a Sermon for Advent 4C
Text: Luke 1:39-55
Learning about Mary
One of the things that excited me as a priest and presbyter of the church is how many people have mentioned Fr. Steve Bancroft’s sermon a year ago. Several people have come to me and spoken of that moment in which they heard for the very first time some new things about Mary, the Mother of God.
Most poignant is what textual criticism has revealed about the word, long translated into English, thanks to the King James Bible, as virgin is actually better translated as “girl”. In fact, there are three similar words in the Greek relating to young women. There is one that would be translated into English as “virgin”, and yet, Luke uses the Greek word least descriptive of her sexuality. The one that speaks more to her age and place.
This discovery for many here was as profound as it is to all of us that have heard it: that our picture of Mary is incomplete. And actually, quite troublesome. That our interest in Mary is as an appropriate vessel for God, for her sexual status was of greater import than her social status.
Nothing could be further from the gospel than that.
Our picture of Mary, thanks in no small part to the many Christmas pageants we’ve endured and the TV specials and the annual services in which virtually everyone who claims to be a Christian actually shows up to church, speaks to her mostly in relation to the birth—her status as a virgin, being engaged to Joseph, to the humble stable birth itself—but little to the more pressing question: of all the girls in the world, why does GOD pick Mary?
We assume that because GOD picks Mary, we should then notice her. That her importance for us comes in being selected as the great God Bearer. And because GOD has selected her, we can look to see what GOD sees in her.
And yet, Luke gives us a vivid picture of Mary before the birth, in which Mary herself responds to her situation. Her response gives us a better understanding of who she is.
Who is Mary?
We already know Mary is a girl. We often see the suggestion that she is probably around 14. She is engaged to be married to Joseph, a man. In an example of traditional Biblical marriage, Mary’s father has no doubt made a contract with Joseph, like transferring the title of one’s car over to another party when it is sold. Mary is property. She doesn’t come from a wealthy family and she is not going to a wealthy family. She has virtually no rights or wealth or place in her society.
Not to mention the unmarried pregnancy. The child to be born out of wedlock. The bastard, Jesus.
And in this experience, Mary is given incredible insight into the very nature of GOD. She bursts into song, praising GOD for the good things GOD has done! The spontaneous and grateful response to GOD that isn’t a prayer from a book, or a silent reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in the solitude of one’s room, but a public song of praise!
Singing as we often do, a song like “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”
She sings that GOD has blessed her, someone with nothing and of no consequence, destined to be forgotten by history, she has been made unforgettable. She has the ultimate responsibility, to not only birth, but raise the savior of the world.
But that isn’t the end of the song.
She sings of GOD’s mercy and strength. GOD’s conviction and support for the low and the marginalized, the poor and the powerless. That GOD favors them—people like her. Perhaps most poignant is when she sings
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
These words in the past tense describe the character GOD has shown in history and the way GOD interacts with the world continuously: giving “good things” to the hungry and “emptying” the rich; “[bringing] down the powerful” and raising “the lowly”.
The Word came to humanity in the most humble of beginnings, blessing those with nothing, just like Mary.
The more we learn about Mary and her place in the Incarnation, the more difficult she becomes for us in the Latinized world. Mary speaks of GOD’s preference for the poor from her experience as poor. She speaks of GOD’s preference for the powerless as one without power. And for many of us, this is not our situation. We are comfortable. We aren’t the lowly. We have our struggles, of course. But does Mary speak to all of us?
We are convicted by Mary’s description of GOD, and in her very situation. She is not important, but GOD has made her important. She is poor, but GOD has given her a good thing in Jesus. And in this, we are given the image of a pregnant, unwed girl, given the ultimate position.
And yet, we are blessed by this reminder of our GOD’s priorities. That GOD isn’t about making the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. GOD isn’t about worrying about who “deserves” their place in our social order, GOD is about transforming our social order. GOD uses the unlikely servants to convict us and inspire us. GOD is about transforming us to be the generous, caring, loving creations that incarnate GOD’s order. Mary is our challenge to see GOD at work in our midst in the ways we are prone to miss. So that we, like Mary, might discover what GOD is up to. In the coming days, we must keep our eyes open for that is the only way we will come to know GOD!