What’s the Four Letter Word You’ll (Almost)
Never Hear in a Protestant Church ?
Answer: Mary, the Mother of Jesus
Sermon by Colleen Fay, Th. M.
Sunday June 25, 2017
What’s that four-letter word you almost never hear spoken in a Protestant Church? It’s Mary, the mother of Jesus. And there are a host of good reasons for that. Mary has become one of those “red flag” ideas that drives a wedge between us Christians, separating us one from another something that keeps us from joining forces wholeheartedly to heal the sick, feed the poor and to repair the world.
The reason that Protestants don’t mention Mary is that Catholics – and our Orthodox and Oriental Christian cousins for that matter – do tend to go a little overboard about her. Now, I say this as what they used to call a “cradle Catholic” – someone born and raised – and still very much a practicing Catholic. It’s just that taking my religion seriously doesn’t mean not looking at my church and all its faults and our beliefs as objectively as I can. Nor does it mean that I love and respect Protestants and Protestantism any less. You Protestants, I know stopped venerating saints after the Reformation.
But the Mary “thing” goes much deeper than just a little difference of opinion, however, Trying to figure out just exactly what role Mary played in the life of Jesus both as the woman who gave birth to him and as one of his most devoted early followers has been keeping theologians up at night for centuries. “If you say this about Mary, than it implies that about Jesus.” “If you say thus-and-so about Jesus, you’re making all kinds of assumptions about Mary,” and so on.
To me there is a central question that surrounds Mary. It’s hard to get to because for many people even her name conjures up all those statues and processions, thousands of votive candles burning, clouds of incense, Catholics professing that they don’t worship Mary, only to go bonkers as they “venerate” her, Protestants all saying, “yeah, sure, a distinction without a difference,” As soon as we start talking about Mary, Protestants run screaming from the room. I’m not going to attempt to defend any particular point of view, but rather focus on a flesh-and-blood girl and later woman who is central to the Christian story.
Now I like a good story as much as much as the next person and stories about Mary abound. They’re there in the Gospels, but since these were written chiefly by men – now I’m sorry, guys, but this is true, the girls’ stories and the women’s’ stories just don’t seem that important to you, if they get told at all. In the view of some men, we women are, frankly, just not front page material.
It’s in Luke’s gospel that we get the first Mary story. What gives it that human touch for me is that when Mary is visited by an Angel, instead of being overjoyed, she’s terrified. Well, who wouldn’t be? She was engaged, not married, and now she was going to be pregnant? Everybody knew what that meant – disgrace. Joseph would just pronounce a bill of divorce under Mosaic Law and poof: there she would be disowned by her own family, probably thrown out on the street, just another street beggar and pregnant to boot. Did this “angel” or whatever he was, have any idea the risks he was asking her to expose herself to?
I don’t know about you, but more than terrified, I’d be tempted to say, “thanks, but no thanks.”
The Bible tells us that although Joseph’s initial response was to divorce her quietly, he changed his mind after an angel appeared to him as well: this time in a dream, saying, “don’t divorce Mary; this really is God’s doing.”
This is all well and good, but I want to back to that Mary’s encounter with the angel. Stark terror for anybody. I am personally intrigued by a few small details of the story. They are: first the story of Mary being alone. In the busy day of a young woman in Mary’s time, there would not have been very many such moments when she would have been alone, but being alone didn’t mean she wasn’t busy at any one of the many tasks that filled her day.
How would Luke have known all about this? My best guess is that he would have heard it from the Apostle Paul. Luke was one of Paul’s closest followers. Paul, in turn, would have heard about it when he had gone up to Jerusalem – then not surprisingly the center of the early church, and met James, “the brother of the Lord.” This is important for two reasons, because since there is no mention of Mary, we can assume that Paul’s visit took place after Mary died, but still James was a younger son of Mary and his accounts of Mary and Jesus’s lives would have been pretty accurate, even if second-hand.
So Paul would have told Mary stories to Luke and Luke would have told his followers those stories. Much has been made of the fact that Paul doesn’t mention Mary in his letters. For my money that’s because Paul was trying to do something else – establish Jesus and Jesus’s message in the minds of some early Christians who were just in the process of taking baby steps in the new religion. Details of Jesus’s life could wait till later. The groups of Christians who subsequently grew from the churches where Luke preached cherished and carried those stories about Jesus’ life and ministry from generation to generation like precious family heirlooms, for indeed, that is what they were. Carried them until they could be written down into the two books – the Gospel According to Luke. There are other brief Mary stories in Gospels of Matthew and John.
So here we have Mary, one moment there by herself, just collecting her thoughts as she’s chopping vegetables or doing the laundry. In the next minute there is this supernaturally appearing man, this angel –well, archangel, if you must know –, Gabriel, there beside her. The gospel account relates that Mary was “troubled.” I’m surprised she didn’t let out a blood-curdling scream that would have had the whole house running to see what was wrong. Instead, Mary stands her ground.
