a room for the Lord, to welcome love in. We created space to follow the full arc of Mary’s journey of receiving the angel’s message to entering into the fullness of God’s grace. She moved from doubting her belovedness to confidence in it, from “How can this be?” to the Magnificat. Here is an outline you might like to use to follow her example. I know it can’t really replicate everything that happened, but it might help you stay on the Advent journey.
First movement: Doubts about our belovedness
Mary pays attention to the word coming to her and to the doubts it arouses. She listens to her body and to the thoughts that automatically come to her mind.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” — Luke 1:26-34
When our “angel” comes to us we, like Mary, probably ask, “How can this be?” We doubt God can or would come to us. We doubt we could be important. We doubt we could be worthy. We doubt we could be loved. We need to go through a process to let love in, to become the beloved of God we are.
Our brains and the rest of our bodies are accustomed to patterns that have defended us from not getting the love we crave and defended many of us from further abuse and disrespect. Our brains are rutted with programs of self-protection that don’t meet our needs and don’t protect us any longer. Our bodies have memories of trauma and fear that cause us to keep reacting in certain ways.
Mary was afraid when God came to her in the angel and doubted she could be part of the wonderful future he promised.
During our retreat we worked a little on getting our left and right brain to integrate. We found a place in ourselves of safety where we could return when we felt afraid. We created a container in our imagination where we could store intrusive thoughts that invaded our meditation.
Then we tried to welcome our doubting parts — the voices that tell us we are not loved. Maybe you would like to try it. Picture a time when you doubted you were loved or even lovable. What makes you doubt you are loved? Is there an event from your past (distant or near past) that captures the feelings of this doubt? Put it into words. Then, if you can, float back to being 14 years old with Mary. Picture yourself at about that age. Identify the negative beliefs about yourself that go with this doubting picture. Write them out.
Second Movement: Mary lets love in to talk back to her view of self
Mary turns from her former view of self and attends to the new life she is being given.
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. — Luke 1:35-38
The various depictions of the annunciation tell different stories. The one above shows the second movement we are exploring as Mary shies away from this angel. Is she saying, “Don’t bother me I am trying to read the Bible?” Or is it, more likely “What do you mean ‘nothing is impossible with God?’ I feel quite impossible myself?” The process of moving from doubts about “For nothing will be impossible with God” to “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” is what we were exploring. It takes a process to see ourselves as the beloved of God, to turn away from other views of ourselves and turn into that one.
From Henri Nouwen in Life of the Beloved:
I am putting this so directly and so simply because, though the experience of being the Beloved has never been completely absent from my life, I never claimed it as my core truth. I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.” That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices saying: “Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.” Meanwhile, the soft, gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or, at least, unconvincing….
Try this exercise to name those different “voices” competing to speak the loudest to you. Find a negative view of self that comes up in you. Do not collect all the views you can think of, just one. It might be as simple as when you look in the mirror and you go right to the body part you don’t like like: “too fat” or “bad hair.” But the voices can come from a deeper place: “I don’t deserve to feel good. Someone will discover what I am really like. You are all alone” — even “No one loves you or wants you.” Once we start listening, these often become quite clear as voices competing for our attention. Naming them does not feel good, but it begins to loosen their power on us.
Turn into a positive view of self: “I am the kind of person who tries to grow” or “I have a very good grandmother” or “I see how I have good choices I can make.” The big one is, “I am the beloved of God.” Nouwen talks about Listening to the gentle voice of God with great inner attentiveness. That attention makes the “angelic” voice surer and our true selves more obvious. Depriving the other voices of attention makes them weaker, fainter — “I can’t hear you!”
Third Movement: Mary receives validation from Elizabeth
Mary welcomes support to face her fears and enter into her context with confidence.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” — Luke 1:39-45
Recent scholarship on healing from identity wounds based in trauma says, “Radical healing involves being or becoming whole in the face of identity-based ‘wounds,’ which are the injuries sustained because of our membership in an oppressed racial or ethnic group.”
We acknowledged how our spiritual journeys differ because of our racist and sexist culture. For some of us, the wisdom of our communities has been deeply damaged by racist practices. Some of us have experiences of both healing and trauma from our interactions with our communities, in our neighborhoods and families, in our interactions with systemic violence, in our churches.
