Those of you who have been part of the Roman Catholic Church have a greater awareness and appreciation for Mary, the mother of Jesus. You may have participated in her many feast days, prayed to her, sang about her and seen multiple visual representations of her in statues and paintings.
If your religious experience has been primarily Protestant you may have a positive appreciation for Mary but she doesn’t play a large part in your spiritual life and you may not have heard or seen much of her in church. In fact you may have questioned her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception and her assumption into heaven as being particularly Catholic and therefore suspect.
For those of us who have little or no Christian background, Mary is sort of a hazy figure, in the background, only prominent at Christmas and during Holy Week when the broken body of Christ is taken down from the cross and cradled in her arms.
Even in Advent, it is not Mary, the one who carries the Christ child who gets top billing, but rather John the Baptizer, the fiery preacher, insistent prophet and wild man of the wilderness. I’ve preached a lot of sermons on John. The camel’s hair coat, locusts and wild honey are often interesting to children and his radical message is still pretty relevant and revelatory. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”
And yet, there are clues, vestiges of the Episcopal church’s, small c, catholic identity that remain on this third Sunday of Advent, which we call Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday. The pink of the candle on the Advent wreath and the rose color of the vestments point us to the deep joy of Mary’s faith. We hear the Magnificat, the great praise/poem/song, which she proclaims while pregnant with her miraculous child.
Maybe I need Mary more this year than ever before. Maybe you do too. We certainly need a taste of a deeper joy that is not dependent upon circumstances or emotions. In Mary’s Magnificat we experience praise, protest and promise. Her words fall into our present reality with an urgent and powerful message.
She begins with praise, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And some of us wonder, how can she be full of praise? Her situation is dire. She is poor and unmarried and pregnant. Before her is a difficult birth in a cave or stable, a dangerous journey into a foreign land and uncertainty about her child’s future and safety. She’s so young. And yes, it’s probably not the case that she penned this masterpiece of poetry herself, but it is true that those who wrote it drew on their knowledge of her and her life. They also drew on the great tradition of praise, protest and promise songs from women in the Hebrew Scripture.
In Mary’s Magnificat we hear echoes of Miriam’s song and dance after the Israelites were delivered from the Egyptians through the Red Sea. We hear Hannah’s exultation when after years of barrenness, she conceived a child in her old age and the great priest/prophet Samuel was born to her. Mary is in good company as she pours out her thanksgiving and gratitude for God’s favor upon one of lowly status, a young peasant woman with no influence or power.
Mary is full of her own worth and dignity which she receives from the Holy One. She will face dark and difficult times, but at the heart of her praise is the conviction of God’s love, grace and favor to her and to all those who are not mighty in the world’s eyes.
Here is one of my little stories of praise. I was ordained to the priesthood 24 years ago on this Sunday in a very large and wealthy church where I was hired as the third priest, mostly to work with the children and youth. I certainly felt insecure, inexperienced and without influence. The staff were all older and more experienced than I and the male priest was known as a “Cardinal Rector,” one of the most influential and powerful priests in the diocese.
On my first Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, just before the procession began, the Rector took me aside to tell me that the Choir Master was furious with me for one choice of music for my ordination. It was a shock. I had no idea there was even a problem. I was crestfallen. I was mortified. All the joy and anticipation of this holy moment was suddenly gone and I had no idea how I could go forward. Processing down the center aisle, I could hardly raise my head for the shame I felt. I could feel the choir master glowering at me (even though he probably wasn’t).
I was so naive and earnest. I knew there was no way I could celebrate the Eucharist unless I could be reconciled with my colleague. During the peace I made a beeline for him. I whispered that I was so sorry and I had never meant to cause him a problem or offend him. I told him I couldn’t go forward with the service unless we were going to be able to work it out. Of course, he was gracious. The event was minor and we gladly shared the peace of Christ with one another.
His forgiveness and understanding were such a relief that I nearly burst with joy. I was able to celebrate the Eucharist with a heart overflowing with thanksgiving.
Later I came to understand that the Rector used his power in an attempt to make me feel insecure and to keep me in my place. Instead God lifted up the lowly curate and the pettiness of the powerful was revealed.
Mary’s Magnificat moves beyond praise into protest. Those who can only visualize her as a sweet, demure, pious virgin have certainly not listened to her. She has the best lines for protest banners and signs. “He has scattered the proud in their conceit.” “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones.” “He has sent the rich away empty.” In Mary’s words, God is turning the world upside down. God is overturning the oppression of the proud, powerful and rich. God has shown particular care for the poor, the lowly and the hungry.
Mary is with those on the front lines who stand against the people and systems who would take advantage of the weak and lowly. I think of her especially in light of the protests against a dysfunctional justice system and the hurried execution of eleven federal prisoners before the next administration takes office. Mary has inspired many who fight for equal justice and against the death penalty. After all, she lost her child to a corrupt political power which used public crucifixion to control and intimidate its opponents.
Finally, Mary heralds the promise of God. She carries within her own body, the hope and light of the world in the holy child Jesus. She treasures this mystery and nurtures it. She proclaims the vision that the Jewish people received from their genesis, the promise of a future and an everlasting inheritance. It will be realized with the birth of the Messiah.
I imagine Mary in her final years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. It is during that time that his followers continued to learn from and be mentored by her. It is then that they write her story and encapsulate all she values in her Magnificat. As an older woman I imagine her as a mentor, guide and support for the early Christian movement. In Christian tradition, after her death she becomes the Queen of Heaven, crowned with honor and full of the power that was in her from her earliest age. Through all the challenges, difficulties and griefs of her life, she continues to say “yes” to God and to be a bearer of good news.
I felt close to Mary this past week as my next eldest cousin, Mark, died of cancer at age 60. He had been turned upside down himself 20 years earlier when, at a very difficult time of his life, he experienced profoundly the love and forgiveness of God. At his funeral, his wife, Leah, mentioned that he got the “most improved” award. He became a very faithful part of his Catholic Church and a profound influence on his friends and family.
His life, although shortened by cancer, was a huge blessing and full of faith, hope and love. A few months before he died he wrote:
I was diagnosed with inoperable, stage four, colorectal cancer in February 2016 and was immediately surrounded by prayers for healing. Those prayers were answered in a unique way. I was blessed with peace and serenity. Through all the ups and downs of chemo, phase 1 trials and of regression and progression of disease, I never have had a moment of despair, of “why me.” Leah and I have ridden these peaks and valleys with a calm certainty that if we do all we can, God will take care of all the rest, no matter where this path leads.
The blessing of peace has allowed for spiritual growth; looking for a truth that ties humanity together. The beliefs are not original:
- Love God/the creator and all his creation
- Love all humanity (unique in that God gave us spirit as well as physical form)
It starts as simply as quieting yourself and allowing the beauty of creation to fill your soul. From there look for the spirit (which God has endowed in all human beings) in everyone. Start with family, then move on to everyone you contact and finally move to the wider world, where people need our respect, help and love.
We are all connected and responsible for each other. Together we can change the world.
Mary continues to speak to us all in whatever our circumstances. “God has come to the help of his servant. God has remembered his promise of mercy.” Amen.