by Mihee Kim-Kort—
When my kids were a little younger they said all kinds of things in response to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Today my sons will still say things like play for the Steelers or the Golden State Warriors or be an engineer. For a while my daughter’s responses ranged from dolphin trainer to national soccer team player, congresswoman or doctor.
Online lists with other kids’ responses to this question reveal similar and not-so-similar answers: Ninja chef. Tattoo artist. Grave digger. Or “I am 7. I want to be 8.” Or “I want to be a customer in a store. I will buy broccoli, tomatoes and carrots. When I get home, I will make soup.” My favorite, for its simplicity and aspiration is: “Get a girlfriend. Kiss her. Rule the world.”
It’s a timeless question: What do you want to be when you grow up? What are you called to do? What keeps you up at night, but still gets you up in the morning? Parenthood was something I never really considered a vocation, job or calling. I assumed it was just one of those things we were supposed to do at some point in our lives, something we could do like a side-job or hustle, something that could be done on autopilot without much thinking or intention. I have some theories about why I would think that in the first place, but of course, I now know it’s not any of these things. Some days I’m amazed I’ve even been given this parenting responsibility at all.
So I imagine that in the Gospel of Luke, when the angel gives Mary the news that she will not only carry God’s Son within her body but care for and raise him, she must have a number of concerns and some questions.
Shortly after receiving this news, Mary goes “with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” (Luke 1:39) and enters the house where her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, live. Elizabeth is six months into her own unexpected pregnancy, a surprise because she is much older than Mary, barren and past childbearing years. It’s hard not to imagine the anxiety and uncertainty Mary must be feeling (Will her family throw her out? What will Joseph think?), the fear of judgment, the loneliness and isolation, the heaviness of responsibility. Mary’s experience is certainly much different from that of Elizabeth, who has been waiting for so long with Zechariah, yearning, praying and hoping, until finally her pregnancy becomes evident, and of course, everyone is in awe, giddy, happy and celebrating with her. I picture her eating, resting and getting the baby’s room ready, still hardly believing that this is really happening.
And then Mary shows up on her doorstep, greeting her. Elizabeth would know her sweet cousin’s voice anywhere. And the little one growing inside Elizabeth jumps—no, it does a little jig inside her—when it hears Mary’s voice! Elizabeth knows, although the text doesn’t tell us how she knows, except by the Holy Spirit, and she says: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. … And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:42, 45).
I’m going to go ahead and guess that Mary did not expect Elizabeth to say these words. I wonder if Mary had been afraid that Elizabeth might reprimand her for getting herself into this situation. I wonder if she’d expected Elizabeth to reject her and slam the door in her face before she could voice even one word of explanation. Maybe, though, she hoped a little that Elizabeth, her big sister-cousin, would at least let her in past the threshold. And give her some water. And give her a chance to sort out everything tumbling around in her brain.
I love Luke’s gospel for giving us this moment. He doesn’t start out with genealogies like Matthew, or a theological interpretation of creation like John, or words from Isaiah and completely skipping over the birth story like Mark. Luke starts out slow, a kind of “once upon a time,” and weaves a beautiful narrative together, starting with a scene from the home of the parents of John the Baptist, then moving to the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Reading Luke’s account gives us a little sense of déjà vu (that we’ve already seen it before) if we’re familiar with some of the stories of the Old Testament. Here we see images present in the stories around Hannah and Samuel and Eli: a barren woman, a child dedicated to the temple, a priest, a song of praise.
GOSPEL OF WITNESSING
Luke’s gospel is sometimes referred to as the gospel of witnessing. His words bring up sounds, scenes, smells, senses—so that we can feel as though we’re entering into the story too. We walk in the door with Mary. We feel Elizabeth embracing Mary. We watch Mary find refuge in Elizabeth. This moment is a different kind of witnessing—not the kind of reporting, accounting or narrating intended for court documents or legal credibility. Luke’s gospel is less about telling us what to believe, and more about showing us what it looks like to believe. From Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary, we learn what it looks like to be a witness, and what it feels like to share one’s witness from the get-go.
In many ways, Elizabeth embodies this witness. Witness is about receiving. Elizabeth receives the news of Mary
who is theotokos (Greek for “God-bearer”). Elizabeth receives Mary into her home. Elizabeth receives joy. Elizabeth sees and blesses Mary with words that tell her cousin: “You are beloved.” Witness is also about blessing— that is, celebrating and sharing in wonder and hope, offering affirming and encouraging words, and saying aloud what is true in that moment.
When we’re witnessing, we are seeing in a way that is God’s way of seeing.
When we’re witnessing, we are speaking of God’s way of seeing by giving testimony and proclamation.
When we’re testifying and proclaiming, we are helping others to be who they are—who they are called to be—quite simply and wonderfully, the beloved of God.
This is our true vocation—what we are supposed to do when we grow up, each of us in our own ways. We are called to sing these words—“You are beloved”—to each other. And we are called to do so amid the brokenness of this world.
But this kind of witnessing is meant to be mutual—there’s a reciprocity to it. So Mary embodies this witness too. Mary lets loose: She sings. And we receive a poem, a sermon, a prophecy, a vision, an echo and a picture of the same future that we, like Mary, ache and yearn for when we light candles during Advent. Mary’s song is also our song.
And before you say that you can’t sing, to quote to the main character in the movie Elf, anyone can sing: “It’s just like talking, except louder and longer and you move your voice up and down.”
Before the angel arrived, maybe Mary had plans. Maybe she was thinking about what and where she would be when she grew up. It’s doubtful that this was on her radar. When we most need a song about who we are and what we’re called to, God gives us those people who will witness it in us, people who will ground us in who we are— beloved creations of God.
Georgia Douglas Johnson was an African American female playwright, part of the Harlem Renaissance and one of the first African American poets to receive national recognition. She wrote about everything from motherhood to racism to matters of faith and spirituality. Her 1941 poem, “I’ve Learned to Sing,” speaks to me of our vocation. She writes: “I’ve learned to sing a song of joy/It bends the skies to me,/The song of joy is the song of hope/Grown to maturity.” You can read this poem in its entirety at: https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00083298/00001/45j.
Our vocation is to witness together, to show what it looks like when we receive, to learn to sing, to say “You are God’s beloved” to each other. This kind of witnessing multiplies and inspires love in impossible and wonderful ways.
The Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister with degrees in divinity and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of Outside the Lines (2018).