Mother Mary Full of Grace, Awaken
This month, National Geographic magazine named Mary, the mother of Jesus, “the most powerful woman in the world” due to her ongoing popularity and influence. Her legacy is celebrated around the globe. Mary draws millions each year to shrines in Fátima, Portugal; Knock,Ireland, Mexico City, Mexico, Kibeho in Rwanda, Lourdes in southern France and a thousand other places.
In scripture, we hear Mary speak just four times, beginning with the Annunciation, when, according to Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to her and says she will bear “the Son of the Most High.” Mary answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” Her most extended speech is actually a song. The lyrical Magnificat provides words Christians have prayed for centuries at the end of each day to let go and rededicate themselves to serving God before the approach of every new day at Evening Prayer.
During the Reformation (1517-1648), the idea of Mary as intercessor fell out of favor with among us Protestants, who advocated going straight to God in prayer. And I wonder whether many contemporary Christians are rightfully distrustful too, that the example of Mary will be used to subjugate women, keep them from feeling empowered, or from imagining how they (and others of their gender) might be called to partner with God in ministry.
To be honest, Orthodox Christian theology did Mary and all women a great disservice. A patriarchal Church transformed Mary into an impossible standard for any woman to emulate. It put half the human species in a double bind, forcing women of faith into to make the false choice between virginity and motherhood—and choosing either made them only half the woman Mary was.
I wonder if this is the kind of stuff that keeps people far away from Church today. If so, we have to face up to it if we are going to move past it, to heal the wounds Christian patriarchy has wrought, and best of all in order to encounter the biblical Mary again, as if for the first time, along with the other women of the bible. It’s time to think again about Mary as a leader and a disciple.
Luke’s gospel shows us her courage, boldness, determination, and extraordinary clear-eyed convictions about justice. Martin Luther once said, in the manger the hiddenness of God is revealed in the lowliness of Mary. It’s important to realize that Mary is called lowly, not because she is meek or passive, but because by all outward measures her social standing is very low. She is a young woman willing to take on the mantle of social condemnation, take personal risks, become a refugee, and endure hardship with little to go on beside faith.
This Sunday and next week, Mary is the one who will lead us to the light shining in darkness. As she has done for countless generations, Mary is our guide to finding meaning in the manger. It is Mary who walks with us into encounter with the Ancient of Days. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1)
As the Protestant Reformation was taking hold in Europe, in December of 1531, an Indian peasant named Juan Diego was walking past Tepeyac Hill (now part of Mexico City). The place was familiar to him. Previous generations had worshiped Aztec earth goddesses there. As legend goes, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego and urged him in his native Aztec language Nahuatl, to tell the bishop to build a church on the site. The Bishop is skeptical and demanded evidence. So Mary instructs Juan Diego to pick beautiful mysterious flowers found blooming at the top of the hill, carry them in his simple peasant cloak called a tilma and present them to the Bishop. When he does, an image of Mary was revealed which you can see today when you visit the enormous Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City (or stop to see her icon at the back wall of our church). In the months following Juan Diego’s vision, thousands were baptized and a new nation called Mexico was born. Today, on December 12th, pilgrims pay homage to her throughout Mexico, Central America and among Hispanic communities here in the States.
To my Protestant eyes and ears, Mary is often the voice of the gospel to the world’s poor. She is apostle to the lowly, the chronically ill, to victims of abuse and war. Out of two thousand sightings of Mary since 40 A.D., Mary shows up most often among very poor children living in remote or conflict-wracked areas. She represents compassion. She affords humanity and dignity to people living in sub-human conditions. She is an emissary of peace and reconciliation in a world wracked by war. Since the meeting of the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus, A.D. 431, she is Theotokos, the Bearer of God.
We in America have been engaged in continuous warfare since the weeks after September 11, 2001. We are at war over oil and influence. We are at war against terror. Fear and ignorance threatens to widen the conflict into a war between Christians and Muslims. Here too, Mary opens the path to peace. Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women, and her name “Maryam” appears more often in the Koran than “Mary” does in the Bible.
Mother Mary full of grace has shown us the way. In baptism and Holy Communion our finite and mortals life becomes a vessel bearing the infinite. We sing the old prayer, “If we but make a manger in our heart, God will once again become a child on earth.” The meaning of Christmas and the incarnation is that the life of God is carelessly and abundantly cast like seed deep within you and your neighbor. The fullness of encounter with God awaits those precious days and moments when the spirit of God in me is reconciled and joined together with the spirit of God in you my neighbor. God entered a woman’s womb and was born on earth for the earth. Following the leadership and example of Mary, we pray to have the courage to be faithful disciples of the same compassion, peace, and dignity that God has already afforded in abundance to us.