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Reclaiming Mary – Mother of our Lord

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)
Luke 1:39-55 – “Reclaiming Mary – Mother of My Lord”

This morning being the last Sunday in Advent—hold off on those Merry Christmases for four more hours if you can!—we’re wrapping up our sermon series on Mary of Nazareth, Mary the mother of Jesus. It’s been entitled “Reclaiming Mary” based on the title of the Sanctuary Arts Team’s written introduction to their installation. And so far in previous weeks we’ve reclaimed Mary’s yes, her full, free, and courageous yes to God’s call to her. We’ve reclaimed Mary’s favor, the grace God gave to her as someone on the margins. Last Sunday we reclaimed Mary’s rejoicing, the deep joy and hope she had despite facing a very uncertain future.

Today, let’s explore what Mary could mean for our own lives of faith over the long-term. Maybe think of it this way: how can we as progressive Protestants, if that’s how we identify, reclaim Mary for ourselves?

Let’s turn one more time to Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, as it comes to us from the gospel according to Luke. I’ll be reading from the Common English Bible translation, and you may notice that I’ve exercised a little preacher’s discretion by changing around some pronouns and verbs. Hopefully we can hear this passage in a fresh way…

Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

Mary said,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
For you have looked with favor on the low status of your servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
Holy is your name.
You show mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors you as God.
You have shown strength with your arm.
You have scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
You have pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
remembering your mercy,
just as you promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

What relationship do we have to Mary?

That might sound like a funny question to people who didn’t grow up in a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox tradition. Some of us grew up with an innate suspicion of devotion to Mary. There’s an old joke about the Dean (the Anglican clergy-person in charge) of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London dying and going to heaven. When the Dean gets there, he meets his Lord and Savior. Jesus says to him, “Ah, Dean, welcome to heaven. I know you have met my Father, but I don’t believe you have met my mother.” [1]

Even as I preach this sermon about her, as a Southern Presbyterian, I feel a little guilty, like I’m breaking some rule somewhere. This Advent I’ve worked at trying to appreciate her place in my own devotional life, as well as her place in the church. We don’t know Mary very well, in a personal sense, as much as those whose spirituality includes praying to her. I was reading an article recently in which the author mentioned the role La Virgen de Guadalupe plays in the imaginations of people who are involved in drug trafficking south of the border. People pray to her for protection, apparently– they carry rosaries with them, she’s tattooed on their backs, and so forth. So I asked my spouse, Elizabeth, who’s more familiar with Mexican culture than I am, “Why do they presume to pray to the mother of Jesus of all people when they’re trafficking drugs?”

“Because,” she said with more wisdom and kindness than I had at that moment, “They feel they’re in need of protection just like the rest of us. They feel like she’s with them.”

It’s that sense of “with-ness” about Mary that I keep coming back to. For millions of people around the world, she’s an advocate in heaven, someone who is forgiving and tender-hearted and compassionate, someone who intercedes for those who are in desperate need of mercy. That’s why, as I mentioned in a previous sermon, my friend from the Philippines calls her, endearingly, “Mother Mary.” And while I’d argue that Jesus is all those things already and that believers have no need for a go-between, I think we can still learn something from that angle on Mary about the character of God.

The way Mary is portrayed, the way people connect with the idea of her (and her presence, even) says something about the intimacy God seeks with each of us, about the way God loves.

If you were here for the previous sermons in this Advent series, you probably picked up on some themes of liberation. How could you not with passages like our gospel reading for today? “Scattered the arrogant… cast down the powerful… lift up the lowly… fill the hungry… send the rich away.” Mary has a lot to teach us about the radical reversals of God’s reign, how God is at work to help the least and the lost. And as a prophet of justice in her own right, she can reclaim herself from the patriarchal elements in tradition and in church today that dismiss her as just a meek and mild maiden. Mary can teach us as much about courage rather than submission, about a person of strong faith who’s willing to take risks rather than a passive actress in some divine drama. Mary who was a poor, unwed, young woman living in colonized territory, was also empowered as the first disciple of Jesus and a unique partner in God’s mission of redeeming the world. Mary was a Co-Creator, birthing the beginning of God’s new heaven and new earth.

All of that… and. And that role that other Christians tend to uplift more than we do: Mary as mother of God.

Whatever you believe about the story of Jesus’ birth, whatever baffles you about this mystery (and we should be baffled by all this on some level), I hope you are struck by the theological claim that God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” There is something so awe-inspiring about the idea of the incarnation—that among all the means at the Creator’s disposal, God chose to become human, to be carried in a womb for nine months, to be born as babies are, to be laid in a manger, and all the muck and mess that entails. God chose to have a mother— to be cradled, swaddled in cloth, breastfed, soothed to sleep, bathed, changed. There’s something so precious about that bond between parent and child, so tender, something so… well, human.

There’s a poem by a Polish writer, Wisława Szymborska, “Born of a Woman,” that marvels it all:

So that is his mother.
That little woman.
The gray-eyed perpetrator.

The boat in which years ago
he floated to the shore.

Out of which he struggled
into the world,
into non-eternity.

The bearer of the man
with whom I walk through fire.

So that is she, the only one
who did not choose him,
ready-made, complete.

Herself she pressed him
into the skin I know,
bound him to the bones
hidden from me.

Herself she spied out
his gray eyes,
with which he looked at me…

Born of a woman.
So he too was born… [3]

If this moment is a window into who God is, maybe Mary can teach us that God isn’t as distant or scary or angry with us as we, in our worst moments, might imagine God to be. Or maybe if others have heaped a harsh, misguided caricature of God onto us, maybe the mother of our Lord can lift it.

Maybe Mary is called blessed by all generations because she should be, because she reminds people of many cultures, times, and places of that fundamental fact that Jesus grew up to adulthood in order to drive home: God is love.

God is a love that seeks us out. God is an intimate, nurturing, passionate love that wishes to know us so thoroughly and completely to the point of becoming one with us, one of us. Mary sings in this passage about a God of justice, a God who puts the world to rights… but who does so through the power of love. The manger says as much as the cross about the nature of God’s power, and that it is vulnerable, unconditional love.

So… may Mary take her proper place in our faith—not on the shelf, just to gather dust until Advent rolls around again, but as the prophet and as the mother she is.

May the Mother of our Lord carry us to a deeper awareness of the One whose justice is love.

[1] Peter J. Gomes, Sermons (1998) p.10. I encountered this quote in a sermon by my former pastor, the Rev. Joanna Adams, in a sermon she preached on Mary, “One of Us,” at Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA on December 18, 2005.

[2]  John 1:14, New King James Version.

[3] “Born of a Woman,” The Gospels in Our Image: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry Based on Biblical Texts, edited by David Curzon, p. 6. 

Featured Image: Guido Reni (1575-1642). “Nativity Scene, detail,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.