She has the presence of mind to listen to what this stranger – who has appeared out of nowhere – has to say. If she had been troubled before, she should have been terrified by now. Just think about it for a minute. Families in the Roman-occupied province of Palestine lived in walled compounds. It was as much to keep the toddlers and the animals from wandering away as it was for keeping intruders out. Teen age girls led sheltered lives; strange men did not just “appear” to them. So, she’s a nice Jewish kid and the angel appears and tells her she’s going to have a baby. Practical girl that she is, she asks the obvious question, “how is that possible since I’ve never slept with a man?” I mean, all that “Hail Mary, thou highly favored daughter, thou hast found favor with God.” All well and good, but let’s keep our feet on the ground shall we?
Gabriel comes back with the double-whammy, “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 the Son of God.”
As a kind of guarantee that this was the real deal, Gabriel throws in a bonus, “ And now, your relative, Elizabeth, in her old age has also conceived a son and this is her sixth month, she who was said to be infertile. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Our God; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.”
It’s Mary’s one sentence response that is the crux of everything I want to say about her. Mary says ‘yes’ when her conscience says to say yes. She says yes at what will be enormous cost to her.
I know that quite literally volumes have been written about the fact that this potion of Luke’s Gospel is a later addition and an embellishment at that. Mythologies of the Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples are replete with gods impregnating mortals –Zeus in the form of a swan impregnating Leda, and so on. Reams of textual analysis have also been written about whether the translation should say “young woman,” or “girl or “virgin.” Let’s just say “average sheltered young Hebrew girl of child-bearing age who’d never borne a child before, much less been married.”
Flash forward a few centuries.
They were just having such a good time back there in Fourth Century of the Common Era they were still grappling about who and what Jesus was. They pretty much all agreed that he was born in Roman-occupied Palestine during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus and died during the reign of his successor, Tiberius – so far, so good. Jesus was also God – although one faction said he was “almost” God. But I’m not going to get into the hair-splitting around that one!
Jesus was joined entirely in his divine-ness and his humanness. So If Mary was the mother of Jesus’s human nature, it stood to reason she was the mother of the God side of Jesus as well – since the two sides of Jesus were inseparable. The Gospels were all written in Greek, and, yes, trust the Greeks, – they had a word it – what we should call Mary – it is Θεοφόρος (Theotokos) or God-bearer.
From the Universalist perspective all these centuries later, it must seem like quite a tempest in a teapot. Jesus is seen as a great teacher, a prophet even, but…well… perhaps not God. In that vision, Mary gets demoted from “god-bearer” to “good-guy-super-teacher-bearer.” Even there, I’m not interested in trying to square that circle. Different people, a lot smarter than me have debated that point. Let’s set aside the theological tangles and just get back to that startled teenage girl and her encounter with that mysterious stranger, There’s a kernel of something in that encounter that’s really important and lots of well-meaning people just seem to blow right past it. They blow right past it in their rush to put Mary up on a pedestal, or to tear down that pedestal. What did she do that was so important?
She said yes.
Mary said, “yes,” when it ran counter to all the evidence. Now it is true that girls were supposed to be compliant, obedient, “Yes, mother, yes, father, whatever you say, mom or dad.” There’s the sort of “garden-variety yes,” but Mary’s “yes” was qualitatively different. And thereby hangs the tale.
There’s no record in the gospel of her telling Gabriel, “Can you wait a minute, I’ve got to go and ask my parents first,” or wait let me send a text to Joseph on my smart phone – I’m engaged to him. Let me see what he has to say.” No, nothing that suggests a moment’s hesitation. A perfect stranger – an archangel perhaps, but a perfect stranger – asks her to give up everything on a single roll of the dice. What kind of young woman would agree so readily to that?
Anybody who knows me knows that I have a tendency to try to make connections, to draw inferences when they are not justified. With that in mind, I’ve stepped back and thought some more about this Mary and I come away with a picture of a young woman – a rather extraordinary young woman. God chose wisely to have Mary be the mother of Jesus.
What happens next is that she hurries off to assist Elizabeth also pregnant. Mary, the dutiful younger relative, off to tend to family duties just like any other young woman would have.
There is one wonderful flourish that rounds out this part of Mary’s story. Arriving at the home of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, Mary says, “hello.” Luke’s gospel picks up the story. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb…” Mary’s response is in the form of one of those ancient hymn texts that are like bridges from the Old Testament to the New, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” It came to be known by its first word in the Latin translation, “magnificat,” (my soul magnifies). Coincidentally, after the Lord’s Prayer, this was the most popular beloved prayer of Christians east and west for more than 1,700 years.
So, the very first thing about Mary is that “yes” of hers. Stripped from almost two millennia of accretions, it’s still a powerful statement, but not powerful in the way that we ordinarily think of power.
These days we associate power with force – brute force. Who’s the strongest? Which country has the mightiest military? Who can intimidate? Which athlete is the fastest, most adept: who’s got the most Olympic gold medals? None of these can hold a candle to the kind of power that Mary had when she wielded that mighty “yes” of hers. That’s because she had the greatest kind of human power there is, that is: influence. By her action she could and did and does persuade others.
