12/16/07 - Mary, Mary
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 16, 2007
Isaiah 35: 1-10; Luke 1: 47-55
On the third Sunday in Advent many Christian communities, including this one, light a pink candle rather than a purple one. The purple, also prominent in Lent, is a symbol of this season of repentance. The pink candle refers to the fact that the biblical texts for the third Sunday in Advent are about Mary. Pink – girls, you get it. Mary must figure prominently in Advent if we are to tell the story of the coming of the Messiah; she is, after all, his mother. Hers is a beautiful story, and her character is one that so many of us, perhaps women more than men, have been taught to emulate. Mary is a paragon of humility. She was from humble circumstances, of course, in terms of wealth and social status, but more importantly she was never boastful or proud – she who could be so proud of her own behavior and of the role of her son. In our carols and in our lore we say that she is meek and mild. In the Bible we see that she accepted her rather startling destiny with grace. We think of her as supremely modest and a model of faith. She hears bizarre and troubling news about her future but does not blink. Not a flicker of doubt invades her heart. Her trust in God is unshakable. She is our example to trust that God can work some redemption in whatever challenging or tragic things happen to us. She is a model of motherhood. I’m sure she never yelled at little Jesus or the siblings that followed. She was selfless in her devotion to her family. Dinner was hot, good, and right on time. She never resorted to bribes to get her kids to eat their vegetables and finish their milk. She made them clothes that were the envy of the other families in Nazareth for the perfection of the needlework. She chaired the ladies auxiliary at the synagogue in Nazareth and was as helpful as a probably illiterate mother could be in coaching her sons’ Torah study. She never complained about anything that came her way. She received everything as blessing and part of God’s plan. She was selfless in all matters, living for others, never asking for herself, a servant of God who was servant to all. We Christians have made her into the archetype of the Good Girl.
Humility, faith, modesty, grace, servanthood – these are the qualities to which we all should aspire and I don’t doubt that Mary had them in abundance. (I would like to think, though, that she was a “real” mom – getting many things right, and some things wrong.) These somewhat self-effacing qualities, however, are balanced by other things we learn about Mary from the Bible, and our passage from Luke is a magnificent example. The Magnificat, as it is called, is Mary’s “Song of Praise.” Her namesake had such a song – Miriam, the sister of Moses (Mary is the Aramaic version of the Hebrew Miriam). Miriam sang her heart out when the Hebrews had made it through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Miriam of Nazareth also sings her heart out in praise of God for the miraculous, salvific things that the Holy One is accomplishing. She sings with humility and gratitude, but also audacity, courage, defiance, and gutsy expectation. She doesn’t just understand the words to her of the angel Gabriel on their surface; she gets it all. She may have been poor, illiterate, and all of fourteen years old (as some scholars think), but her faith and her intellect were sharp as a tack. Mary is nobody’s fool, and she understands Gabriel’s message in all its fullness. God has lifted her up, she says, in all her lowliness, to participate in salvation. Not only that, she says, God will do the same to the lowly of all the earth. They are a crucial part of God’s plan of redemption, starting with Mary, the pregnant, unwed teenager (and we know they have bad morals). All people who are disposable, all people who are exploited, all people who are oppressed – all these will be lifted up, says Mary the theologian, just as I am. This lifting up of the lowly is an effect, a product, of salvation, but it’s also only a part of the project. The lowly now lifted up participate in salvation by in turn ending other injustices everywhere, turning around any exploitation, insuring the dignity of every situation and every human being.
