Our lectionary text this morning is Mary’s Song of Praise. She sings it after she is told that she will become the mother of a son to be named Jesus. If we ponder the words of the song carefully, they tell us a lot about Mary as a woman of faith. They also make us wonder how well we know her. Some might say how we think about Mary is of no great importance since Jesus and not Mary is the central figure of the gospel. While it is certainly true that Jesus alone is our Savior, this does not mean that every other figure in the gospel story has little significance for our faith and life. Certainly, Mary has an important part in the story of salvation. That alone should be sufficient reason for us to rightly remember and properly honor her. So I have three questions this morning as we approach the Christmas festivities with the song of Mary as the text for our meditation. How well do we remember Mary, the woman who gave birth to Jesus? What kind of woman was she, really? And what difference might it make if we remembered her better? This morning I want to share with you what I think can be said in response to these three questions.
First, how well have we followers of Jesus remembered Mary? The short and uncomfortable answer is, not very well. Some of you may have visited St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. You may recall seeing there Michelangelo’s world-famous Pieta, a sculpture of Mary with the lifeless body of her crucified son lying on her lap. The sculpture is now carefully guarded. Some years ago, it was attacked by a man with a hammer.
Before he could be stopped, he struck and seriously damaged the face and arm of the figure of Mary. What the man did was widely condemned, but his action serves to remind us of the violence done to Mary even within the church.
Our violations of Mary are legion. We have often distorted her beyond recognition. We have made her the Queen of heaven, clothed her in purple robes, and placed a jeweled crown on her head. We have made her the perfect lady, praised her untouched virginity, and sent out knights in shining armor to prove their allegiance to her. We have contrasted her with Adam’s partner Eve, extolled her silent acceptance of her duty, kept her mute and compliant, and expected all Christian women to copy this ideal. We have made Mary the total mother, exhausted her significance as a human being and a servant of God in the processes of childbirth and child-nurture, and have presented her in this form as the perfection of womanhood. Queen of Heaven, Eternal Virgin, Perfect Woman, Total mother: these are some of our distorted pictures of Mary.
While Christians in the Reformation tradition have escaped most of the excesses of the Marian piety of the past, we have engaged in our own kind of violence on Mary. In many cases, we have simply pushed her to the margins, excerpt for recognizing her necessary role in the stable of Bethlehem. This dismissal of Mary has contributed to an almost completely masculine version of Christianity, with all-male symbols, all-male language, and all male models of Christian discipleship. The marginalization of Mary in many Protestant traditions has gone hand in hand with forgetfulness of the many stories of women and their encounters with Jesus in the Gospel tradition. Perhaps this helps to explain the virtual vacuum in the church’s life when it comes to images of faithful women. And, of course, modern American culture knows how to fill a vacuum. It smiles contemptuously at Medieval fantasies of Mary and their lush Marian festivities and offers us instead the Miss America Pageant and the adventures of Superwoman. How well have we remembered Mary and her countless sisters of faith who have come after her? Not very well.
Which leads to our second question: What kind of woman was Mary, really? Well, to answer that question we will want to read the scriptural narratives rather than engaging in daydreams and fantasies. This morning we cannot review all the passages of the Gospels in which Mary has a role, so I will mention only a few Gospel texts which together give us an unmistakable portrait of Mary. What are its distinctive features? Consider Mary’s reaction to the message of the angel Gabriel who told her that God had chosen her to be the bearer of the Christ child. Her first response is, “How can this be? I have no husband.” Mary is initially shocked and confused. She is not sure what is going on. But for all her uncertainty and fear, she says to the messenger of God: “Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” Which is to say, “Here I am, Lord, use me in your service.” Mary’s response goes to the heart of Christian faith. “I am unworthy of God’s grace, and I do not know how I could possibly be of service to God. But here I am, gracious Lord, use me as you will.” Mary trusts in God when momentous events cascade around her. She is not certain what God is up to, and she is not sure what the future may hold for her. But she trusts that God is good and faithful. This is the strong faith of the Mary of the Gospels, and it continues to be the faith of Christian women and men to this day.
Another feature of the Mary of the Gospels comes to voice in her Song of Praise. If this song tells us anything about Mary, it tells us she is a woman who identifies with the poor, indeed she is one of the poor. Moreover, she knows from her own experience the meaning of insecurity and living on the edge. Which is why her song of praise spills over with thanksgiving for God’s astonishing grace for a nobody like her. For Mary, God’s choice of her is abundant evidence of God’s compassion for the poor and God’s desire that justice prevail on earth as in heaven. Clearly, Mary does not come from a well to do family. At the time of Gabriel’s message to her, she is probably only a poor teenager. And on top this, she is triply disadvantaged.
She is a woman in a patriarchal society, she is a Jewess whose country is under the rule of a foreign empire, and she has become--at least according to Matthew’s telling of the story--an unmarried teenage girl.
Despite all this, Mary rejoices. Listen again to her Song of Praise:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, For God has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden; God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away”
In her soaring song, Mary rejoices in God’s inauguration of a new era, an era of justice for the oppressed and good news for the poor. But be careful, do not equate Mary’s joy with superficial happiness. She would have known intuitively that giving birth can have its difficulties, and likewise the coming of a new era of justice and peace will not be without pain. And that intuition would be quickly confirmed. From the very beginning, Mary would learn there would be acute suffering in her life.
