When I was growing up, my sister and I were always known by our middle names. I was Kathy; she was Ann. The more formal first names, Mary and Margaret were reserved for particularly serious offenses and very few of our friends even knew them.
When I was 10, a new parish and school opened near us and our family registered among the first families. When I entered fifth grade, I told the nun teaching the class that my name was Kathy; she put Katharine on the roster and all was well until the first report card.
When I returned the report card, the sister pulled me aside and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me your first name was Mary; Mary is our Lady’s name. I am going to call you Mary from now on. And just like that I became Mary. It took a little getting used to, but I settled into it – It’s Mary when I meet someone new now; Kathy to my siblings, and, just so I don’t miss anyone, Mary Katharine on official documents.
I remember the sister well. She was a religious of the Ladies of Loretto. We called them Mother and her name was Mother Gabriel – a little connection to our scriptures today which helped me open up this familiar gospel in a different way. She saw something in me that I had not seen in myself – for my family, I was a sister and a daughter, and the spitting image of my grandmother, so I’m told; but for Mother Gabriel, I was a child of God who honored the mother of God simply by bearing her name and living into whatever that meant.
When I reflected on that long-ago story of my childhood, I was reminded that God sees us very differently than we see ourselves. Our sight is often limited by age and circumstance; God’s sight is infinite and includes possibilities we can’t always imagine. Our readings today emphasize that point. Who we are in God’s eyes is at once a surprise, an invitation and a challenge. And frequently how God sees us is signaled by a change of name, identity, or relationship.
The book of Samuel begins with a human identity: King David wants to build God a house. Now kings can do whatever they want. But when God talks to Nathan, the court prophet, at night, the message is for my “servant” David. The servant listens to what the master wishes and holds the position the master gives to him. For David this means not building a temple for God but waiting until God does the building God wants to do - establishing the house of David and his kingdom. Now it’s safe to say that David made a few mistakes while trying to live into that new identity as servant – it’s hard to stop being a king. But from David’s story we learn that God saw the King as a servant of the Lord and, later, a Son. The expectation, of course was obedience and devotion. The king was to be an example of faithfulness to God’s law.
The gospel expands our understanding. Here we meet the young woman named Mary, but it’s not what the angel – a different Gabriel – called her. “Hail, full of grace.” A new name signals a new identity and every time there’s a change of name in the scriptures, it inevitably means that something else is changing for and in us. Mary didn’t know what it meant at the time – we so rarely do. But her story provides some hints for how to respond when we suddenly realize that in God’s eyes we are more than we seem and that God has plans for us that are different than what we were thinking.
The first hint is: Learn to see with new eyes. “Behold,” the angel says. In our sacred texts “Behold” invites, even dares us to see from a different perspective. It is frequently used to focus our attention on God’s wondrous action in the world.
Our second hint comes in Mary’s reaction: Be curious, not negative. Mary doesn’t say, “No, not me, I’m not ready,” which is something I think many of us have said at one time or another in our lives. Instead, Mary asks, “how?” When adjusting to the impossible, it helps to be a little bit pragmatic and a little bit probing. When God wants to work through us, it’s not always immediately obvious how that can happen.
Third, be open to the Holy Spirit who comes upon us when we least expect it and whose power speaks to the mystery of God’s presence which overshadows Mary as if from cloud. This is the God of Paul’s letter who strengthens us when we don’t know exactly what is going on.
Finally, look again and see with different eyes the changes God has wrought in you. Mary echoes the word “Behold,” and draws our attention and her own as she becomes the handmaid of the Lord – a side note: handmaid does not adequately translate the word, doule. It’s root certainly refers to a servant, but in the New Testament, and in its masculine form, it is used metaphorically to speak of the true worshippers of Christ through whom God works to spread the gospel and who submit themselves wholly to his will. Paul even uses it to refer to himself. Mary spoke from the confidence of her true self who belonged to no one but God. She spoke out of virgin territory, saying yes, not only to what God was doing in the world, but what God was doing in her.
It is sometimes hard to see how God is working in a world that is darkened by pandemic and civil unrest, and injustice toward the marginalized and vulnerable among us. Because of that, Advent is precisely the time to learn how God sees us. It is the time to ask ourselves all the questions: What might God be building in us? By what new God-given name will our Gabriel call us – full of grace, full of peace, full of joy or love, or hope? And will we listen when Gabriel cries out, “Behold,” begging us to see our new relationship with God and how God is working through us to reveal Christ to the world.
We still have time to respond as Mary did out of our own virgin territory – the deep part of ourselves which belongs truly to God. We still have time to live into the new name and embrace the new relationship and identity to which God calls us. We have time, but the time is short. The Lord is coming.
Mary Katharine Deeley
Mary Katharine Deeley
Mary Deeley (M.Div, Yale Divinity School; Ph.D., Northwestern University) loves to talk to people about where they find God in their lives. Mary parlayed an early degree in music into an abiding love for ministry and scripture. She has taught and ministered in academic settings since 1978. Currently, Mary serves as the Pastoral Associate and the director of the Christ the Teacher Institute for the Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University where she works with young adults and others in discernment processes, leadership development, spiritual direction, and education and formation.
Mary is the author of a Mothers, Lovers, Priests, Prophets, and Kings: What the Old Testament Tells Us About God and Ourselves, Daybreaks: Daily Reflections for Advent and Christmas, and Remembering God: Resting in the Midst of Life all published by Liguori Press, as well as numerous reflections on lectionary readings, scripture, campus ministry, and young adults.
Mary is frequent speaker on such diverse topics as Evangelization, Discernment, Preaching, Liturgical and Celtic Spirituality, Prayer, and Ministry and Leadership. She particularly likes speaking with young adults about Catholicism and Discernment. When time permits, Mary teaches in different venues and facilitates retreats and days of reflection.
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