Mary says that God will scatter “the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Mary is not talking about those who are self-confident, or those with conviction, purpose, or a sense of self. Humble Mary has all these qualities. She is talking about people who compare their various qualities and station to those of others and find themselves to be superior. Mary might do that, but she never does. These are the proud, and God will indeed scatter them in the boastful thoughts of their hearts. It’s a captivating image; God will cause the proud to be so consumed with their own vanity that they’ll become ineffective laughingstocks without even realizing it. Their haughty thoughts and feelings will be their all, and in this cheap future and destiny they will be brought low. Mary says that God will bring down the powerful from their thrones. The rulers who line their pockets while their people go hungry, who care nothing for justice, who have sought out their high places simply because they are in love with power, God will, with strength of arm, bring them down from the exalted places they have claimed for themselves and lift all the lowly to an equality of power by which to live justly. And all those whose bellies have ached from emptiness, whose children’s abdomens are distended and bodies lethargic, they will be filled with food and all good things they have lacked. The rich will be sent away empty-handed – without God’s gift of the things that make for a life of dignity. Surely they can purchase as much of them as they can find available. And God is fulfilling the promise of long ago to Abraham and other ancestors, to be in covenant with Israel, to redeem and to save. The wait is long, and the wait is worth it, says Mary, Mary, quite contrary.
Waiting, redemption, God’s work to save Israel, to turn all oppressions on their head, the fulfillment of the promise – this is the message of the prophet Isaiah, and of all prophets in the Bible, and of – Mary! The prophet Mary is no meek, accommodating little teen, she’s one of the great prophets of Israel, who receives a revelation and then proclaims it to any who will listen. In the benighted times of the brutal Roman occupation, people would have thought her as nutty as Ezekiel or Jeremiah. She delivers her prophecy in what is translated into English as the past indefinite tense. In Luke’s Greek original it is the aorist tense, which describes what has already happened, is happening now, and will happen in the future. Mary prophesies of the God who has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem, ending all the ways humans dominate one another.
I think Jesus was his mother’s boy. The Christian tradition focuses heavily on Christ’s paternity, and that is appropriate, but he also took after his mom. We believe Christ to be fully human, fully divine. He got this human nature from a really great gal. She raised her son to tell the truth she’d learned herself. He grew up to proclaim that the mighty would be brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. He told stories about people like Lazarus and a rich man, who was sent away, empty. And when he was executed for saying these things, his poor mother was right there.
I completely respect the piety that reveres Mary as full of grace, humble, a model of selflessness. But I think she deserves to be completed in our honoring of her as someone who prophesied courageously, honestly, and challengingly. Let’s take her off her half-shell, get her out of our gardens and fountains and grottos and put her in the midst of struggles for justice everywhere. We may not be able to understand the fullness of what God is doing now if we don’t. Let us let her speak for herself. She says that she will do whatever God asks of her, and then she says so much more. She says that all that is proud, haughty, in love with power, and dominating will be brought low, and all who are lowly, humble, and who revere God will be lifted up. Let us permit Mary to prophesy to us today; to speak for herself. What would that young girl say about the things we value, the people whose favor we court, our anemic expectations of what God and Christ will achieve? What would she say, mighty, truth-telling prophet that she was, about the ways we’ve packaged her into a spiritual amphetamine? What would she say about the ways we’ve employed her as religious support for the causes of our various nations? I will conclude with a poem by Alice Tarnowski:
What else did the Angel tell you?
While you nurtured his message
And pondered the wild potential
Of a womb, did you envision those
Who would come after, the generations
That would Balkanize your heart,
Stamp your image on their banners
And lead you into battle;
That the wind would carry your name
From a German soldier’s lips
As he lay dying on the Eastern front,
A Polish captain would wear your medal
Up the heights of Monte Cassino?
Do you grow weary of false sightings
And forced tears, the rote of rosaries,
The bargains of Novenas?
Oh, Lady of Guadalupe,
Madonna of Czestochowa,
Queen of Patriarchs,
Do you sometimes long to cry out
To the complaining Daughters of Eve,
To the rapacious Sons of Adam:
“Stop. Be silent. Listen. Hear me.
I’m Miriam, the Jewish girl from Nazareth
Who said ‘yes’ to life.”
Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series, WJK Press.
The Living Pulpit, Christmas, Volume 4, Number 4, October – December 1995.