And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior;
because he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, all generations from
this day on will call me blessed.
Perhaps in reaction to what we perceive as an overemphasis in Catholicism, we tend to pay
very little attention to Mary in our observance of Christmas. There are probably more
Swedenborgian sermons on John the Baptist than there are on Mary, and certainly more on
the shepherds and the wise men, whose actual roles in the story are largely those of
If we take Scripture seriously, though, we need to be careful about glossing over parts
that we are not comfortable with. Of course, there are times when we turn to the Bible for
comfort, but that is not the only function of revelation. There are times when we need to
be "discomforted," perhaps even during the Advent season; and if we pay exclusive
attention to our favorite passages, we exclude ourselves from the guidance the Lord may be
trying to offer us.
Our theology takes a quite different view of Mary than the one eventually developed in
Catholicism. For Swedenborg, it was absolutely essential that the Divine come down into
our own plight, which meant coming down into our own awfully human nature. Mary was the
one who provided that nature, with all its flaws. It was necessary for Jesus to feel the
appeal of evils just the way we do, and the Divine is utterly incapable of any such
feelings. The Divine is utter and pure love, inaccessible to the feelings of resentment or
envy or anger or greed that we are prey to. Mary was, so to speak, the vehicle of
In our Adoramus, the faith which we declare Sunday after Sunday, we acknowledge that the
Lord "took our nature upon him," and this is what we are talking about. We cannot
appreciate the momentous force of those few words unless we reflect on "our nature," on
what it is like to be as finite and fallible as we in fact are. Perhaps if we think about
our ups and downs during the past week, it will help us understand what we are saying.
We will understand even better if we reflect on what we might call the distance between
our highest "ups" and our lowest "downs." What are we like at our very best, when we are
most self-forgetful and open-hearted, when our minds are clearest and most alert? How does
this contrast with what we are like at our very worst--all wrapped up in our own egos,
lost perhaps in self-righteousness or self-pity, or helplessly immersed in depression?
This is our little reflection of the distance between the Divine and the human in Jesus,
and when we go on to say that he "overcame the hells," we are saying that he remained
faithful through those dark passages in his own experiences.
When we identify Mary as the person who provided this "dark side," though, we are
absolutely not judging her to have been an evil individual. Far from it, all we are saying
is that she herself was vulnerable in these same ways, that she was profoundly human. We
could well look to her as an example of humility, of acceptance of the Lord's will. When
she says "I am the Lord's handmaid; let it be to me as you have said," this is not all
that different from the Lord's words in the garden, "Nevertheless not my will but yours be
done," or for the prayer we say so often and are intended to mean, "Thy will be done."
We should not confuse this humility or acceptance with passivity. Let us reflect for a
moment on the historical context of Gabriel's announcement to Mary. He was very explicit.
The Lord God was going to give this child the throne of his father David, and he was going
to reign over the house of Jacob forever. This spelled trouble and turmoil, rebellion
against Rome, perhaps, but in any case some form of the wars and cataclysms prophesied for
the days of restoration. It meant an immense responsibility, the responsibility of raising
this child to accept the burden of kingship. In a greater sense than we can appreciate,
Mary's acceptance of the divine will was a step into the unknown.
Our own culture in particular might be called "activist." Perhaps our exposure to eastern
religions is changing things a little, but our predominant tendency has been to regard
sitting still as "doing nothing," as totally unproductive. It can be hard to persuade
ourselves that hard thinking is hard work. We can't see any motion, any results, so "all
she is doing is lying there in the hammock." We may wind up being bewildered at her
insight and still not associate it with sustained mental effort.
Sometimes we need the motto, "Don't just do something, stand there." Our predeliction for
activity urges us to act in times of crisis even when we do not know what we are doing.
We need to recognize that it may take energy and concentration to hold back, that silence
may require more work than speech. The illusion at this moment is that I am "actively"
speaking and you are "passively" listening, but in fact I may be rather passively reacting
to a manuscript and you may be very actively processing ideas. Any benefit derived from a
sermon comes primarily from the activity of the listeners. The most profound presentation
imaginable winds up being useless if those who hear it remain passive to it.
In a spiritual sense, then, I suspect that Mary images for us this kind of active
acceptance of the Lord's will. It is perhaps easier for women than for men to identify
with it, but that is a two-edged sword because the issue is not ease of acceptance but
appropriateness of acceptance. In all probability, men need it more, since the stereotype
they are burdened with is one of constant and visible achievement. By the same token, the
stereotype of women as gentle and yielding may well mean that there are more risks for
them in identifying with Mary's acceptance. Again, what we need may be precisely what
makes us uncomfortable.
