This Advent, some friends and I have been reading Jacob of Serug‘s Hymns On the Mother of God. Jacob was a fifth century monk, priest, and poet in the Syriac Church, and these hymns display the rich poetic interpretations of scripture that others in his tradition (like St. Ephrem the Syrian) were known for. And in Jacob’s interpretations of Mary’s life and the Nativity, he has used beautiful poetry to talk about Mary’s virtues and the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation. She is humble, pure, discerning, and wise and so she is chosen to bear the Son of God. As Jacob imagines the priest Zechariah telling Mary, “that One whose glory fills heaven is in your womb. / The One who forms babes in all wombs dwells in you, Mary, because of this the babes exult and are glad in Him” (p. 55).
What struck me today in Jacob, however, was his depiction of Mary telling Joseph about her pregnancy. Jacob has combined Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and has placed Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:39-56) before Joseph’s awareness of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18). He envisions Mary telling Joseph about the Baby in her womb, interpreting to him the words of the angel Gabriel and the words of the Hebrew prophets as Zechariah and Elizabeth had taught her:
The Virgin also, with loud voice and uncovered face, spoke with him, without a bride’s veil. / And with the revelations and interpretations of the prophecy, she was urging him not to doubt on account of her conception. / He marvelled at her while listening to her, what must he do! The Word is great and who can believe in it without revelation. / She was telling him the words which she heard from the angel, and she was narrating to him how the priests in Judea had received it. / She was also reminding him what the prophets spoke; he trembled while remaining steadfast, and he firmly believed everything, while hesitating.
Mary is presented elsewhere in Jacob in comparison to the liturgical items of the temple: she’s the ark containing God’s Word, an altar, a mercy-seat. But here Mary is a preacher. And she presents a beautiful model for proclamation. First, she’s speaking from a position of vulnerability. Pregnant before her marriage, she could easily have been ostracized and shamed. To speak out in such a situation required boldness, a freedom from fear of how Joseph would react. Mary is humble and modest, but she speaks with confidence, a confidence that comes not from her own strength but because “The Word is great” within her. She speaks what she’s received from the angel and what she’s been taught by Zechariah and Elizabeth, so she claims no authority for herself. Yet she speaks confidently in order to inspire faith in Joseph. Altogether, she’s speaking, as the commitments of the House of St. Michael the Archangel say, both “with confidence and humility“. The two go hand-in-hand.
Modesty and boldness, humility and confidence, are not polar opposites. Each requires the other. Confidence without humility is arrogance. A lack of confidence also does not equal humility. Mary displayed great courage speaking “with a loud voice and uncovered face” and “urging [Joseph] not to doubt”, and yet she is the epitome of humility for Jacob of Serug. May God grant us such bold modesty.