What to Do With Mary?

Sunday, August 15, 2021
Mary, Mother of Our Lord

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, in choosing the virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you made known your gracious regard for the poor, the lowly, and the despised. Grant us grace to receive your word in humility, and so to be made one with your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 61:7-11 God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations
Psalm 34:1-9
Galatians 4:4-7 We are no longer slaves, but children
Luke 1:46-55 Mary exults in the Lord


Title:  What to do with Mary?

What to do with Mary?  Joseph asked that question when he found out that his intended bride was pregnant, and the church has been asking it ever since it came to the realization that the baby she was carrying was the Son of God.  Come to think of it, God really put her in an awkward position.  Not just for those nine months, but for the rest of time.  There she was, a young unmarried woman, probably sixteen or seventeen years old, perhaps even younger, and she becomes pregnant in a society where adultery was punishable by stoning.  And yet, when the angel came to her in what we call the Annunciation, she said “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  In spite of the dangers before her, Mary said yes, when God called.  And we all know the rest of the story.  An angel smooths things over with the bewildered and hurt Joseph.  He marries Mary in spite of her “condition” and while in Bethlehem for the census, Mary delivers this miracle child, this Word of God made flesh, this one we call Jesus, the Son of God, our Lord and our Savior.

What to do with Mary?  For Joseph it was clear, but for the church it has been two millennia of debate and conjecture, papal bulls and excommunications.  A struggle indeed to figure out how to talk about this one who was called by God to participate in the greatest miracle, the greatest act of love God has shown this world since creation – the gifting of the Son who would restore creation, who would conquer death, who would win for us life unending.  It has been a perpetual debate over how to talk about this young woman who said YES when God called her to an awesome task, how to talk about this body who gave birth to God’s incarnate word, gave flesh to the very heart of God, in the same way that each of our mother’s gave birth to us.  What to do with Mary?  How do we talk about her?  How do we see her?

In the absence of Biblical information, there is much conjecture about Mary’s childhood.  Traditions tell us who her parents may have been.  But what is most fascinating and shows confusion over just how to talk about Mary are the doctrines that have developed suggesting her sinlessness and perpetual virginity.  Though the virgin birth of Jesus is quite settled, supported by the Bible, mentioned in both our creeds from the early days of the church, there are great questions about what was necessary for the preparation of Mary, the one who would be the mother of our Lord, and her behavior after the birth of Jesus.  Those who hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception hold firm to a belief that Mary was not stained with original sin like the rest of humankind – that sin of Adam and Eve that we speak of.  That understanding that no one needs to teach us to be sinners, we come by it by our birth rite as humans.  And so, for those who believe in the Immaculate Conception, Mary lived a sinless life.  This seems to make sense to those who hold to this doctrine because they assume that the one who birthed Jesus could not have been a sinner like the rest of us.  And so it follows that after Jesus was born, Mary continued in her purity by retaining her state of virginity.  And it also follows that since she lived such a pure life, God would not let her die the death of us mere mortals who are sinful and so the doctrine of the Assumption holds that Mary was taken up into heaven in bodily form the way that Jesus was taken up at the ascension.  (For those who believe this, today is referred to as the Feast of the Assumption.  AKA – Mary’s Ascension Day.)

But I fear that these doctrines and traditions that seek to understand Mary by placing her above us all, sinless, sexless, and deathless – really say more about our own ages-long struggle with issues of sex, gender, and shame.  So rather than dwelling on what do we say about Mary, which will always be flawed and misguided by our own brokenness and fear, perhaps it is better to ask:  what does God say about Mary?

This great work of salvation that is begun with the birth of Jesus does not start in the halls of a palace that are filled with privilege.  Nor does it begin in the halls of government that are filled with power.  It does not begin in the halls of the university that are filled with knowledge.  It doesn’t even begin in a temple.  What does God say about Mary?  God says “you – young and insignificant, powerless and unschooled, poor and humble – you are the one I will join with in my Word becoming flesh, you I will partner with in bringing my kingdom near so that the world might receive a foretaste of all that is to come, you, most unexpected one.”  This call of Mary is, and must be, a witness to God’s power and grace more than a testimony to Mary’s virtue.  Call me heretical, but I like to think that this person Mary was not the most virtuous person in Nazareth, that God perhaps picked that strange girl, or that curious one who was always getting into trouble, or that tom boy that had a hard time finding a husband because she wasn’t as soft as the other girls.  After all, when Jesus comes back to Nazareth and everyone is surprised by his wisdom and powerful deeds, they ask: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother Mary?”  Perhaps the subtext was – she’d be the last one to give birth to anyone holy.  Last week we heard of another time people pointed to Jesus’ family with question and doubt. 

Most importantly Jesus makes it clear that Mary was like all the others in that great cloud of witnesses that we are surrounded by and that we are a part of.  On one occasion when Mary and Jesus’ brothers come to see Jesus and he is informed that these family members cannot get close because of the crowd, Jesus responds – “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  We are all called to be the God bearer that brave and blessed Mary was.  Hers was an exceptional call to be sure, her Yes to that call was a bold leap of faith to be sure, but let us not put her on such a pedestal that separates her from the rest of us and some how relieves us of seeing that we too are called, and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we too can say YES to participating in the bringing near of the kingdom of God.

So with Mary, our featured witness on this day, let us also ask: what does Mary say about God.  In the gospel reading for this morning we hear the words again of the Magnificat – that beautiful song of praise that she sings when she is greeted by her cousin Elizabeth who – against all odds, being old and barren has herself miraculously conceived and is carrying the child that will be John the Baptist.  As Mary speaks to Elizabeth, the fetus John starts his career as a prophet proclaiming the coming of the messiah a bit early.  With three months to go before his birth John is leaping for joy in his mother’s womb in the presence of Mary’s recently conceived child.  Elizabeth knows this to be a sign of just who Mary’s baby is and she says to Mary – blessed is she who believed that there would bea fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Elizabeth says it all about Mary – blessed is she who believed, that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Blessed is she who believed what was said and responded with “YES, let it be done with me according to your word.”  Mary’s trust and faith in God, Mary’s yes, speaks volumes in terms of what Mary says about God – of the trust and confidence God is worthy of.  And the Magnificat expands on the faith that the Spirit is working in her.  And when we look at the words of this beautiful song, it is a wonder that with all the titles heaped on Mary of Nazareth, that the title of revolutionary was never one of them, or social justice crusader.  In her song of praise we hear that weak lives matter, lowly lives matter, hungry lives matter.  The picture of God’s reign that she paints with her words turns our world order upside down.

What are we do with Mary?  Let us not set her a part because we think she is so different, but rather join her because we are all so much alike.  Because we too have been filled with the Holy Spirit in our baptism, because we too have a new life, planted by God, growing in us.  And in joining with her and all those who make up that great cloud of witnesses, let us all say YES to God’s call, let us all take up the revolutionary cause of God’s kingdom that has come near in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and that continues to work its coming in us through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Let the Magnificat be the song of all who are God-bearers to the world.  Let us all sing of our souls magnifying this God who has done great things for us, who shows mercy, (especially to we who need it) who scatters the proud (especially when it is our pride that keeps us from doing God’s work) this God who brings down the powerful (especially when it is our blinding thirst for power and control that blocks our trust in God).  Let us rejoice in God who fills our hunger with good things – his love and grace and peace, and shows us the emptiness of our earthly riches.

Sing with Mary of our merciful God of justice, and then, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Tune our lives to that song that bears witness to the embracing kingdom of God that is made known to us through Jesus, the one we all carry into the world.

The Rev. Mark Erson,

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