A sermon for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, August 15, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 61:10-11, Psalm 34:1-9, Galatians 4:4-7, and Luke 1:46-55.
Peter Gomes, the great preacher and teacher at Harvard, suggests that many Protestants have trouble with Mary because we assume she’s a Roman Catholic. He imagines what happens to an especially Protestant dean of a Cathedral after he died. This dean had little time for the Virgin Mary, and so when he finds himself in heaven. “Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you have met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.” (Sermons, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p.11)
I should “come clean” and admit that in some ways it’s the Virgin Mary’s fault that I am an Episcopal priest. (If not her fault, then at least it happened with a good bit of her influence.)
In my introductory theology class in seminary our primary textbook was called Principles of Christian Theology by John Macquarrie. I studied the textbook, but it my reading the footnotes that got me on a path that would take me out of the Presbyterian Church and into the Episcopal Church.
Somewhere in that textbook, there was a footnote that referred the reader to a document published by a group called the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When I looked up this group in the seminary library, I found that not only were there papers and pamphlets, but also I found out that the group was truly ecumenical: it was made up of Lutherans and Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, Episcopalians and even a few Baptists. The group’s purpose was to try to recover the rightful role of Mary in Christian theology. Carl Braaten, a Lutheran theologian points out that “The vehement attack of the Reformation against the exaggerated cult of Mary in late-medieval Christianity diminished [Mary’s] place in the story of salvation, personal piety, and public worship.”
And yet, Martin Luther maintained a very high view of Mary. Luther wrote, “Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing, God does all. We ought to call upon her, that for her sake God may grant and do what we request. Thus also all other saints are to be invoked, so that the work may be every way God’s alone.” (“Magnificat”, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, pp. 326-29).
The more I learned about Mary, the early church, and sacramental theology, the more I felt cheated at having grown up in such a Protestant background. While some Roman Catholics might have layers of cultural and folk tradition with which to sort through, I felt like I had nothing but ignorance and prejudice.
It is true that some of what has come to be believed about Mary springs from the hearts of faithful believers. Early Christians began wondering about Jesus. If, as the theologians insisted, Jesus was born of a woman, people began to wonder what that woman must have been like. The New Testament scriptures offer minimal information, but other scriptures and writings that circulated in the early Church also seem to point to Mary and her special place in God’s plan of salvation. In other words, Mary (or someone like her) needed to be there for God’s plan to work out. And that plan includes us and our eternal life not only with God, but also with Mary and all the other saints.
The Gospel reading for today is clear enough. In words we know as Magnificat, for the Latin “my souls magnifies,” we hear Mary praise God. The Angel Gabriel reveal to Mary that she is going to give birth to a very special baby, and while Mary’s first instinct might be to run far, far away; instead, she stands still. She remembers words that Hannah used to praise God (way back in 1 Samuel), and Mary quotes what she remembers of Hannah’s song, and then she adds her own twist.
In the Magnificat, we see Mary as faithful to God’s calling, even when it seems scary, even when it brings danger, even when it might turn everything one’s world upside-down.
In the Letter to the Galatians, our second scripture reading today, we hear Paul’s understanding that God is working through Mary, an ordinary woman, in order to create a new family, a family of God into which each one of us is adopted. No one is born with special standing. No one inherits more than another. But each one of us is like a stranger to God, like a slave to the things of the world, until we are baptized, until we claim God and God claims us, and we are adopted into God’s family.
The first scripture reading this morning, from Isaiah is another joyful passage: I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God;
Isaiah is writing to God’s people who have been help captive, and he’s announcing that it’s soon time to go home. They’ll be restored to their homeland, they’ll be reunited with loved ones, and there will be a time of peace and new life. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”
Just as humanity encountered a fall in the first garden, the garden of Eden. Mary is understood as the New Eve. The womb of Mary is understood as the new garden, full of possibility and wonder and life.
Ideas and beliefs about the Blessed Virgin Mary have surely grown beyond what we find in scripture. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth had little patience with all of this. He famously said, “In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Church which explains all the rest.” And yet, even as one among the saints—those heroes and heroines of the faith, those known and unknown—even as one of the saints, Mary deserves our attention, and I believe we can learn from her.
There are at least three ways in which Mary can be a model for us and can help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)
First, there is (what Gaventa) calls “the vulnerability of Mary.” She allows God to direct her life. She is obedient in the truest sense of that term—her obedience in no way takes away her strength, her agency, her feistiness, her strong-mindedness (remember when she is at the wedding at Cana, and they’re running out of wine and she looks at Jesus as says, “Do something. Try to be helpful!”) Her obedience in no way diminishes her personality. And yet, she is wholly dedicated to God and God’s purposes.
Second, Mary is able to reflect on the events in her life. That’s no small thing. There have been times in my life when I’ve been regular at journaling. When I look back at those journals, much of my musing is embarrassing and seems immature, but then there are parts where I’m really surprised that I was able to notice something in particular God seemed to be doing in my life. It reminds me that in order to notice, I need to slow down sometimes. I need to pray. I need to open my eyes and look. Or perhaps close my eyes and listen. Mary NOTICED what was going on around her, and slowly, but surely, seems to have realized what God was unfolding in her life and in the world.
And finally, Mary can teach us what it means to be a witness of Jesus. You know the classic posture of the icon that shows the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap. And Mary is pointing very subtly as if gesture what she said: “Listen to him. Watch him. Do what he says. He is the way.”
A few years ago someone gave me a nightlight of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I like it especially because, in it’s small light-blue way, it symbolizes some of the attitudes one finds around Mary.
On one hand she has been diminished, turned into the stuff of folk-magic and kitsch. Her image appears on toast and on roadside underpasses just as surely as it she appears at the holy sites of Lourdes or Medjugorje. She might as well be blue, light the night light, like Vishnu, or like the Navi in “Avatar.”
And yet, the nightlight Mary is also a good image for those who have known something of her presence, her steadiness, her reliability, and her willingness to be a soft light showing the way. She shows the way to Jesus. She showing the way to eternal life in God.
May God’s Spirit help us to know the Blessed Virgin Mary and especially to know her qualities, so that we too might be brought to heaven, raised high with saints and angels, and behold the risen Christ face to face. In the name of the Father, and the of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.