Sermon, Dec. 20

Who is Mary for us?  We know who Mary is in the great Gospel stories of this season.Today’s story from the Gospel of Luke follows directly on the Annunciation – the angel’s announcement to Mary that God has chosen her to mother God’s child, a child who will transform the world. Mary affirms God’s plan and consents to her role in it. Soon thereafter, she goes off to visit her aunt Elizabeth, and we’re given this wonderful tableau of two pregnant women – one young and probably barely showing yet, one old – like, 40! – and six or seven months along – greeting one another in holy joy.

Virgen_de_guadalupe1Who is Mary for us? We don’t actually see a lot of her, hear a lot about her,outside of the Advent and Christmas Gospels. For many Christians throughout the ages and around the world,she has a status second only to the Holy Trinity, and is revered and adored as more than a saint -as a mother, as a holy friend, as one who carries the prayers of the faithful to the throne of Christ. There’s a Roman Catholic family who lives around the block from us that has a small Mary shrine in their front yard. That’s how important she is to them -important enough to have a place to honor her at their home,important enough to share her with the neighborhood.

We share the same Gospel stories with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, and yet Mary is almost invisible to us. One of the biggest divisions between the Protestant and Roman Catholic ways, at the time of the Reformation, was over whether to approach the Divine through a wide range of images, saints and symbols, or strictly through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And though, through a long and complex history, the Episcopal Church – the daughter of the English Reformation in this country – now straddles that line, honoring saints as part of our way of faith, Mary is still largely absent from our churches, our songs and our prayers.

Who is Mary for us? What do we say about her – or sing about her? As I began work on this sermon, I had the idea of taking a survey of what our hymns say about Mary, then quickly discovered that music scholar Michael Linton had already done so, humorously and incisively. Linton writes,

‘Most folks don’t read a lot of theology in December, but we do a lot of singing. Who is Mary in our carols?… A better question is “Where is Mary?” since, surprisingly, she’s mostly absent. In looking at the texts of 381 English-language Christmas carols…, Mary (or the “virgin,” or “mother,” or even “woman”) appears in 27 percent of them. She’s slightly behind the angels and shepherds (who both are in 28 percent of the songs) but significantly ahead of the wise men (who come in at 13 percent)….But Mary’s presence is even less than this low percentage at first suggests. Shepherds, angels, and the wise men are frequently mentioned in multiple verses of a carol. Mary typically is mentioned only once, and sometimes that reference is itself oblique….. “Away in a Manger” mentions the livestock and “Joy to the World” [mentions] problematic shrubbery (“thorns infest the ground”), and there are lots of angelic choirs – but no Mary.’

Linton continues, “So why is Mary largely AWOL in our Christmas singing?…. Our carols are primarily nineteenth and early twentieth-century Protestant inventions…, [a time when Roman Catholic/Protestant relations were strained.] Mary can’t be excised from the Christmas story completely, but in the carols she’s mentioned as little as possible, for fear of turning her into an object of cultic devotion – something… Protestants have accused Roman Catholics of doing for a long time.”

So who is Mary in our carols and songs? Well, often she’s just a body part – “Offspring of a virgin’s womb” or my favorite, “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb”! … (Ick. Wombs.) Here’s the handful of hymns that say anything about Mary as a person and not just a uterus: In The Bleak Midwinter mentions her “maiden bliss”…Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming calls her “the virgin mother kind”…Once In Royal David’s City says, “Mary was that mother mild…” So, that’s Mary: Blissful, kind, and mild. Songs, poetry and prayers of the Annunciation tend to strike a similar note, praising Mary’s purity, meekness, and obedience.

It’s informative to hold up what our songs say about Mary against what Mary says in song, in the Magnificat, the song placed on her lips in Luke’s Gospel. I’ll use the Common English Bible here, a new translation, to help us hear the familiar words afresh. Mary is fiercely joyful – “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am, I rejoice in God my savior!”