This awareness that the service of God may involve personal hardship is also a feature of the picture of Mary in the Gospels. At the dedication of child Jesus in the Temple, she had heard the warning of Simeon that her child would bring the light of God’s revelation to all the world, but there would also be a sword that would piece Mary’s heart. And not long after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph would have to flee with the child to another country because Herod, when he heard that a king had been born, was set on killing all Jewish boys under the age of two.
When we hear the joy in the song of Mary, we can be sure that it is not a naïve joy. The shadow of a cross falls over Mary and the entire gospel story from the very beginning. As a woman of deep faith and a woman who celebrates God’s justice-making work in the world, Mary will finally be seen standing nearby when Jesus is crucified. Most of the other disciples have fled the scene long ago. But a few women, including Mary, remain with Jesus to his last hour. The biblical Mary knew, as people of faith of every age have come to know, that the coming of God’s new world is costly.
These are the prominent features of the Gospel picture of Mary which no portrayal of her should ever omit: she is a woman of faith who has doubts and uncertainties but when called by the grace of God to God’s service she says. “Here I am Lord, use me according to your word,” she is a woman of faith able to identity with the poor and passionate about the cause of justice for the downtrodden; and she is a woman of faith who knows that God’s new era comes at a cost.”
And now after our brief sketch of the biblical picture of Mary, we come to our third question. What difference might it make if we remembered the real Mary rather than manufacturing fanciful pictures of her, or simply forgetting her? I suggest that remembering Mary well might help us remember better the many pathbreaking contributions that women of faith have made over the centuries in the life of the church and for the common good.
Remembering Mary might, for example, help us to remember and honor a woman of faith whose name was Rosa Parks. Parks, a member of the AME church, had a vibrant, joyful faith, and she too knew that being a servant of God and God’s purposes can be costly. She too, like Mary, had moments of doubt and fear, but with her faith in God, she got on that bus on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, and she sat down where the law unjustly said she shouldn’t sit down. Rosa Parks said of that day, “God’s peace flooded in my soul, and my fear melted away.”
Rosa Parks, a woman of faith, has been called the mother of the civil rights movement. Remembering Mary might also help us to remember a woman named Dorothy Day, controversial religious journalist, social activist, and founder of the Catholic Workers Movement devoted to helping organize workers to insist on just wages and better working conditions. In mid-life, she was converted to the Gospel of Jesus, and she dedicated herself to helping the poor during the years of the Great Depression. Hospitality houses were established where the poor were fed and given hope that, if they worked together, they could bring about significant social change. Dorothy Day experienced humiliation and imprisonment for her commitment to social justice. Disliking being called a saint while she was alive, she is now recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church for her selfless and fearless work on behalf of the poor. Like Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day would gladly join in Mary’s song of praise and thanksgiving for God’s astonishing love for all, and especially for the poor.
The final woman I will mention is a contemporary who also stands in what we might call the lineage of Mary. Her name is Elizabeth Theoharis, and she teaches at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Even more important than her academic position, she is co-chair with the Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival, one of the nation’s leading social movements in our time, continuing the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Liz Theoharis works tirelessly to organize the poor of all ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds to work together in the struggle against the grinding poverty of millions of people in a wealthy society. Theoharis says of Mary’s song: “It has brought strength and vision to the struggles of the poor and disposed throughout history.
It sings of a God who is in solidarity with the poor and stands with them in the fight for justice.”
Like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day, Elizabeth Theoharis and all the other leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign hear the words of Mary at the annunciation of the birth of Jesus as words inspiring joyful confidence. Those words say that even when the poor are mostly ignored, God befriends them, even when the forces of injustice seem overwhelmingly strong, God desires that there be justice on earth, and that even when we are tempted to despair, God announces the beginning of a new era with the coming of Jesus, and we all are called to prepare for God’s coming new age .
Friends, my comments this morning boil down to this: How we remember Mary influences how we think not only of the three women I have mentioned but also of countless other brave women of faith in the history of the church. So how shall we remember Mary, the mother of our Lord whose birth we will soon celebrate? Shall we crown her the Queen of Heaven? Praise her untarnished virginity”? Use her as a commercial gimmick to sell cards at Christmas time and flowers on Mother’s Day? Shall we simply forget her, or even worse, substitute in her place the latest models of modern culture of what it means to be a woman, that, willy-nilly, shape our understanding of what it means not only for women but for all of us to be truly human?
Why not let Mary be what the Gospels describe her as being: a woman of faith from whom we might learn the passion and costliness of radical discipleship, the relentless pursuit of justice and life together under a gracious God, and the strong hope in the promise of God’s coming kingdom? Why not let Mary’s song remind us of what her son Jesus declared when he began his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
I want to conclude with a brief passage from one of Martin Luther’s Christmas sermons. . . . “Bad enough that a young bride could not have her baby in her own house instead of making all that journey to Bethlehem when heavy with child. How much worse that when she arrived, there was no room for her. The inn was full. She had to give birth in a cow stall. No one recognized what God was doing in that stable. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! Even if Mary had been unwed, anybody should have been glad to give her a hand at such a time. Now there are some in this congregation who are thinking: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have gladly washed his linen.” Oh, sure you would! We say that because we know how great Christ is. But if we had been there at that time we would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. . . . Why don’t we do it now? . . . We have Christ in our neighbor.”