Wild Lectionary: Mary, Hildegard and the anawim

IMG_2855Advent 4B

Luke 1:26-38, 46b-55

You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. Luke 1:52

By The Reverend Marilyn Zehr

I met her this afternoon when I went for a walk. She was throwing the ash from her woodstove onto the snowy road just outside her front door.

“Helps the cars get traction,” she said. “You’re the new minister aren’t you? Want to come in and see my Christmas decorations?”

She lifted her heavy frame up the step and through the door with a lurching limp. I easily took the two steps from the road to her living room and looked for the woodstove glowing at the back of her kitchen, noting that it’s warmth struggled to reach us where we stood even though the rooms were small. When she switched on the coloured lights on her 18-inch tree sitting next to the television she turned her aging soft face to me with a child’s eager to please smile. She showed me the poinsettia she’d received as a gift and the sign on the wall that says “Pray always” and the plaque next to the door that quoted Jesus in John 14, “Let not your heart be troubled…” The TV was loud and her little dog yammered for the head scratching that I gave him. We didn’t talk for long.  When I left, I noted that the woodpile next to the house would not be enough to get her through the winter and made a mental note to keep an eye on that and make sure she connected with wood-share.

“Let me know if you’re going to lead bible study in the New Year,” she called after me. “I’d like to come.”

All day, I had been thinking about the anawim, the Hebrew word for the poor and afflicted and in the Psalms and Isaiah, those who wait on God for deliverance. In Mary’s Magnificat the anawim are those who have been raised to high places and in contrast the mighty on their thrones God has deposed

Past tense.


Hard to believe it’s past tense when the game of thrones continues unabated from the time of the Saul, David and Solomon monarchies to Trump’s recent announcement that the US embassy will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His is a bold move backed by a religion of empire where the powerful claim to know what peace is and how to create it while consistently supporting oppression and exploitation of people and the earth. (See Wes Howard-Brook, Come Out my people, Orbis Books, March 2012)

So what to make of Mary’s Song? Through Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s words (Luke 1:31-32), the gospel writer applies all the same David’s royal throne language to Jesus the Prince of Peace, who himself is born anaw (poor and lowly), to a woman who is one of the anawim and who chooses to remain one of the anawim by emptying himself and taking on the form of a servant.

It is at this time in my questions, research and study that Hildegard of Bingen (b. 1098 – d. 1179 CE) showed up to help me understand. Hildegard of Bingen lived during another era where the battle for religious and political thrones was especially intense. She was a contemporary of Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who spent the 1130’s trying to repair a schism in the church by getting the kings and rulers of Europe to agree to support Pope Innocent II instead of Anacletus II.  And then in the 1140’s while Bernard was rallying the people for the Second Crusade, Hildegard of Bingen, on the banks of the Rhine in Germany, began to record her mystical visions in writings and paintings. Not only water, but also ideas flowed down that river and paddled back up. In the 7th century the river carried the Scotch-Irish monk Disibode to the Rhineland valley. His Celtic influence runs strongly in Hildegard’s thought and music. She explicitly dedicated songs to St. Disibode and later wrote his biography.

Hildegard of Bingen, herself a staunch supporter of the anawim, was a woman who knew that most of what we know, we know through encounter with the Divine who encircles and enlivens the entire universe. Hers was essentially a creation-based spirituality. She knew that everything, all creation, is connected in the Divine. The verdant, greening power and Spirit of Creator God animated Hildegard, her writing, her preaching, her music, her religious reforms and activism, and her mystical experiences. The book that contains most of her visions or illuminations is entitled Scivias, or Know the Ways. Hildegard says that people who know the ways of wisdom, “will themselves become a fountain gushing from the waters of life… For these waters – that is, the believers – are a spring that can never be exhausted or run dry.  No one will ever have too much of them… the waters through which we have been reborn to life have been sprinkled by the Holy Spirit.” (Hildegard, quoted in Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, with commentary by Matthew Fox, Bear and Company Inc, 1985). In this way all believers are in the tradition of the same Holy Spirit that inspired Mary’s Song in the hill country of Judea when Elizabeth, also prompted by the Holy Spirit, exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit your womb.” The Holy Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation now hovered over the waters of Mary’s womb, effectively lifting her up and placing her in a high place by making holy the earthiness of our humanity.

A poem by Hildegard:

The earth is at the same time
she is mother of all that is natural,
mother of all that is human
She is the mother of all,
for contained in her
are the seeds of all.
The earth of humankind
contains all moistness,
all verdancy,
all germinating power.
It is in so many ways
All creation comes from it.
Yet it forms not only the basic
raw material for humankind,
but also the substance
of the incarnation
of God’s son.

(Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen, Versions and Introduction by Gabriele Uhlein, osf, Bear & Company Inc, 1983)

Hildegard’s accomplishments in response to her own experience of the verdant Spirit are too numerous to mention in this brief reflection.  And much of what she thought and wrote and said was lost to the Western church until a generation ago for she like so many women before and after her preached and wrote and composed in a patriarchal culture that has yet to relinquish its grip on the thrones of this earth.  But the verdant germinating power of the Spirit who raised Mary, and raised Hildegard continues to raise up those who are poor and lowly and wait for God’s deliverance. Past tense, yes, and present tense also. I know because….

I met her this afternoon when I went for my walk. She was throwing the ash from her woodstove onto the snowy road. Through her, I heard the One who became anaw – proclaim – “Pray always and do not let your hearts be troubled, for I have raised up the lowly to high places and deposed the mighty from their thrones.”


Marilyn Zehr is a 7th generation Mennonite settler, a Spiritual Director and a Minister who seeks to be attuned to the Sacred through the earth and its creatures. Marilyn and her partner Svinda Heinrichs reside in the hamlet of Maynooth, Ontario, Canada and on a 64-acre piece of unceded Algonquin territory. This hilltop land that sustains and heals all who venture there was once on the shores of an ancient glacial lake known as the Shawashkong – and now overlooks a vast river valley in the York/Madawaska River watershed that flows through the Ottawa and the Saint Lawrence rivers to the Atlantic Ocean. Follow our adventures on https://riseabove470.wordpress.com


Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.


One thought on “Wild Lectionary: Mary, Hildegard and the anawim

  1. Pingback: Posted this week for the Wild Lectionary – Rise Above

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