In a village called Ein Kerem, just a few miles to the West of Jerusalem, up in the hill country of Judea there is a statue. This statue may be one of my favorite pieces of religious art. Ein Kerem today is an artist colony, the little town has beautiful shops, and great ice cream. Ein Kerem is famous because supposedly this story of Mary meeting her cousin Elizabeth took place in the village, high in the hill country, far away from her home town of Nazareth. The statue that I love is all curves. The figures are elongated and feminine. Mary and Elizabeth meet together, their bellies almost touch. Elizabeth is a bit heavier with child, at this point in the story, a bit further along. Mary looks scared, but her cousin looks at her with joy, with delight.
I venture we need to spend some time with Mary in this season. In these short few hours we have left before Christmas. We need to spend some time with the scared teenage girl who brings God to bear in our world.
I know some of us have baggage about Mary, so let’s unpack that for a moment. We Protestants tend to get spooked by the Mother of Jesus, because well, isn’t Mary a Catholic? 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.
But to talk about Mary, I think we have to face some of the sentimentality that has grown up around Christmas. It’s one of the difficulties of this season for the church. How do you take all of the tinsel, and bows, and accumulated bad theology out of this holiday? You really can’t. We’ve prettied Christmas up. Luckily, for those of us who came to church at 8am on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we have Mary, a sister who keeps it real.
Our Gospel this morning comes from Luke, the same writer who gives us the lovely tale we will spin tomorrow night. Luke was writing 90-100 years after the events occurred, and Luke like many great writers, cleaned up Mary’s story. We have to read between the lines in Luke’s story if we’re going to get a real 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 years old. 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 older wiser cousin Elizabeth. After she finds out, she doesn’t run to Joseph. How can she tell her fiancé she is pregnant? How can she say especially that the child isn’t his?
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, the the verses before these, the angel comes to Mary and says, “you will conceive and bear a child” and Mary’s response is, “How can this be?” How can this be? The question that so many of us have spoken in some of the darkest moments: “How can this be?” So Mary 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.
For me, the lesson Mary learns over those months 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 away from home, to a place no one will recognize her, where her pregnancy won’t be such a scandal. But over those 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 in even the most questionable circumstances.
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 don’t need to have faith. You don’t need faith if you have your life all together. But, honestly, who has it all together? Raise your hand. I thought so. Faith is for the confused and the frustrated. Faith is for those of us who downtrodden and the brokenhearted sometimes. We all, all of us, find ourselves down sometimes. Faith is for people who don’t have all the answers.
Christmas can be a tough season for folks who are feeling a little lost. Whether we’re missing a loved one who has died, we’re far away from home, or we just feel a little blue, Christmas can be rough on a good number of folks. All that sentimentality can feel like a bright spotlight on those who don’t feel perfect all of the time. If you’re a little down around the holidays, you are not alone. Jesus’ own mother faced loss, frustration, and confusion at Christmas long before any of us.
I think we need to spend some time with Mary, the real Mary, because she helps us understand what it means to be a person of faith in a dark time. So, as an Episcopalian, as a Protestant Episcopalian, I gotta tell you, 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.
And 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 those of us who might feel a little blue around Christmas.
I can understand why Mary is so adored around the world. In Mexico, the appearance of Mary as the Virgin de Guadalupe is honored. Indigenous Americans saw in the appearance of Mary, a faithful person who looked like them. The image of Mary as Guadalupe is dark skinned, dressed in traditional indigenous colors. In Lourdes, France, thousands come to a shrine to Mary from around the world looking for healing. Mary knows what life can do to us. Mary identifies with the suffering, the persecuted, and the confused.
Because something happened to Mary, between the lines of our Gospel. Mary changed from the scared girl who ran away into the Mother of Jesus, strong enough to bear with God through the most humiliating circumstances. Mary’s most ancient title is *theotokos*, the God bearer. This idea is one of the most 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 awkward circumstances. God chooses to be born to someone who knew what it was like to feel a little low. That girl who ran away somehow, through faith, becomes the one who brings God’s presence into the world.
And so in these last hours of the Advent season, we spend a little time with Mary. We spend time with the one who ran away scared, who found comfort in the words and the joy of a cousin who was also in the midst of pregnancy. We find comfort with Mary, who somehow between the lines of our Gospel, found room both for sorrow and for joy, found room to know that faith is not for those who have it all figured out.
I’m not convinced that when Christmas came Mary wasn’t still a little scared. I have a sense that for Mary, emotion remained complex on that Silent Night, as her child grew up, and all through his ministry. Sorrow and joy met together in Mary across the life of Jesus. Those of you who are parents in the congregation know something about the mixed emotions of sorrow and joy that comes with raising a child. These last hours before Christmas, we give thanks for Mary, for making room for us to know: if we are a little bit blue before Christmas comes, if we don’t have it all figured out, it’s alright. We’re not alone.