Mary, the First Missionary

A Reflection to celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, 31st May
Gospel Reading: Luke, Chapter 1: 39-56
‘The babe in my womb leaped for joy’ (Luke 1.44)

Today’s Gospel has something vitally important to teach us about mission.

It describes the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth and is rich in theological significance. Mary is bearing the unborn ‘Son of the Most High’ (Luke 1:32) in her womb.  Elizabeth, as yet unaware of Mary’ pregnancy, nevertheless, recognises her as the bearer of the hopes and desires of all nations, and life stirs within her womb. Her unborn infant, John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Christ moves as if to greet the baby Jesus in the womb of Mary. According to the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, Luke is here presenting Mary as the first missionary, the first messenger of the gospel’. She is the first human being to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to another person; and she does this simply by carrying Christ within her. 

What does this beautiful story teach us about mission? It teaches us that mission is not primarily about preaching or delivering a verbal message. It is rather about going out to meet another person with Christ in your heart.  In the words of Williams, Mary’s mission is ‘not about the communication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a primitive current of spiritual electricity running from the unborn Christ to the unborn Baptist. And it evokes a response of recognition and joy, vividly portrayed in the striking Vietnamese icon above.

Mary, then, testifies to the primary importance of simply carrying Jesus with love and allowing his presence to touch those with whom we come into contact. In the Visitation scene, something happens that precedes, and prepares the way for, all the words that will be spoken and the deeds that will come later. 

The modern missionary movement from the West has been criticized for its “crusading spirit and teacher complex” (Kosuke Koyoma). There is enough truth in this criticism to make us pause and re-examine our approach to mission. Have we sometimes, perhaps, put more trust in our resources and our expertise than in the action of God’s Spirit in our lives and in the lives of those among whom we worked? Were we sufficiently aware “that we are at the service of a task which, despite our most generous commitment and most advanced techniques, transcends our human capabilities” (SMA Constitutions, no. 26)?

Did we leave enough room in our work for the God of surprises, the God who chooses the weak to confound the strong, the God whose light invariably enters through the cracks in our lives rather than through our successes and achievements?   

The challenge for missionaries today is to recapture something of that combination of prayer and action, contemplation and witness, that characterised the lives of the great missionary monks – Benedictine and Celtic – of the Middles Ages. In this respect we have much to learn from Mary, our Missionary Mother. She models a patient and humble mode of missionary presence, not forcing God’s hand, but carrying Jesus with ‘love beyond all telling’ (2nd Advent Preface), and allowing the space and time for his presence to evoke that leap of recognition and joy in the hearts of those we meet. 

I will end with a prayer:
“Mother Mary, teach me how to be a missionary after you own heart, carrying Christ with love to those to whom I am sent, and allowing his presence to evoke an awakening response of recognition and joy in their hearts. Amen”

Michael McCabe SMA