As a Protestant teaching in a Catholic education setting, I led students last May into a topic that should be valuable to Christians of all denominations: a historical understanding of Mary. While Mary is widely known as the mother of Jesus and as a symbol of someone who radically trusted God, most people have little awareness of the cultural conditions in which Mary lived. By encountering more of Mary’s history, we can recognize Mary’s decision to trust God’s radical plan came in the midst of military occupation, poverty, and marginalization. Without any guarantee of comfort and in spite of oppression, Mary’s experience of trusting God teaches us that our surrender can’t depend on external circumstances.
Through examining and memorizing Mary’s prayer of praise in Luke 1, reflecting on religious art, and imagining how Mary’s story connects to the present day, students were able to imagine how they might worship God in all conditions.
Exploring Mary’s Historical Context
In order to understand Mary more fully, students began by listening to me read an article called The Historical Mary Article in America (Jesuit) Magazine. As we parsed the details of the article together, students were surprised by Mary’s age, the probable harshness of her chores as a Hebrew woman in first century Nazareth, the linguistic diversity of the region in which she lived, and even the likely poverty her family faced through excessive taxation.
Over the month of May, students memorized Mary’s Luke 1 prayer, “The Magnificat” in English and in Spanish. Each day, students would read and attempt to recite as much of the prayer as possible. By breaking the prayer into three sections related to praise (verses 1:46-49), God’s merciful justice (1:50-53) and God’s faithfulness (verses 1:54-55), students memorized several lines each week. Then on week four, students were challenged to record themselves reciting as much of the prayer as possible by memory.
Check out this video I made for students about memorization strategies! To my surprise, the majority of students loved the challenge of memorization, although not all were ambitious enough to memorize the prayer in its entirety. One of my favorite times of day was when students recorded themselves reading the Magnificat all at once. I loved the sound of their overlapping voices, with differences in tone and pitch more closely resembling yeshiva students than a chicken coop.
By examining the meaning of words like “magnifies”, “fear”, “proud”, “humble”, and “servant”, students were able to learn more about God’s goodness and his justice. Through other activities, students also learned about the concept of fear of the Lord and how obedience differs from rebellion.
Through a 5 by 2 thinking routine, students examined the colors and symbolism in this piece by Jenn Norton. By considering what the painting could mean before and after receiving background information, students were able to draw connections between how Mary’s emotions are displayed and themes like peace or courage. While this painting frame’s Mary’s act of surrender as a more tranquil, passive kind of acquiescence, it was interesting to consider how God’s peace might have transformed Mary’s experience of pregnancy during uncertainty.
Later in June, students were able to reflect on their most valuable learning experiences from the year, through the lens of Catholic Social teaching (check that out here). In reflecting about Christians’ call towards family and Community, a student reflected on how the Magnificat taught her to view Mary like “all mothers”: as someone who lives a life of sacrifice. As families ended a school year unlike any other, it was lovely to see how this student was able to honor her mother and other mothers by acknowledging the difficult task of motherhood.
Overall, my students’ interest in memorization, curiosity for history, and sense of solidarity with Mary through their own experiences of sacrifice, poverty, or marginalization gave this project a special resonance. I look forward to extending this project in the Spring so that students will be able to find other examples of Christians or Catholics trusting God through unknown and uncomfortable times. In order to develop a faith that overcomes our circumstances and allows God’s light to shine in absolute darkness, we can look to Mary as an older sister who knows what it’s like to trust God.