Sermon 12 20 15 Advent IV Yr C
This week of Advent, Advent 4, we focus on Mary. Earlier this morning we spoke her Magnificent. Mary has always been a difficult figure for me. When I was young and a little Swedish Baptist girl, all my little Roman Catholic friends had pictures and statues of Mary all over their houses. Some of them had statues in their gardens. And in some of this art her heart was exposed! This freaked me out a little bit. My Dad just said that that was the Roman Catholic way and that we don’t think about Mary the same way they do. And she had a halo in the pictures and on the statues, and I thought that was odd. She didn’t have wings, so she wasn’t an angel. And there’s only one God, right? As you may recall, I didn’t understand about saints when I was a little girl.
Later, as I became acquainted with the Episcopal Church and came to love it, I began to understand about saints – human beings who we revere and whose lives are important to our salvation history.
But what remained a problem for me, and it still does, is any notion of Mary as perfect. I believe in the virgin birth just fine, but the idea that Mary was perfect or that she somehow achieved a divinity of her own seems to me to defeat the entire purpose of incarnation. The idea was and is that Jesus came to us as both human and divine, Mary contributing the human part and the Holy Spirit taking care of the rest. From Luke, the angel Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” What is the point of incarnation, of Jesus born as both human and divine if the human component – Mary – isn’t as human like all other humans? There is nothing in the Bible about Mary’s divinity or Ascension or anything that makes her anything other than a person just like the rest of us.
In the 2nd century, there was a document written that was titled “The Proto-Gospel of James, the brother of Jesus.” It is highly unlikely that any brother of Jesus was still living in order to write this document, so it was probably actually written by a follower of one of Jesus’ brothers. The character of James claimed to be Jesus’ half-brother, a child of Joseph by a prior wife who had died. It is only in this document that we read of Mary’s history and her immaculate conception, her perpetual divinity and her ascension to become the Queen of Heaven. Most scholars of that time rejected the information as an effort to deify Mary, but much of the story has taken on a life of its own. She began to be revered in the second century.
For us Episcopalians, this is again a theological area that reflects the great sweep of Episcopalian thought. Some of us are very Roman. Some of us are very protestant. Most of us are somewhere in between and there is room for all of us at the table!
So that’s where the idea of deifying Mary came from. I personally just have to say that I think it takes away from Mary to think of her as perfect. I think it diminishes her.
Also, to set her up as the perfect role model of wifeliness and motherhood is, I think, destructive. Who can live up to that? Who wants to? Thinking that mothers are supposed to be perfect is just plain crazy and striving to attain that perfection has driven more than a few women right over the edge. Parenting is not for sissies! Forget about a pedestal – it can stand there empty as far as I’m concerned. Talk about a useless piece of furniture…!
I feel more in sympathy with Mary’s story if I think of her as who she was – a young girl – probably 12 when she was first betrothed. Mary may have been as old as 15 when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel. 14 or 15 was around the traditional age for a bride of her time. Children and women often died in childbirth. It was important to begin the child-bearing process early, while a girl was young and strong. It is traditionally accepted that Joseph was older, possibly even a widower, but I don’t know why. Again, that may have been the accepted story so that Jesus’ siblings would be the product of an earlier marriage, thus maintaining Mary’s virginity. The whole discussion of the Christian view of virginity and the effect that has had on history is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say that I think the ideal of the spotless female is just plain unnecessary and destructive.
But for us in the 21st century, it’s hard to tell our young adolescent daughters about 15 years old or younger about Mary and explain how her pregnancy was OK. This is not what we in the 21st Century want our teenage girls to emulate. But we must remember that the very concept of childhood is relatively modern. Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, children were babies and then they were treated as very young, perhaps unformed adults, but nevertheless adults. There were no such things as adolescents until the 20th century.
So Mary, this young 15 year old girl, was an adult. She was betrothed to Joseph, which meant she had already begun the marriage process. In our gospel reading for today we meet her after she had been visited by the Angel Gabriel and told that she would become the theotokos, Greek for the God bearer. She would contribute humanity to this very different human being. The Holy Spirit would take care of the rest.