Mary experienced isolation and rejection as her story became known. She and her young family had to flee oppression and slaughter based in part on race. In this part of Mary’s story, she seeks much needed validation — even though she has spoken with an angel and knows she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The encounter with Elizabeth validates what she knows inside, what her body is certainly telling her.
Take some time to consider your own journeys and where such validation may emerge for you. Note a few aggressions you have experienced recently. Gwen’s was “The invisibility I often feel as a woman in leadership positions, or when I am left out, like when my husband got an email that should have also been addressed to me.”
Now consider how you responded to these aggressions. In your childhood were there any practices that you found comforting when faced with hurts — cultural practices or personal practices? What current social networks/systems are offering you support? Where do you feel empowered as Elizabeth empowered Mary? Are there ways you might help create further spaces where you can find this social support? Notice what’s coming up in your body right now as you consider aggression. Deep breath and long exhale.
We need to meet our Elizabeths. To listen to them and receive their love and encouragement, even though we already know that the life of Christ is growing in us.
Fourth Movement: Mary takes her place as the beloved with her “Magnificat”
We created a final space to follow the full arc of Mary’s journey in Belovedness. She moves from doubting her belovedness to confidence in it, from “How can this be?” to the Magnificat. In her prayer, Mary owns her belovedness and acts out of it.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. — Luke 1:46-56
I was inspired to own my belovedness by Osheta Moore’s Dear White Peacemakers earlier this year. Both Mary and Osheta Moore show their beloved selves in their context, in their families, and in their societies. And they both speak out of this belovedness, claiming their birthright to be the beloved of God, sent with reconciliation into their own space. I actually got in a little trouble with my some people when I quoted Moore teaching that being beloved is where the Lord starts when he calls for truth and justice. It’s a radical and important principle. As beloved is how we should see ourselves and others, even those nazi-like guys who paraded through the Lincoln Memorial the night before our retreat. Even in the battle against white supremacy and the scrourge of racism, we lose our cause if we lose our souls by not seeing ourselves as beloved of God and not insisting that everyone is a potential member of the beloved community.
Osheta Moore is keeping it radical and I am with her. Here is a bit of what she says in Dear White Peacemakers
Jesus says that in this world we will have trouble, but to take heart, for he has overcome the world. He did this by first owning his Belovedness and then proclaiming it to every single person he met. His Belovedness empowered him to challenge societal hierarchies based on fear of the other, offer relief to those who have been oppressed, and eventually to sacrificially love on the cross. When you are grounded in something other than your work or results, when you are grounded in a truer, deeper, soul-healing confidence, you can continue to press on—even if it means death to all your comforts and control. This is your calling when trouble comes as you practice anti-racism….[O]wn your Belovedness so that you can proclaim mine. Belovedness is like a flowing river of renewal and justice. It allows us to challenge systems and have difficult conversations. It moves us from individualism into community.
Many of us wrote moving, personal “magnificats” of our own, to take a stand as the beloved of God, to affirm we are letting love in — and out.
Mary’s prayer is called “the magnificat” because the first line of it in Latin is “Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum” — in English, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Familiar prayers have often been known by their first word.
Try writing a prayer of your own. Write it for God, not for anyone else. You could use Mary’s prayer as a model. Better, use the spirit of what she is doing as a guide. She is pulling together the most meaningful thoughts she has into a song of belonging to the Beloved, graced with wonderful things going on inside her. She sees amazing opportunities to offer love to the world.
Our own magnificats sum up the whole process of letting love in. When it is time for you to speak yours, what have you overcome? what are you standing up against? When you say, “This is who I am, this is how God sees me, this is what I am for, this is what I intend to do, this is what I hope, this is what my truth in Christ is,” etc., what competes for that view of yourself? It could be your own family, government systems, or oil companies; the list goes on.
What do you say? If it is just: “I am the beloved of God, there’s nothing you can do about it. It is what it is.” That is good enough. That’s a short magnificat I am using this Advent as Jesus is newly born in me in this new era of the world being born.