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Reclaiming Mary – Yes

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The First Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)
Luke 1:26-38

This Advent we’re embarking on a joint Sanctuary Arts Team and sermon series with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Rather than preaching on the Revised Common Lectionary-assigned readings for each Sunday, I’ll be exploring two passages from the beginning of Luke’s gospel that highlight Mary’s role: the Annunciation story this week and next and Mary’s Song of Praise, otherwise called the Magnificat, the last two Sundays of Advent.

Before I read the gospel lesson, I want to read a description of the Sanctuary Arts Team’s exhibit that you’ll see up here in the chancel, around on the walls, and in the narthex. These are Becky Cook’s words and they help give some context to not only the artwork around the Sanctuary but also the sermon series I’m about to preach.

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation provided an opportunity to reflect on our denomination’s particular faith traditions and theological distinctions. While we are indeed grateful for the “priesthood of all believers” and direct access to God (no intermediaries necessary), we could not shake the feeling that something may have been lost over the ages. Specifically, why is there so little emphasis on Mary, the mother of Jesus, his first and most loving and devoted disciple?

Concerned that Mary was receiving too much veneration, the reformers ostensibly demoted her to a revered but minor figure who makes a cameo appearance every Advent season, usually standing in a manger or looking shocked at an angel’s news of impending pregnancy. We wanted to know Mary beyond these familiar images. Who was – and is – she? How can we see her with new eyes and fresh understanding?

This Advent, the Sanctuary Arts team provides a window into the many faces of Mary, representations from throughout the ages as well as from our own day and time. The union of mother and child is the most sacred of bonds all over the world. Every time a woman gives birth, she participates in the most holy of happenings. Every time a woman finds herself pregnant, frightened and confused, she walks in the footsteps of Mary.

And, what of us? When we see Mary, will we withhold judgement as she tells us her story? Will we answer her knock on our door when she needs shelter and safety? Are we brave enough to walk beside her?

Mary is the face of radical new beginnings, a call to hope despite extraordinary and trying circumstances. Advent is a journey. This Advent, may your encounters with Mary open your soul to divine possibilities.

Now we turn to the gospel according to Luke…

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

A hypothetical scenario for you… Suspend what you know or believe about this story, this person, this tradition for a moment and ponder this with me. What if Mary had said, “no”?

What if she had said “no,” what would have happened?

What if, when Gabriel delivered this astonishing news to this young woman, when after the initial assurances of divine favor and attempts to assuage her fears, and after her confused “How can this be?” and explanation about how this is all going to come to pass, she replies not with “Here I am, God’s servant, let it be…” but instead a firm, “No, go find someone else.”  What kind of story would we be reading?Does Gabriel go and find someone else? Does this happen to Mary anyway?

On a personal and a theological level, the alternatives in this hypothetical scenario are troubling, to say the least. Maybe we’re engaging in that “idle speculation” that John Calvin so detested, but I don’t think so.

I think it’s important to imagine Mary’s “no” to get to the heart of her “yes.” Many have speculated (and still do) about the nature of her yes, and rightly so. What we make of Mary’s agreement (or not) to participate in this mystery of bearing God to the world says a lot about what we think of God and how we understand our part in the work of redemption.

And I think the extent of Mary’s yes in the sixth month, in Galilee, in Nazareth is worth exploring in America, in these months, in this year. The #MeToo stories that have circulated around social media, reports of powerful men abusing women, voices of victims long silenced finally being heard, make the dynamics of this ancient story particularly timely.

What kind of yes was it?

We’re not alone in pondering these things. People have for centuries. Quite frankly, men have done a lot of damage over time with our interpretations of Mary as ideal woman because she’s a virgin or submissive or some variation on those. Theology has made it’s own contributions to these questions, for good or for ill. Hymns and other church music theirs. Visual arts have, as well. Do an internet search of “The Annunciation” and see what you come up with. Art has shaped how we see and hear and internalized Mary’s yes.

The poet Denise Levertov puts it well:

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

“No one mentions courage.”

If we need to reclaim anything in Mary’s story—if we can reclaim anything in a story that is not ours in the first place, but the story of a young woman, poor, living in occupied territory long ago—if we can reclaim anything for Mary and for ourselves it is the freedom of her yes, the courage in her yes. For Mary’s question, “How can this be?” isn’t about protest, but perplexity. She’s confused, yet she has the gumption to interrogate an angelic messenger of God first before consenting to anything.

“How can this be?” she says, following that up with a “Let it be.” Her “let is be” signals her willingness to participate in this mystery of birthing God.

What we reclaim is that there’s nothing passive in Mary’s yes. It is an active, participatory yes. Her yes makes her God’s partner, a co-creator with God of bearing Christ to the world.

Mary’s yes not only affirms her agency in the divine drama, but her courage in doing so illumines what discipleship, what following Jesus, is all about. Of the comparably little reflection on Mary that Protestant traditions have done, lifting her up as the First Disciple, the first person to respond with a “yes” to the call of Christ, is the richest image.

Mary’s courageous yes resembles our own whenever the mystery of God breaks into our lives—calling us to love with our whole being, calling us to serve beyond self, calling us to push past our doubts and confusions, calling us to deep trust, calling us to have bold hope that “nothing is impossible with God.”

In Mary’s yes is an invitation to all of us. It’s what Advent is all about, really, whatever our gender identity: welcoming the divine life to be born in us and through us. That’s why Mary’s many faces hang around our Sanctuary, because we see her faces in others, we see her face in ourselves. That’s why we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” We respond as Mary does as full partners, as co-creators with God in “birthing” God’s reign of justice and peace.

To quote Mary, “Let it be so” for us this Advent.

Featured image: “Annunciation Tryptich” by Robert Moore, African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, Philadelphia PA.