In 2015 National Geographic magazine named Mary of Nazareth the most important woman in world history. Similar lists of the most famous, most influential, or most powerful woman of all time consistently rank her near the top. A 2018 BBC ranking of the top 100 women who changed the world annoyed some people when they acknowledged Mary was likely the most famous woman of all time but ranked her just #12 on their list. But even #12’s not so bad. Personally I was surprised my mom didn’t make the list, but I guess that goes to show you those lists aren’t always perfect!
So what makes Mary one of the most influential women of all time? Well there’s good reason considering she’s the mother of the Messiah and was specifically chosen by God for that role. We see that she trusted God when things didn’t make sense. She pondered the mystery of it all and marveled at her child. She raised her son to be all that he was meant to be. She even endured the trauma and horror of watching her son be crucified, likely wishing she was on the cross instead.
I saw something online last week that highlights why Mary was so special. The post from a pastor said this:
“Why do we think Mary was meek and mild? She agreed to bear a child out of wedlock in defiance of her culture. She sang a song of liberation and freedom for the oppressed and unjustly treated. She made a rough journey to Bethlehem when heavily pregnant and another to Egypt with an infant. She was a revolutionary, a fitting mother for her rebel son.”
I really appreciate the poster’s boldness and candor. It adds an important element to the silent holiness Mary’s most known for. She was indeed a revolutionary! She believed that God was going to change the world and she knew she was blessed to be a part of it. Just look at the Magnificat that we read as our psalm this morning. She sings about God scattering the proud, casting the mighty from their thrones, and sending the rich away empty. About God lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. About how the coming Messiah would turn the world upside down.
Mary is an example for us all, and she was an example for her son Jesus too. She was totally devoted to God’s mission and dedicated her life to following God’s will. She exemplifies this when she says: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” What made Mary so great, so influential, so revolutionary is not only that she agreed to be the Messiah’s mother—what led to that chosenness is that she was completely dedicated to whatever God’s will was for her life. That she was willing to risk everything, go anywhere, lose anything, in order to follow God’s plan for her. She joyfully surrendered to the divine will. Completely dedicated to being aligned with the divine flow, whatever the cost.
Mystics throughout the ages have taught that the goal of the spiritual journey is to be completely aligned with the divine will. To abandon our selfish self-will and be so dedicated to God’s will that it becomes our will too. Mary clearly had practice with seeking God’s will in the little things in life, so that when God offered her to follow His will with a very big thing, she was ready.
The heart of Christian spirituality is turning our wills over to God, releasing our expectations of what we have planned for our lives, and trusting God to lead the way. Like Mary, we too can prepare ourselves by surrendering to God’s will in the little things in life. By seeking God’s guidance in all our decisions. By praying every morning that we might live in accordance with God’s will for the day. By dedicating ourselves to the spiritual practice of divine surrender. We can choose to make a habit out of this until our lives are fully aligned with the divine flow. Following whatever direction the Spirit is leading us. Both in matters of discerning serious life decisions and in being mindful and intentional about the little things we encounter every day. When we make alignment with God’s will the focus of our lives, amazing things will happen.
We may find ourselves filled with a fresh desire to be more involved at church or in our community in some way. Or we may discover we’re called to be less involved in all those commitments that distract us from what really matters. We may find ourselves drawn to go deeper into the spiritual life with contemplative practices like centering prayer or daily devotional reading. We may find ourselves with renewed energy to volunteer to help the poor or with an urgency to deconstruct systems that perpetuate poverty in the first place. But whatever God’s plan is for each of us, we only discover it when we surrender control of our lives and honestly give up whatever our own plans might be—and humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance instead.
And the difficult part is that once we think we’ve discovered God’s will for our lives, we need to admit that it may just be our ego talking, and continually discern the direction we find ourselves moving. I like to keep in mind a prayer of Thomas Merton, whose words demonstrate the rawness and confusion and humble honesty of spiritual discernment. Merton prayed:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Following God’s will is challenging. We have all kinds of influences, and it can be tough to differentiate between the selfish ones and the pure ones. But if we make a spiritual practice out of being honest with ourselves and with God, discernment will come and the divine will be made manifest through us. Our hearts will also become the birthplace of Christ. As the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart once said: “We are all meant to be mothers of God...for God is always needing to be born.”
Mary following God’s will for her life led to the birth of the Messiah. The Messiah who calls us all to live in alignment with the divine will. The Messiah who surrendered his own will that he was led to the cross. The Messiah who prayed “Not my will but yours be done” the night before he died. The Messiah who bore our sin and reconciled the world with God. The Messiah who calls us to lay aside our self-will, to die to it, and follow him.
And so on this day, the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve morning—let us dedicate ourselves to seeking God’s will in everything. Let us make a resolution in the coming year to seek God’s will in all things. To seek alignment with the divine so that we can incarnate God in our lives too. Not because we have to in order to make God love us. But because we desire to be mature Christians who shine the image of God in the world. Who manifest the kingdom of God with our lives. In the year to come let us turn our wills over to God. Surrender our will to the divine will and invite the Holy Spirit to direct our life. Let us pray that Christ may be born in our hearts. That we may be revolutionaries like Mary and birth God into the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.