Getting real with Mary

Are you ready?  Do you have everything together?  You must.  You have time for church today.  Most folks are saving their church time for tomorrow.  So maybe this crowd is the calm, the cool, the collected.  Maybe not.  The fourth week of Advent is really short this year.  The last candle won’t burn very long, but before the season is over, we will spend some time with Mary.  Mary spends three months with her cousin Elizabeth, and we don’t have that kind of time, but I think it is important we spend some time with Mary, in light of all that is going on in our world.
We have some baggage about Mary, so let’s unpack that for a minute.  We Protestants tend to get spooked by the Mother of Jesus, because well, isn’t she a Catholic?  Incidentally, one of my favorite things to look for when I visit a Roman Catholic church is the statue of Mary, particularly in Latin America.  Almost invariably she has her hands folded in prayer, and almost always someone has draped a rosary over her hands.  The idea of Mary praying the rosary just makes me giggle.  Can you hear her? “Hail me, full of grace, the Lord is with Me.  Blessed am I among women…”  I always get a chuckle out of that.  So for you who are suspicious of Mary on theological grounds, I want to assure you that the Gospel of Luke was written a long time before Mary converted to Catholicism.  We can talk about Mary in the Episcopal church.
What I really want to unpack about Mary comes from the Gospel of Luke..  Of the Gospel writers, Luke is really the Walt Disney.  Luke is the Gospel we read at Christmas, because Luke gives us the shepherds and the angels, he gives us the manger and the flocks by night.  Luke gives us the good story, the Disney version   Mary is sort of the Disney princess of the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel.  Think about it.  She even bursts into song in today’s Gospel.  The Mary we get in Luke is probably about as close to the Mary of history as Disney’s Pocahantas was to her real life counterpart.
Disney is great when you’re a little kid in a pageant.  But Luke was writing 90-100 years after the story occurred, and Luke cleaned up the story.  I think is important to move beyond the Disney princess Mary.  We have to read between the lines in Luke’s story if we’re going to get a clearer picture of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  The Mary of history is very different from the traditions that have grown up around her.
From what we know, Mary was young: 12 or 14.  Mary was poor.  This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant.  We can understand why Mary would run, with haste, to her cousin Elizabeth.  After she finds out she’s pregnant, she doesn’t run to Joseph.  How can she tell her fiance she is pregnant?  He thinks she is a Virgin.  So she runs away.  Mary is a scared teenage girl who runs away, far off to a town in the hills of Judea, to her favorite cousin’s house.  She spends three months getting herself together.  Elizabeth reassures her.  She has a sense that all will be well.  Her own child kicked when Mary showed up, surely that is a sign.  God is with them.

Mary billboard from St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Auckland, NZ
Mary billboard from St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Auckland, NZ

For me, the lesson Mary learns over those three months with is really captured in the third line of her song.  “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Mary is feeling low.  She is scared and frustrated and so she runs off to the Judean hill country.   But there in those three months, Mary learned to see her situation as a blessing.  Mary began to believe that God could work in and through this incredibly difficult situation.  Mary found faith in a God who could bring blessing out of pain.
Mary learned the hard lesson of the spiritual life.  Faith is not about having your life all together.  Faith is not about having answers.  In fact, if you have all the answers, if you have it all together, you can’t have faith.  You don’t need faith if you have everything all together, if you have all the answers.  Faith is for the confused and the frustrated.  Faith is for the downtrodden and the brokenhearted.  Faith is for people who don’t have the answers.  Faith is for all of us human beings struggling to make sense of life.
Faith is for those of us struggling to make sense of what is happening in our world.  I have to tell you that my experience of the past week, and what has gone on in Newtown Connecticut has a particular slant.  I went to a charter school just a few miles from Columbine High, and I was in my sophomore English class on the afternoon of April 20, 1999 when I heard what happened.  Kids I had known since kindergarten hid under tables in the cafeteria as their classmates perpetrated that terrible school shooting.
I hate that Columbine did not spell the end of violence in schools.  In light of the events of Newtown, I join the Bishop of Washington in calling for better overall gun control with specific bans on assault weapons.  I join the Bishop in calling for better access to mental health care.  There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action.  This is a time for both.  We need new policies about guns and mental health in this country, and we have needed them for a long long time, too long.

These policies need to focus on the health of all of our communities, ALL.  The events in Newtown were particularly tragic, but they are also, tragically, not unique.  Children die as a result of violence far too often in this city and in this country.  I remember people saying about Columbine, “if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.”  Let’s be honest, Columbine was not a racially diverse school, it was not an economically diverse school.  Columbine received magnified attention because people were surprised that violence was happening at an upper-middle-class white suburban high school.  We don’t always hear as much from the media.  We have come to expect violence in certain neighborhoods and communities.  This is wrong.  God dreams for more for us than EXPECTING VIOLENCE.
I think we need to spend some time with Mary, the real Mary, not the Disney-fied Mary, because she helps us understand what it means to be a person of faith in a dark time.  I believe in Mary, a scared teenage girl who ran away when she found out she was pregnant.  I believe she felt humiliated and frustrated.  I believe she felt like her world was coming to an end.

I believe God met Mary, in those frightening three months, like God meets us.  I believe God comes to us in what can seem like the darkest moments of our life.  In the midst of terror, in the midst of frustration, when we are at our wit’s end, that is when we need God.  Faith is for the frustrated.  Faith is for those who don’t have the answers.  Faith is for people who need some help.  Faith is for people who dream of a better world.

Something happened to Mary between the lines of our Gospel reading this morning.  She changed from the scared girl who ran away into the Mother of Jesus, strong enough to bear with God through humiliating circumstances.  Mary’s most ancient title is theokotos, the God bearer.  It is one of the difficult and beautiful teachings of the Christian faith.  Mary, that scared teenage girl, brings God’s presence into the world.  God chooses to be born in the midst of suffering.  That girl who ran away somehow, through faith, becomes the one who brings God’s presence into the world.

We are, all of us, bearers of God, like Mary.  In little, humble, simple, ways we all help God to be born in each others lives.  Giving birth to God’s presence isn’t easy.  Bearing God means learning to have faith in the midst of pain.  Bearing God means facing derision, means facing suffering.  But our world needs us to bear God.  We can be bearers of God in the way we legislate.  We can be bearers of God in the way we do business.  We can be bearers in God in the way we forgive one another.  We can be bearers of God in the way we shape our communities.  We can be bearers of God in the way we laugh, and cry together.  All of our souls can magnify the Lord.  This Christmas are you ready? Will you bear God to this broken and yet beautiful world?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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