Meridith Owensby, our co-founder, presented the following reflection at our Virtual Women for Women prayer service:
Tonight I’m here with you to spend time reflecting on the life of Mary, mother of Jesus, as described in the Gospels.
I’d like to start, however, with a Mary that is inspired by the book of Revelation. This is one of my favorite t-shirts to wear to yoga because I love the fierceness of this Mary. She needs nothing from anyone. She is powerful and victorious and is not going to let any dragon or snake swallow her newborn.
I should note that this Mary is not the Mary of the Gospels. It’s also not an accurate representation of what her life looked like, or what the lives of most women look like. Perhaps we spend a small portion of our lives stomping devil snakes, but the vast majority of our living hours go into caring for ourselves and others, or earning a living to do so. And the God of the Gospels knows that, and provides community accordingly.
This is true from the very moment we meet Mary in the Gospel of Luke, the first chapter. The angel appears to her and greets her as highly favored. There’s some back and forth between Mary and the angel about the logistics of Jesus’ genesis, then the angel ends with,
“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
This small angelic nudge is all Mary needs to hurry off to Elizabeth’s house. As soon as the angel is gone, Mary gets ready and races off to the hill country to see her cousin. Elizabeth’s unborn baby does a backflip as soon as Mary enters the scene.
The mention of Elizabeth’s pregnancy by the angel strikes me as such a loving provision of God. Mary needed Elizabeth. She needed to share her joy with someone she loved, who loved her. Not only that, but she needed a woman who had been there, or as close to “there” as there could be. Elizabeth was also miraculously pregnant, so who better to discuss a miraculous pregnancy with? Elizabeth’s greeting as soon as she hears Mary’s voice went like this:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
It’s Elizabeth’s greeting, hailing Mary as the mother of the Lord, that prompts the Magnificat. It’s two women meeting, exalting, exclaiming over their shared wonder that unleashes Mary’s proud praise of God’s work. Elizabeth was the audience for the Magnificat, as Elizabeth was the one who could best receive that joy and best imagine the world-shaking babies who were on their way. Yes, Mary needed Elizabeth.
So, we’ve established that from the initial announcement of Jesus, God ensured that Mary would not be alone on this journey. And the truth was that, as helpful and as loving as Elizabeth could be, she wasn’t the only person Mary needed. After all, she was about to have her own newborn to contend with. No, Mary needed another in her corner, a person who would be there to provide day to day support. Mary needed Joseph.
It strikes me that Jesus could’ve existed without Joseph. The angel could’ve appeared to Mary before her engagement, moving up the timeline and preventing the drama that comes from being promised in marriage to a man and turning up pregnant with a divine child. God and Mary would have been sufficient, correct?
But we know that is not how the story unfolds. Joseph was already in Mary’s life and had already pledged to care for her as his wife. We can assume that they planned to have children and to raise them together. God didn’t want Mary to have to parent alone, to have to provide for all of Jesus’ needs without assistance. No, Joseph was important to the story. He was needed to provide care and assistance to this infant (and later, the temple preaching adolescent). All parents need people who are not biologically related to their children to help with their care. Mary needed Joseph.
At some point, however, Joseph is no longer mentioned in the scriptures. We can assume that he died before Jesus did, due to the mentions of Jesus’ “mother and brothers” looking for him, and the fact that Joseph wasn’t named as present at the crucifixion. Mary was a widow at the foot of the cross, as her child was suffering unto death.
It’s at the foot of the cross where Jesus addresses another of Mary’s needs. In His anguish, Jesus sees his sorrowful mother, and what does He do for her? In the Gospel of John, at least, he makes another provision. In chapter 19 the scripture says:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
We can assume this beloved disciple was the author himself, John. And Mary needed John. No one should be alone in that depth of sorrow, reeling with grief while trying to figure out their next steps as a widow with a son who was executed by the state. It is a touching moment, this provision of Jesus, seeing the two sorrowing figures and giving them to one another.
It strikes me that, in this directive, Jesus didn’t stipulate who was to care for whom. We can imagine that, since John had a house to take Mary back to, he was caring for her in concrete ways. However, Mary was also able to be present to John in his sorrow, in his imagining of what life would hold after Jesus’ death. It was a tie of kinship that Jesus joined them with, with all the responsibilities and comfort therein. Mary needed John. Perhaps John needed Mary, too.
I’d like to draw your attention now to our prayer card with Mary’s image on it (see the cover of this newsletter). This rendering of Mary is more tender than the initial fierce Mary, and she shares some of the same facial features as our modern-day prophet of the week, Lateefah Simon. Lateefah is an advocate for civil rights, racial justice, and juvenile justice. She was the youngest person ever to receive a MacArthur genius grant, and she’s currently the president of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit board, as public transportation is a particular passion of hers as a legally blind woman dependent on it.
If you had met Lateefah as a teenager, however, you might not have guessed that a bright future lay before her. She drifted in and out of high school and got into legal trouble early. She became a teenage single mother. Her story mirrors those of many of our Lydia’s House guests.
However, something happened to Lateefah in those teenage years that permanently altered her trajectory. She got a job with the Center for Young Women’s Development as a street outreach worker, helping other young women who were caught up in the criminal justice system. At age 19 she became the executive director. She saw her work was making a difference, and she enrolled in college at age 25 to study public policy. She went on to work under then-attorney general Kamala Harris. Together they created the Back on Track program, which aimed to reduce recidivism rates among young adults. Initially, individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 had recidivism rates of 70% or more. The program brought them down to less than 10% through a combination of providing opportunities and supports and having accountability through the courts.
Though she has an impressive accomplishment list and has received many honors, Lateefah’s adult life has still known profound struggle. She married a fellow activist, and they had a child in 2012. Her husband, sadly, died of leukemia two years later. Lateefah was again a single mother with a young daughter.
What did Lateefah need as a teenager? What did she need as a 35-year-old widowed mother? The same things that she has spent much of her life advocating for, for all people. In her words:
We must fight to ensure that all working families have what they need to thrive: good pay, good benefits, and quality childcare and schools. This is basic.
It’s not only systems, however, that receive Lateefah’s attention. She also believes young people should frequently be reminded of their inherent worth. In 2017, when Lateefah was asked what advice she had for community college students, she responded:
To be really bold. To take up space. And to rewrite in your mind how powerful you can be.
So let us now recite a song from a bold, powerful young mother who knew how to take up the space that was rightfully hers:
My soul proclaims your greatness, O God;
my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior,
for you have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.
You have mercy on those who fear you
from generation to generation.
You, O God, have shown strength with your arm,
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel,
for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
The promise made to our forebears,
to Abraham, Sarah and their children forever.
Glory to the holy and undivided Trinity, one God,
as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.