Mary is confident and, dare I say, proud! She sees the significance of what she’s being asked to do: “From now on, everyone will consider me blessed, because the Mighty One has done great things for me.” Please note that while the church tends to shift focus to the holy baby and treat Mary as a container, a means to an end, she doesn’t. Even though to everyone around her at the time, she looked like a teenager pregnant out of wedlock, hardly something to celebrate, Mary claims her blessedness and her importance. Meek? … I’m not seeing it.

And Mary is courageously – audaciously hopeful that God is still present in the world, still working for good, still faithful to the promises. “God has pulled down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly! God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed! God has come to the aid of the people Israel, remembering God’s mercy and the promises made to our ancestors!” People like to stress how young Mary must have been – betrothed but not yet married, likely no older than her mid-teens. That makes me think that Mary’s parents must have been a lot like my parents. Deeply faithful people who taught their daughter, from childhood, to set the world as it is over against the world as it could be and should be. To believe in the possibility of a better, more just, more merciful order of things, and to orient her life, in whatever small ways she could, to making it so.  And to trust and hope in God as the source of hope and strength.

Last Sunday I was practicing for the pageant with Dave and Rachel, the couple who’ll be portraying the Holy Family this year. I told Rachel, “Okay, as this scene starts, you’re sitting on a stool and sewing, and looking demure…” Then Mary’s bold hopefulness rushed into my mind and I said,“Sewing flags for the revolution, maybe?”

We’re in our third year, here at St. Dunstan’s, of hearing and singing and praying a version of Mary’s song that really brings its urgency and beauty to life -The Canticle of the Turning, by Rory Cooney. Cooney works in snippets from elsewhere in Scripture – Revelation, Isaiah – to bring a new fulness to Mary’s prophetic song of hope. The chorus goes like this – “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!”

And the final verse ends like this – “This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise which holds us bound, ‘Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.” Those words always make my heart clench with mingled grief and hope. Mother Mary, we wait for those days with you, we share your urgent longing!…

Who is Mary for us? A character in the Gospel, a few words in our hymns. Who could Mary be for us? Who is she for other Christians? I think that our church, in its fear of courting heresy or idolatry by focusing on and elevating Mary, has missed out on something of beauty and power. I brought forward our resident image of Mary to look at together, today. She’s been here for about 18 months, on long-term loan from a friend of mine. When we first put her up, Talia, who helps us out with the kids, said to me, “I wondered why you didn’t have one before.”

I wondered why you didn’t have one before. It’s a good question. I can explain, as I have here with very broad brush strokes, the history of how honoring Mary became taboo in Protestant Christianity – so that we mostly lack the statues and shrines, the special prayers and offerings and holy days centered on Marythat are part of the fabric of faith for many of our brother and sister Christians. I can explain the cultural gulf that means that many of us gringo Christians have never heard of the Virgin of Guadalupe or Juan Diego.

But those explanations don’t really address the basic question. Why don’t we have Mary? Why don’t we claim – reclaim – her?

This statue represents a particular apparition of Mary. Over two millennia of Christian faith, there have been a number of times when people of faith have received visions of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes she brings words of consolation or guidance; sometimes simply her appearance gives inspiration and hope. These appearances, or apparitions, of Mary are now primarily honored within Roman Catholicism, though some of them predate the great division of our churches.

The appearance of the Virgen de Guadalupe actually happened right at the time of the English Reformation – in 1531, while Henry VIII and his advisors were busy building the case for a church and state independent from Rome, with the English King as its head. But the Virgin’s appearance happened far, far away from the political and religious events that were rocking Europe, on Tepeyac Hill outside Mexico City, where a native peasant named Juan Diego was working. Juan saw a beautiful young woman, who spoke to him in his native language, Nahuatl, told him that she was the mother of the true God, and asked him to build a church there in her honor. Juan hurried to tell the Bishop in Mexico City.

