November 2018

Mary and the lost art of waiting

While Mary is often heralded in our tradition as a woman of humility and of courageous discipleship, I’m most inspired by her patience, her capacity to wait, writes Natalie Acton.

BY Natalie Acton

One of the challenges that Advent continues to offer me is a reminder of the gift of waiting. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming” or “arrival”. Implied in the action of “coming” or “arriving”, is always the process of waiting.

In our contemporary, connected world, that delicious down time, that lovely space created by waiting seems to have been crowded with production. You only have to look across a restaurant, or survey a bus stop, or stand at the school gates to see how the smartphone has redefined the art of waiting. Why just wait when you can pay bills, update social media, or make an online purchase in the few minutes it takes for the arrival of a meal, or a bus, or the children to emerge from their classrooms?

I’ve tried, with greater and lesser degrees of success, to be more mindful of the way I wait, and I’m making it a personal project again this Advent. I’m drawing inspiration from one of the wonderful women from our faith narrative who inspires me when it comes to waiting – Mary.

While Mary is often heralded in our tradition as a woman of humility and of courageous discipleship, for me, I’m most inspired by her patience, her capacity to wait.

The Gospel of Luke first draws us into the story of Mary with the image of the Annunciation. An angel appears to Mary and communicates the most extraordinary information: she is to have a child, and no less “the son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), the hoped-for Messiah. She takes this news directly to her cousin Elizabeth, and it is on their meeting that the Gospel authors gift Mary with one of the best-loved monologues of the scriptures – the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

While there were no witnesses to record Mary’s response, and it’s unlikely that these were the actual words she uttered, scholars agree that the Magnificat reflects the sense the Gospel authors had of Mary’s understanding of the significance of the task she had been called to.

Mary’s proclamation evidences what was known about her: her humility and her preparedness to co-operate with God’s will. It also includes a bold prophecy, a paradigm-shifting presentation of society that represents the coming of God’s kingdom – a reality that she is beginning to know she will co-create with the birth of her child.

The Gospel narrative then moves on; Mary goes to Bethlehem with Joseph to have her baby. Mary’s time of waiting – and ours – seems to be over; Jesus is born.

While this story, with its shepherds, wise men and angels is the pinnacle of the narrative, over the past few years I’ve been wondering about what happened next. It seems, according to the Gospels, nothing much. Having been told, on seemingly very reliable authority, that the birth of her child would be an extraordinary event in world history, the family returns to Nazareth to take up what appears to be an unexciting life for the next 30 years.

I can’t help but wonder, what was Mary thinking over those 30 years? As Jesus turned five, then ten, then entered adolescence, then learned a trade and became a man, was Mary disappointed? Did she feel despondent? Did she feel that somehow, after such a big build-up, that God had let her down?

It seems Mary had every reason to expect that her child would be exceptional, that he would fulfil her long-held hopes and that of her people. Yet the scriptural image presented of Mary, in the few short glimpses we are given of those 30 hidden years, is one of acceptance and humility – not impatience.

While we can only make assumptions, I imagine it may have been because Mary knew how to wait. I imagine she knew how to allow God to work in God’s own time, however that might come to pass. Then again, maybe Mary didn’t have a sense that she was waiting for something unrealised at all. Perhaps she saw God’s kingdom manifest in the everyday moments of love and grace in their family and extended community. She saw her magnificent prophecy of God’s triumph brought to bear in the everyday events of their seemingly little life.

As Mary watched her son grow and saw him act with compassion and kindness, perhaps she could see God’s kingdom present. Maybe she was able to see the “hungry filled with good things” as Jesus learned to share his possessions among the extended village family. As he invited someone home to dinner, or stayed behind after a common activity to support someone excluded, she could see God’s mercy at work.

Renowned Middle Eastern scholar, Kenneth Bailey, suggests that Jesus developed his preaching and teaching skills in a village-based lay movement known as “the friends”. In the evenings, this group would meet and engage in lively debates on the scriptures. As Jesus grew in his understanding of the texts, and as Joseph recounted stories of his growing confidence and participation in the discussion, maybe Mary sensed that this was a new moment in time: her son was becoming a catalyst for the scriptures to be broken open anew, and God’s message was being brought to new life in the faith of the people.

As their ordinary, daily life went on, maybe Mary came to know the coming of the Kingdom, not as a single cataclysmic event, but rather a slow unfolding. Maybe she had sensed this from the beginning. Long before he was to take up his public ministry, maybe she witnessed her son as the agent of joy and hope and justice to the people they encountered every day in the market, in the workshop, at the temple.

During Advent, we wait as we anticipate the birth of Jesus; we also wait for the time when all will be taken into God. While we wait, perhaps we, too, can be better witnesses to a quiet unfolding, to the coming of God’s kingdom as we experience it in the ordinary, everyday events of our life, knowing that God comes to us not once, but continuously.

We can wait like Mary, attentive to the moment, with expectations that may be fulfilled in surprising ways, both big and small. We can attune ourselves to the many occasions and opportunities for the “lowly to be lifted up, the hungry fed, and to see God’s mercy alive”. And, perhaps we can proclaim a song of praise and of hope. We, too, can say “here am I”, truly present, always attending, patiently waiting.

Natalie Acton

Natalie Acton is Director of Operations for the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She has worked in a variety of roles within the Catholic church in the areas of faith and ministry formation, community engagement, operations, leadership and governance. Natalie has undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in theology and is currently completing postgraduate studies in law.

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