In one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Sister Act, Sisters Mary Clarence (played by Whoopi Goldberg), Mary Patrick (played by Kathy Najimy), and Mary Roberts (played by Wendy Makkena), begin the righteous remix of Mary Wells’ “My Guy” with a riff on the “Hail Mary.”
Although that “Hail Mary” is aimed at the wrong Mary (Magdalene instead of the Mother of God), the scene always strikes me as powerful because it demonstrates how Jesus sees us – possessing inherent value and dignity. Honoring human dignity is a fundamental hallmark of the ministry of Jesus Christ whose sojourn was all about seeing human dignity in places that could be easily overlooked. It is also a part of the Baptismal Covenant where we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”
The Feast of the Annunciation marks the moment the Angel Gabriel “announced” to Blessed Mary that she had been chosen for a unique vocation – the bearing of the Son of God. Here again we see the dignity of humanity centered in the ministry and mission of God. Gabriel’s first word to Blessed Mary was “hail” or “greetings,” but the word the Angel said to her could be translated as an invitation to enter “joy.” “Rejoice, Mary, because God finds favor in you.”
The artistic work that captures this exchange most accurately for me is Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation.”
Blessed Mary seems to have an appropriate response to her face-to-face encounter with the divine visitor – worship and reverence. But what I find interesting about this painting is the fact that Gabriel reverences Blessed Mary as well. She has found favor with God and from that moment, “all generations will call [her] blessed.”
The visibility of human dignity in Blessed Mary is particularly powerful when we understand that she was a young, unmarried, Jewish girl in Roman-occupied Palestine. Her society was governed by a strict code that separated and honored people based on identifiers like class, ethnicity, sex, and citizenship. Mary was a poor, Jewish, female non-citizen. She was on the bottom of the social ladder, and yet God saw her. Being in God’s gaze is truly a reason to rejoice.
Too often our own world is governed by similar codes. Dignity is doled out to people who possess some forms of privilege and power. But the Feast of the Annunciation teaches that God is in the business of broadening our gaze and extending how we see human dignity. Everyone, by nature of the fact that they draw breath and are created in the image and likeness of God, possesses a fundamental human dignity that must be honored and revered. God sees all of us. God invites us all to enter joy.
Where in our society do we have trouble seeing human dignity? Where do you? Perhaps a practice for you and your family this Lent might be to reach across that divide to learn about people who might live their lives from a very different place. Invite neighbors for dinner, visit a masjid, volunteer with a social service agency, initiate and build deep relationships that support deep wondering and deeper compassion.
If being seen by God is an invitation to enter joy, perhaps learning to see like God is an invitation to spread this joy with others.
Gabriel saw Blessed Mary as possessing a fundamental human dignity denied to her by the world in which she lived. If Christ is to be born into our world anew, we must learn to see as God sees. In so doing we will become agents of God’s joy and heralds of God’s grace.
A Prayer for Today
Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[Image credit: Fra Angelico [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]
Whose dignity do you struggle to see?