As our theology outlines the spiritual meaning of Scripture, though, one principle remains
constant, and it is a vital one. Swedenborg takes women in the Bible to be images
primarily of our will side, of our loves, our feelings; and it is immensely significant
that the incarnation happens through Mary. Without for a moment minimizing the importance
of our minds, of learning and understanding, we must not try to evade the message that if
the Lord is to "be born in us today," he must be born first in our hearts.
Let's not just say, "Of course" and rush on to the next thought. The implications are
extensive and in some ways unexpected. I trust that we are all familiar with the basic
notion that each one of us needs to accept the Lord, and that during the Advent season
particularly we speak of that acceptance in the image of the Lord's "being born in us."
Now, if we take the Gospel accounts as symbolic of this event in our lives, those accounts
tell us that this "coming" is not all that spectacular at first. Only Mary and Joseph, a
few shepherds, and some sages from the East notice the birth, and after the birth Jesus
seems virtually to disappear from view until the beginning of his ministry.
Correspondentially understood, this would seem to tell us that the lord's birth in our
lives would not be a soul-shattering event. It would not involve any great enlightenment,
any sudden breakthrough into deeper understanding. What the story of the annunciation
suggests is that the first indications of the Lord's birth in our own souls would be a
change in the way we feel.
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior." Translate this
into everyday, contemporary patterns and it simply points to an upsurge of optimism. We
may have been feeling depressed, for instance--the kind of depression in which we feel as
though the Lord is inaccessible to us or even angry with us. Now, for reasons we cannot
identify, we feel as though "someone up there is on our side.
"For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." This looks back on the way we have
been feeling, and that is important. Sometimes when our mood changes for the better we
want to forget what we have left behind. Understandable as this is, it may not be the best
thing for us to do. An image that has helped me is to think of my soul, in good
Swedenborgian terms, as a house. Some of the rooms I find myself in are pretty depressing,
and when I am in one of them it is hard to remember that there are brighter rooms. It
becomes easier to remember this if I don't completely forget the gloomy rooms when I am in
one of the brighter ones. At these better times, I can look at the mood I was in and see
how persuasively it tried to engulf me. I can see very clearly that it was a temporary
mood; and the next time I find myself in the same place, that will serve as a reminder.
So Mary, especially in the moment of high favor and joy, remembers the other side of her
Again, though, this is not so much an intellectual conclusion arrived at by conscious
analysis or reasoning, but a feeling about the way things are. It strikes me as a kind of
relaxed acceptance of the fact that our lives have their ups and downs, that we are really
much more frail and fallible than we like to pretend, and that that is all right. The fate
of the world does not rest on our shoulders. Somehow, this kind of feeling all right about
our own inadequacy does not leave us lackadaisical, but makes our responsibilities easier
to bear. To borrow from another image, we find an easy yoke, a yoke that enables us to
carry more with less effort and pain.
"For behold, all generations from this day on will call me blessed." The third element in
this change of feeling is equally clear. We seem spontaneously aware of our blessings.
Yesterday's paper had an article about the search for the kidnapped girl in Petaluma,
California. More than four thousand people showed up to help in the search, and more than
$450,000 arrived in donations. The article continued, "Americans have generally been
pretty good at volunteering. But now people turn out, without being asked, in support of
private, non-profit organizations that help the homeless, the hungry, or AIDS patients, or
to lend their backing to schools, sports, and the arts. . . . The Commission on National
Community Service says that 94 million volunteers gave 20.5 billion hours of unpaid work
We do not have to look far to see many of the things that are wrong with our country and
with our world, but our view is terribly distorted if we do not recognize that there is a
very significant other side of the picture. We do not have to look very far to see what is
wrong with ourselves, but our view of ourselves is terribly distorted if we do not
recognize what Swedenborg might call the "goods and truths" the Lord has given us. Every
moment of affection for a fellow human, every touch of comprehension we have, is a
blessing; and when consciousness of this fact dawns, we might well echo Mary's words--"all
generations will call me blessed."
Where does all this leave us on this third Sunday in Advent? It leaves us, I hope, a
little more aware of how we are feeling about ourselves and our world. If those feelings
are negative, then that is one aspect of the darkness the Lord comes to dispel. It may
leave us, finally, attentive to every little lifting of our mood, realizing that such
"liftings" are important. They may seem slight, especially in a world that seems very big
and noisy, but the wondrous gift is given silently, so that those who listen most
attentively are the first to hear the good news.