We’ve all had the experience. Someone ringing on the doorbell, or assailing us in the street. “What does the Bible really teach?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Come to our church and we’ll tell you what you should believe!” Street evangelists, all trying to convert us to whatever sect they represent.
I don’t know about you, but I find this all rather wearying. My heart sinks when I see them coming. What is it about such encounters that is so draining of energy?
If we analyse what is going on in those encounters, it all seems very human. Boiled down, it goes like this: “I’ve got something that you need. You need to become like me.” The implication of that of course is that I’m superior to you, possessing a higher knowledge, an implication that you will, consciously or unconsciously, resist. So it’s rather like a tug of war, one person against another, trying to score a point. I think that’s why it feels so draining.
Is that what Christian evangelism is meant to be like? After all, we are all ambassadors for Christ, witnesses to the good news of salvation. That calling is imprinted on us by our baptism. So is that how we are meant to go about it?
Fortunately, the Bible, and the living Church of which we are part, gives us a rather different picture. And today we look at the first Evangelist, the greatest ambassador for Jesus Christ: his mother, Mary. She gives us a very different example.
Her song of praise, that we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, was sung not in her own house in Nazareth, but in that of her cousin Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judea. That’s a considerable journey. But as soon as Mary had received the Angel’s message that she was to be the mother of the Saviour, as soon as she had said her “Yes” to God’s plan of salvation, Luke tells us, she set out in haste to visit her cousin.
Mary has become the first evangelist. She is pregnant with the Word of God – literally. The Eternal Son of the Father has become flesh and lies hidden in her womb. And she goes in haste out into the world, bearing the Word, full of the good news of salvation.
And the message she proclaims is, first of all, a song of praise. She is not trying to score any points. She is not concerned about proving her own importance, rather, she sings of her lowliness, and the great things that God has done.
This is the first thing that Mary teaches us about being ambassadors for Jesus – that we should not point to ourselves, but to him. And we do this by being God-focussed, not me-focussed. A heart that is enlarged by praise of God is attentive to God and not to itself.
We direct people’s attention to where our gaze is. If we are concerned with ourselves or our self-image or the points we want to score then what we are promoting is not God but ourselves. That’s not the good news we’ve been given to share!
Instead we are to share what God has done for us, and for all humanity, in Jesus. “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Mercy has been given to the world in Jesus. How essential that is! How liberating is that news!
A world of suffering and violence, alienation and injustice, sin and despair, has been shown mercy. The heart of our God is merciful towards us, and the name of that mercy is Jesus. The mercy of God is the one and only thing that can set humanity free, and it has been given, freely given, in Jesus. Mercy is not about deserving anything, but about finding ourselves, unexpectedly, in the embrace of a God who loves us. So Mary sings that her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour.
And that should be our song, too. The church is not the community of good people, or respectable people. The Church is the community of forgiven people. People who know how great is their need of God, and how great is the mercy that has found them and saved them.
And this gives us the keynote of our evangelism, which is joy. Joy is shot through Mary’s song. Unexpected joy, unlooked for joy, the joy of a glorious sunrise in a night that the world had thought would never end.
Mary, the bearer of the Word in her womb, is the type and pattern of the Church that continues to bear the Word as it witnesses in the world. She shows us how we are to be witnesses to the good news of God’s mercy, how we are to be ambassadors for Jesus Christ.
First, by being God-focussed, with hearts opened in praise, pointing to God and not to ourselves.
Second, by proclaiming the mercy and love of God that has come into the world in Jesus. Mercy and love that are for all people, and we know this because it has found and saved even us.
Third, our praise of God and our proclamation of mercy are to be fizzing up and overflowing with joy, like bubbles in champagne. That joy is a gift of the Spirit, and it is the stamp and mark of authenticity on our witness for Jesus. Nobody listens to sour-faced saints. But people who are joyful have a message that is infectious.
Think of people like Pope Francis, or Mother Teresa, or Desmond Tutu. People who have seen huge suffering, violence and oppression, and yet are constantly bubbling up with joy. Why? Because they know, like Mary, that God’s love and mercy are the final reality and will have the final word. Joy is not pretending to be happy when we are not. It is confidence in the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering.
And the world changes, when these things happen. God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, sends the rich away hungry. But to those who turn to him in their lowliness he shows his mercy, salvation and love, raising them up in overflowing joy.
So Mary is our model as we set out to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. We are not to be like those the street evangelists who want to prove their own point and turn us into copies of themselves. Instead we are to be bearers of the Word, forgetful of ourselves, hearts open to God in praise, full of joy because God in his mercy has found us and saved us.
And as Mary shows us that model, so too she supports and encourages us with her prayers. She has been taken into heaven. God has fulfilled in her, the type of the Church, the destiny and fullness of the whole Church at the end of time. She is the sign that points us on our way and the guide who shows us how to travel.
Mary, bearer of the Incarnate Word, first evangelist of Jesus Christ, pray for the Church that follows in your steps.