The only trouble with all this was that as a young unmarried woman, she was supposed to be a virgin, unless, of course, she and Joseph had begun cohabiting, which would have been OK, but they hadn’t. She faced terrible ostracism, possible stoning. Her very survival rested on Joseph accepting the story of her pregnancy. So Mary’s own acceptance is extraordinary. “I’m here. I will do and be whatever you want. May your words be fulfilled.” So simple and straightforward and yet so full of faith. She had to have known the dangerous position she was in.
She rushed off to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Madeleine L’Engle wisely comments, “Sometimes it is very important to have an older friend who is not a parent.” I like to imagine that Elizabeth was the first person she told.
Elizabeth was further along in her surprise pregnancy than Mary and we are told that the future John the Baptist moved within her with excited, joyous recognition as Mary approached. I imagine that with John, Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy was pretty exciting!
Elizabeth’s reaction must have been reassuring for Mary. The right things were happening. So she praised God – in spite of all the danger she could be in – she embraced the unknown and the extraordinary and praised God. She didn’t react rationally, with her mind. She didn’t question. No – her soul, her spirit rejoiced in God’ greatness.
Sometimes that’s the only response we can have to God. Sometimes we can’t use our intellect. Sometimes we need to let God be God in our lives and accept. That’s hard! We like to be in charge. We want to know everything that’s going on and we want to know why. But sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we need to accept – whatever it is – we need to accept.
What we find throughout the story of Jesus’ human birth is that supposedly insignificant, ordinary people, simply because they accept who they are and who God is and trust, supposedly ordinary people achieve true greatness.
Joseph is an unsung hero. He isn’t mentioned in the gospels by name after the birth narratives. Joseph would have had every right to set Mary aside and refuse to marry her. One gospel says that is what he planned to quietly do. At worst he could have publicly accused her of adultery and insisted that she be stoned. But he accepted what the angel told him and was willing to endure the questioning glances (is she carrying his baby?).
It must have been difficult for both of them.
Unquestioning, accepting. This sort of behavior may strike us as passive and maybe even unintelligent, but no, Mary made a choice, a strong choice. To simply say to God, “Here I am. Do with me as you will.” She chose to give her very self over to God.
While with Elizabeth, Mary began to speak in poetry, the Magnificat, elevated language. Poetry is music we speak. You know, there are those who say that song in musicals or in opera is for those moments when talking is not enough, when the feelings are so strong that one must sing. We don’t know if Mary actually sang the Magnificat but when I read it, I think of song. It’s quite possible, even probable that the Magnificat was composed later and added to the birth narrative in Luke to best express the feelings that rushed through her. The Magnificat is one of the earliest Christian hymns. It is easy to envision her saying or singing it. She had stepped into history! “From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.”
First, Mary gave her sense of who God is. “God has mercy on those who fear him” – fear as in awe, not as in being afraid – “in every generation.” Always.
Then she recited God’s great deeds, and they are all great deeds done for ordinary people, people just like her. God had scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. These are the people God blessed and she was happy to be among them.
Mary was an extraordinary young woman, a woman who listened, who paid attention, a woman who was thoughtful. One of my favorite remarks about her is when we are told “She kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Again, she didn’t apply her intellect to what was happening to her – she pondered in her heart. She applied her heart.
Mary accepted what she didn’t understand. And she was willing to never understand. Think of that. To be aware of something cosmic happening within you and to know that you will never fully understand it. That takes great patience and strength.
And finally, the matter of God’s grace. There was nothing noteworthy about Mary. She was a little nobody from a nothing town. All of the stories about her extraordinary piety are fiction. Made up to explain why this particular 15 year old was the mother of Jesus! When that was the point! She was nobody! She was from nowhere! She didn’t do anything. She didn’t earn anything. She found favor with God because God decided to favor her. She found favor with God through grace. Grace is a gift from God. It’s just grace.
I do believe Mary is a saint, a human to be revered and remembered as important in our salvation history. She was an ordinary human who found herself in extraordinary circumstances because of God’s grace. An ordinary human being just like any of us. Each of us, all of us can be available to God’s grace at any time. With patience and acceptance – to choose to take that leap and simply say to God, “Here I am.”
Sermon 12 20 15 Advent IV Yr C