Still not persuaded? Still don’t think that’s powerful? Christians and Muslims comprise nearly 2.8 billion people – that’s a huge percentage of the world’s population living today. None of them would have come to believe what they do – to say nothing of the millions who have preceded them in history, if Mary hadn’t said “yes,” In fact, we wouldn’t be here in this church this morning, if that teenager hadn’t said, “yes.”
In our own time think of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai. She is still only a teenager – she turns 20 next month – and without an army or a personal militia, no gun or other external power, Malala has moved millions of people to pay attention to the plight of girls the world over and the need for girls’ education. Even that’s but a mere fraction of the power Mary had,
Oh, and let’s not confuse Mary’s “yes” with acquiescence – Mary rolling over and saying in effect, “yeah, sure, whatever.” That’s what that Magnificat prayer is all about. This young woman is saying, “Listen, when I step up and say, “yes,” I really mean it: I’m giving my word.” Regardless of what you call it, this is Mary’s public repetition and most emphatic reaffirmation of her “yes.” A more positive “yes” than this, it does not get.
Even though it says elsewhere in Luke’s gospel “her heart will be pierced with a sword.” Yes, of course, metaphorically, but as anyone knows who has watched anyone they love suffer and die, it might as well be as if a sword is piercing through your heart.
Jesus’s time of ministry on earth would be scarcely three years, but without publishing a book or, better yet, starting a rebellion against the Roman occupation – as many hoped he would – he did manage to start something very big. Everywhere Jesus’s travels took him – throughout Galilee and up to Jerusalem two or perhaps three times, Mary was there with him every step of the way. No running back to Nazareth for her. It’s Mary’s steadfastness that counts.
Mary doesn’t have to proclaim her faith in Jesus and what he stands for, doesn’t have to shout it from the housetops. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t have a bumper sticker on her car or a personalized license plate proclaiming her faith or wear a tee shirt with some eye-catching slogan. No. Mary’s faith was the behind-the-scenes sort of faith, but no less strong for that.
Our Buddhist friends have a lovely idea. These are the bodhisattvas. Within different branches of Buddhism they represent those on the very threshold of pure enlightenment. Instead of taking that final step, however, the Bodhisattvas pause to help other people to strive on their individual paths toward that perfection which is enlightenment. Why do I mention this in conjunction with Mary? Because one of these, Avalokiteśvara, is the most beloved of them all. She is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. I see in the Mary story a parallel to Avalokiteśvara and I’m certainly not the first person see such a parallel.
For centuries women and men have been drawn to Mary because she was so real, so down to earth. She didn’t have the divine whatever-it-was that Jesus had. Yet she stuck by him. She was, in effect, the first Christian. And she knew what it meant to suffer. She’d been through it all. She knew what it felt like.
Now that’s a powerful example to keep it mind.
Enter American writer Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents. Harvard-educated, world-traveled widower who, in 1904, wrote a little book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres about two of France’s great cathedrals. Good Unitarian that he was, the octogenarian described the “Lady Chapel” at Chartres from the perspective of a woman in the Middle Ages and her Mary.
… to peasants [like us], and beggars, and people in trouble, this sense of her power and calm is better than active sympathy. People who suffer beyond the formulas of expression, – who are crushed into silence, and beyond pain, – want no display of emotion, – no bleeding heart, – no weeping at the foot of the Cross, no hysterics, – no phrases! They want to see God and to know that he is watching over his own. How many women are there, in this mass of thirteenth-century suppliants, who have lost children? Probably nearly all, for the death-rate is very high in the conditions of medieval life. There are thousands of such women here, for it is precisely this class who come most; and probably every one of them has looked up to Mary in her great [stained-glass] window, and has felt actual certainty, as though she saw with her own eyes, – there in heaven, while she looked, – her own lost baby playing with the Christ-child at the Virgin’s knee, as much at home as the saints and much more at home than the kings. Before rising from her knees, every one of these women will have bent down and kissed the stone pavement in gratitude for Mary’s mercy. The earth, she says, is a sorry place, and the best of it is bad enough, no doubt, … but there above is Mary in heaven who sees and hears me as I see her, and who keeps my little boy till I come; so I can wait with patience, more or less! Saints and prophets and martyrs are all very well, and Christ is very sublime and just, but Mary knows.
Adams rightly grasps the two-fold idea that Mary has had for so many Christians – Martin Luther included, by the way – in their love and admiration for Mary over the centuries. It’s not about dogma or theology or priests or angels dancing on the head of a pin…
Mary was born, lived and died just like us and felt the same things we feel, knew joy and sorrow and yet she could and did remain faithful to Jesus, even if she didn’t necessarily understand every nuance of his message. You don’t have to venerate Mary to admire or even emulate her.
God knows that …and Mary knows that, too.
May it be so and let us say, “Amen.”
From the Book of Common Prayer, The Magnificat
“The My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden:
For behold, from henceforth :all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him: throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm:
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be : world without end. Amen.