You’re probably already familiar with the concept of instinctive threat responses—the reactions our bodies choose between when we are afraid.
Back in my day, there were two of them: “fight” or “flight.”
Nowadays I feel like I keep hearing about new ones—first freeze, like fight-flight-freeze, then they added on fawn, so fight-flight-freeze-fawn, and then I heard about one called “flop” and I’ve decided someone needs to take away all these psychology researchers’ thesauruses before we end up with like, the 10-F model of threat responses.
But I will confess that every time I hear of a new one, they feel instinctively reasonable to me—I can look back at my own reaction in tough times and see times I’ve gone into fight mode, flight mode, freeze mode, fawn mode, and if I let myself read about it long enough to understand what it was, I’d probably find times I went into “flop” mode.
When I think about the “fight” response, I think about how often my “social justice warrior” impulses are driven by my own feelings of being threatened as a gay man and an HIV patient.
When I read about the “fawn” response, I think about a ton of work I had to do in therapy as a young adult to get to a place where I had healthier boundaries.
When I read about the “freeze” response, I think about all the times I react to a too-long to do list by just staring blankly at my email inbox, unable to actually do anything.
When I think about the “flight” response, I think about how often my response to stress is to open the American Airlines app and see if I have enough award miles to take an impulsive vacation yet.
And I also think about this scripture.
I think in this scripture, we see Mary’s—and maybe also Elizabeth’s—flight responses on display. And I think what we witness in these responses might help us answer our question for the advent season: How does a weary world rejoice?
BIBLE STUDY MARY
Each week in Bible Study, we pray together, read the scripture for the week, then start off by making observations. I ask folks to repeat back the narrative we just read and to call out things that seemed interesting or odd or notable to them to start our shared analysis.
This week, folks jumped straight to talking about Mary and how she joyfully receives this special gift of a child from God.
But I couldn’t help push back on that observation, because this week, in THIS week’s passage, I don’t think we see Mary rejoicing—at least not yet.
What do we see?
The scripture starts with Elizabeth rejoicing over her pregnancy, saying God has “remedied” her “unfortunate condition.”
We might read between the lines there and imagine that Elizabeth has been trying for some time, or maybe that she was feeling left out by her friend group because she didn’t have kids on the same timeline as them, or something like that.
Then Elizabeth’s goes off by herself for 5 months, relishing her pregnancy. When I read that timeline, I think about how it’s just long enough to reduce the risk of miscarriage and just long enough that she’s really starting to show, and I wonder about if there’s even more to the “unfortunate condition” than just that she had a hard time getting pregnant.
I wonder if her going off for 5 months is maybe less of a spa-like relishing of her pregnancy and more of a flight response to protect this pregnancy she so cherishes, or maybe even preemptively preparing for the time of social seclusion that would follow her bleeding from a miscarriage.
Then we get to Mary.
Mary, at this point, is unmarried, and probably a young teenager. When a strange being starts flattering her, she does the smart thing in—the thing I’d recommend anyone who’s being flattered by a stranger out of nowhere—she gets skeptical. What’re you trying to pull, dude?
But Mary freezes for long enough to hear the Angel’s message. Then, she fawns—“yes, I am God’s maid, ready to serve.”
Notably, this is not the Magnificat.
This is not the scripture where Mary says “my soul magnifies God,” or that her soul is “filled with joy.”
I suppose it’s possible that internally Mary is jumping for joy, maybe she fully understands what it is going to mean to be the mother of Jesus and is already over-the-moon about it… but if that’s the case, the author of our gospel reading didn’t see fit to show it to us in her words or actions.
For now, we have only passive acceptance.
“I am the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.”
Well, passive acceptance and running.
You see, when Mary gets her positive pregnancy test delivered straight from the Angel Gabriel, it comes with a side comment, some gossip—“this happened to your cousin Elizabeth too, you know!”
Mary latches onto that angelic sidebar and, the moment the Angel leaves, runs with it.
Mary’s nervous system has cycled through the fight, flight, freeze, flop, fawn, forget, whatever else options and selected “flight,” running straight to her cousin.
Mary doesn’t stop to tell Joseph, doesn’t stop to talk to her mom, doesn’t stop for anything. She just takes off running for what would have been 9 days straight to see her cousin Elizabeth.
There’s a reason why the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends the “run – hide – fight” protocol during active shooter defense trainings. The instinctive threat responses we have are not a “bug,” they’re not a problem to be solved.
Certainly, troubles arise when we are threatened so often that we are constantly in “threat-response” mode, when wires get crossed and our bodies go into threat response mode even when things are safe as can be.
But these responses are hard-coded into our DNA because they’re time-tested tools to survive even the scariest threats.
And I think we see that show up here.
When Mary arrives, Elizabeth’s first response is to speak joy into her:
“You are blessed! The baby kicked the moment you came near!”
“You are blessed. And I am blessed to get to see you.”
When I read that, I instinctively took a deep breath, instinctively felt my shoulders loosen.
Only after Mary has joy spoken into her by her loved ones, do we get to a place where rejoicing is on the table for Mary.
Only then does Mary break out into joyful song:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name; indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
When Mary senses a threat, when her nervous system goes into trauma prevention mode, she flees. She flees to her safe space, to her cousin Elizabeth, where she is received in all her weariness and leaves full of deep joy.
When you are weary, when you are threatened, when your body tells you to “flee,” I wonder:
Who do you flee to?
Who would you run 9 days to see, so you don’t have to face the big scary things in your life alone?
For me, it’s my family.
I have maybe the most lively family group chats you’ve ever seen; I guarantee you when we wrap up today I’ll pick up my phone to 100 unread pictures of my brothers and sisters’ babies… or my mom and dad’s dog.
I have five siblings, almost as many in-laws, and countless nieces and nephews, and we don’t always get along perfectly, but more than once, we’ve liquidated our airline miles to show up when one of us needed someone to “flee” to.
Sometimes, my “fight or flight” responses send me to my chosen family—maybe the best friend from college who seems to “get” my all of my emotional complexities more than anyone else, the one who I share a therapist with. Or the friend I first came out to twelve years ago, whose wife and kid are like family to me, too.
Or maybe my chosen family here, at Kensington. It was inside of this religious community where I learned to rejoice in who God made me to be, where I learned to discern the call of God to ministry, where I prepared for the first two churches I was called to serve.
I didn’t grow up around here, so most of my “safe places” are a plane ticket or at least a long drive away. But I don’t need to plan a trip to get to safety at KCC; I just… show up each week.
Like Mary who wasted no time getting to Elizabeth, I can waste no time and run to Kensington.
I hope you have some place, some people you can go to to be safe, to have your presence described as a blessing, and to have your weariness transformed into rejoicing.
Maybe, like me, you have family you run to. Maybe you run to AA meetings or a knitting group or friends from high school. Maybe you find connection at protests and pride parades, maybe you find yourself rejoicing after community town halls where you advocate for housing and justice for your neighbors.
If you don’t have a space like that yet—and honestly, even if you do—I hope you’ll consider making room for KCC to be on your roster of “safe spaces.”
Stay after for a bit, grab some Krispy Kreme in lander hall, and share your burdens and joys with a friend. Or if you’re like me and are a little too introverted for coffee hour, call the church office and set up some time for a one-on-one with me or one of our partnership pastors.
And if you’re not ready to do any of that, just… keep showing up. Keep connecting with us for the few seconds I can say “good to see you today!” on the way out.
But no matter what, do not leave yourself starved for community. Nurture yourself with people you can run to, with places where you can connect, when you need your weariness transformed into joy.