I happened upon the website of Mac, a guy who likes to take long walks and write about them. At one time he thought he wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer, but then he realized that actually he aspires to live out of his van. One of his essays is titled “Why I say yes to (almost) everything.” Mac describes how, as he was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, he decided to resist the socialization that causes most of us to be unwilling to accept help—the self-reliance, the suspicion of others, the games of politeness. He recalls:
At the trail’s halfway point, I resolved to immediately say “yes” to everything I was offered. A day hiker wants to give me an apple? Yes. A hitch wants to take me to their house and feed me? Yes. Someone wants to trade some food? Yes. Spur of the moment trail angels have some moonshine that’s been unopened in their RV for a year now? Yes. Not once did I say yes to something that I later came to regret. However, saying yes is not limited to strangers on the Pacific Crest Trail. Say yes to awkwardness. Say yes to strange food. Say yes to not being in control. Say yes to finding out that you are not infallible. Say yes to the realization that nobody is perfect. . . . Say yes to adventure.
In all seriousness, of course, sometimes we have to say “no.” And admittedly the risks would be different for a hiker who isn’t male. And yet, it seems to me that, in a humorous and hyperbolic sort of way, Mac puts his finger on something really important. How often do we avoid saying yes, not because we really want to, but because we’re afraid or exhausted, full of shame or self-doubt? It feels good to give our wholehearted consent to what is right for us. It’s life-giving to join Mary in saying “let it be” to the intentions of the divine that want to be made manifest in us. As the poet Rumi puts it:
The body is like Mary, and each of us has a Jesus inside.
Who is not in labour, holy labour? Every creature is.
Yes, God also needs to be born!
Luke’s Gospel is unique in the way that it portrays Mary as a prophet. The reversals of the Magnificat—the bringing down of the powerful and the lifting up of the lowly, the emptying of the full and the filling of the hungry—are embedded in the structure of the story itself. As chapter one of Luke opens, the angel Gabriel visits the priest Zechariah in the temple, declaring to him that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a baby who will become John the Baptist. Zechariah replies to the angel with a skepticism that parallels Mary’s. She asks: “How can this be since I am a virgin?” And he wonders: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
The difference in the angel’s response is notable. The angel rebukes Zechariah: “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” In contrast, Gabriel gives Mary an explanation. She will be “overshadowed” by the Most High; she will become pregnant because nothing is impossible for God. And then the angel offers Mary some reassuring news: her relative Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, has also conceived miraculously. So, Mary will not be in this thing alone. She and Elizabeth will walk through this time together, supporting each other. It is only then that Mary gives her consent, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And then she sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This fierce anthem of liberation and justice lays claim to divine power to set right the inequities of a deeply unfair world, to restore life-giving balance to a wounded creation. We see, in Mary, that a prophet is an ordinary person who is willing to say “yes” to the unexpected and sometimes risky ways the divine spirit wants to be born into the world through us.
The contrasting stories of Mary and Zechariah also clarify that God’s prophetic word speaks and acts from the margins. I think what’s most important about Mary—that gets lost amid the debate over her virginity—is simply that she was a young woman. Zechariah was a man of privilege and power. His culture-centered maleness was the ideal human form; it gave elevated status to elders, and it dispensed generous authority to priests. As a young peasant woman, Mary was quite literally the opposite of all that. She was powerless. She lacked choice about her life; no one ever asked for her consent. Her voice didn’t matter.
So the prophetic word of God is a force that reverses this power dynamic. God’s word, by definition, is a “yes” that lifts up the voices, the lives, the choices, and the power of those society devalues. And this same word intentionally says “no” to those who are dominating, those who are taking up more than their fair share of space, resources, and authority. This silencing and restraining of the privileged might seem like a punishment. I wonder, though, what Zechariah’s months of not talking were like for him. Maybe this was a generative time. After all, when the long silence was over, he too found his voice. He welcomed and named his son John. And then he sang his “yes”—a song known as the Benedictus. Perhaps the scattering of the proud and the bringing down of the powerful is an opportunity for them as well. People who hold privilege can find blessing in relinquishing control over the narrative so that a new story can emerge. When those with wealth loosen their grip on resources, a wellspring of shared abundance can be unleashed, providing life and joy for all.
Here is an example of the sort of reversal Mary’s Magnificat provokes. Along with 70 other faith leaders, I signed a letter to the mayor of Minneapolis, written by some colleagues. These pastors have been developing a relationship with folks at Camp Nenookasi, an encampment near their church with more than 180 residents, many of whom are indigenous. Their letter called for the city to cancel a scheduled eviction of the camp and to allow the encampment to remain in place until all are housed. In general, it urged the mayor to “abandon the ‘whack-a-mole’ tactics of scattering encampments . . . and instead adopt a strategic, long-term, coordinated approach to helping our neighbors find the support and solutions they need.”
However, in the meantime, the authors of the letter heard from the leader of another native organization they are building a relationship with. This indigenous leader pointed that the network had issued its own statement about Camp Nenookasi, and voiced objections about aspects of our faith leader letter. Given this turn of events, a few of us who had signed the letter took some time to reflect about what to do. We recognized that our process had omitted the crucial step of consultation with folks involved in the network. We decided it was time to press pause, to enter into a moment of discernment, listening to a broader spectrum of native leaders who are involved in seeking housing and hope for our unsheltered neighbors. We hope this will be a generative time of learning how to better follow the lead of our indigenous partners even as we continue to use the powerful voice our privilege provides.
So, friends, in this Advent time . . . In what way is God laboring to be born in your life? Will you give your “yes?” Are you ready to say, with Mary, “Let it be?”