In 1531 Christianity had only been in Mexico for two decades. The bishop was a Spanish Franciscan who had arrived in Mexico three years earlier, sent with the purpose of evangelizing and protecting the Indians, the native Mexicans, who were being brutalized by colonizing Spanish. At first he was skeptical of Diego’s story – I’m sure he seemed like a superstitious, possibly drunk peasant. But the Virgin kept appearing to Juan, and finally, thanks to a miraculous healing and the unlikely appearance of Spanish roses on Tepeyac Hill, Juan Diego’s encounter was accepted as a true theophany, an encounter with the divine.

A church and shrine were built at Tepeyac, and many native Mexicans became Christian because of Maria de Guadalupe. The Virgen was THEIR Mary, not a Spanish import, but God’s Mother appearing to them on their own soil, with tan skin like theirs, and wearing the blue-green color of their pre-Christian gods. In the following decades and centuries, she becomes a powerful symbol of Mexican faith, unity across many cultures and linguistic groups, and political independence… Leaders in Mexico’s war of independence and, later, the Mexican Revolution against rule by oligarchs, carried flags bearing the image and name of Maria de Guadalupe.

The apparitions of Mary are alien to us in both faith and culture. Do I believe in the Virgen de Guadalupe? The anthropologist in me translates the question: Do I believe that children and peasants, and other marginal and uneducated people, can have a direct encounter with the Divine? Yeah. I do. And I think that’s one gift that reclaiming Mary can have for us – this idea that God and God’s holy ones long to connect with so deeply that they come to us, that they appear in this world, in our lives, in forms we can see and understand.

Last weekend was the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Talia invited me to join her family at her church Friday night for part of the celebration. It was wonderful – bright decorations in red, green, and white – children dressed up in traditional Mexican peasant clothes; my favorite was a baby dressed as Juan Diego, complete with mustache – mariachi music, including the music during the Mass!

A large statue of the Virgin stood in an elaborate shrine decorated with balloons at the front of the church. Around her were probably twenty big tubs, mostly empty when I arrived. Over the course of the evening, people brought flowers -mostly bunches of red carnations, but others too – and came up and placed them in the tubs, until the shrine was an explosion of color and beauty. Talia told me that people bring the flowers to say thank you for a good year, for all their blessings. People also brought their own statues of the Virgin from home -ranging from tiny, cheap figures or plaques, to one that rivaled the statute in the shrine! They looked so beautiful, all those Marias, all shapes and sizes, gathered together in front of the altar – each one carefully added to the arrangement by its owner, not just tossed into a pile. At the end of the Mass, the statues were blessed with holy water, and then their owners reclaimed them to take home.

The offerings of flowers, the blessing of the statues – those practices are so beautiful and so meaningful to me.They are hallmarks of a sense of the holy as tangible, everyday, domestic, woven into the texture of people’s lives. You can honor and thank the Mother of God with grocery-store carnations. Why not? You can keep the Mother of God in your living room or kitchen, and pray and talk with her as you need to. Why not?

Look at her. She is lovely. And she is unfamiliar to most of us – but she doesn’t have to be. Why don’t we claim – reclaim – Mary? The Mary of the Gospels, Maria de Guadalupe, any of the other ways Mary is known and loved and honored by those who claim the faith of her son?

I find it hard to be concerned that we’ll go seriously amiss in our faith by moving Mary from the very edges of our faith and spiritual practices, towards the center. I feel convinced that God has a robust forwarding system, and that prayers addressed to Mary, to various other saints, even to departed loved ones, get to God’s mailbox nonetheless. The way our brothers and sisters in other churches talk about is: No, Mary isn’t God. She was a human being like us, though with a unique calling. That’s why people find it easy to go to her with their prayers.

Why not claim – re-claim – Mary?  As an icon of faithfulness and audacious hope? As a saint among saints, a holy Mother whose kind face may welcome our anguished prayers in moments when God seems hard to approach, a divine Friend at home in our living rooms and kitchens?


Linton’s essay is here, and well worth a read in full: