The Feast of St. Mary
Watch the sermon here.
Several years ago, National Geographic magazine named Mary, the mother of Jesus, the most powerful woman in the world. The issue included an extensive article that detailed her reach and influence: “Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fátima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture, like Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” as well as poetry, liturgy, and music. And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten. Muslims as well as Christians consider her to be holy above all women. In fact, Mary is the only woman to have an entire Sura, or chapter, of the Koran dedicated to her, and her name appears more often in the Koran than in the Bible. Over 2,000 visions or apparitions of Mary have been reported since 40 A.D., all over the world. Devotion to Mary and praying for her intercession are a global phenomenon.” And in the church I was raised in, the Armenian Church, she overlooks every altar, where instead of a cross, the centerpiece is always an icon of Madonna & Child.
Yet somehow, the most powerful woman in the world has had her story mistold and reappropriated to conform to societal culture and gender norms for too many centuries. The picture of Mary that is painted for us from church art to Christmas pageants is Mary meek and mild, the humble handmaiden of God, accepting, with very little doubt, the Angel Gabriel’s decree that she will bear a special child who will redeem the world. For the first millennia of Christianity, Mary was depicted as an imperial figure, dressed in purple and gold, equal to emperors. But in the 12th century, a dramatic shift began, and Mary went from royal conqueror to mild-mannered mother. Mary’s clothes changed to blue. Artistic depictions of the Annunciation showed her cowering at the appearance of the Angel Gabriel, with humble acceptance of her fate. The Mary that became the source of adoration and devotion was a “gentle mother, quiet light, peaceful dove” in whose likeness all women of faith were encouraged to be.
Mary, however, is a far cry from this picture. She is not meek and mild; she is bold and prophetic. When the Angel Gabriel appears to her and says “Hail Mary full of grace” the angel is greeting her with words of honor, showing reverence to Mary in her blessed state. Many artistic depictions of the Annunciation show a cowering Mary before a larger-than-life angel, but in fact, many more renderings of the Annunciation show the Angel bowing down to Mary in his greeting. The annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary isn’t the arrival of a celestial herald pronouncing a divine decree. It’s angelic deference to God’s chosen woman.
Mary never appears in a domestic setting, unlike most other biblical women. We never see her cooking or cleaning; in fact, we don’t ever hear about her being at home. We only see her traveling. Traveling to her cousin Elizabeth, as soon as she finds out she is pregnant; traveling to Bethlehem, well into her third trimester, a trip any 21st century doctor would certainly advise against; traveling to Egypt, fleeing with a newborn son, escaping his massacre and ensuring his safety; traveling to Cana of Galilee, at a wedding where she insisted it was high time her son perform his first miracle; and traveling all around the region where her son spent 3 years preaching.
Mary was unmarried when she became pregnant, and interestingly enough, God doesn’t seem to care at all about this somewhat significant cultural norm in God’s plan for the redemption of the world. God does not need her safely married and socially accepted. Mary does not need anyone’s permission to be pregnant. God blesses her with a child, with or without a spouse. In many ways, Mary is good news for unwed mothers everywhere. She may be God’s humble servant, but Mary is adventurous, resourceful and brave.
The most we ever hear from this adventurous, resourceful, brave woman’s lips is her song, The Magnificat, perhaps the most misunderstood part of Mary’s story. This poetic hymn that Mary sings about the child she will deliver is often reduced to something gentle and saccharine, sung by a demure and humble young woman who is thanking God for the mighty act of sending a savior into the world and how humbled she is to be a part of that plan. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” But this is a song sung by an unmarried young mother in a highly patriarchal society. There is every chance that her fiancé will leave her, once he discovers her condition, and no one will think any the worse of him for it. There is no guarantee that her parents will continue to care for her and her child. Mary was looking at the reality of a future alone in an unfriendly world, trying to provide for herself and her child – a desperate endeavor if ever there was one. She is accepting the pain of raising a child who will be disobedient and disrespectful, cause her immense anxiety, flippantly disavow her as a mother in front of crowds of followers, be tried and convicted as a common criminal, and be abandoned by all but a few of his followers at the time of his death. Moreover, she was a young Jew in occupied Israel, where the ruling Roman government was at odds with the Jewish way of life. In the midst of all this personal and political strife, Mary proclaims unshakeable faith in God and the strength and force that God will use in dealing with the proud, the powerful, and the rich – those who oppress others. “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.”
Make no mistake: the Magnificat is a prophetic manifesto, delivered in the home of a temple priest, in the face of unspeakable fear, adversarial circumstances, and great uncertainty. It is a proclamation of a yet unrealized reality, made with utter confidence in the God with whom all things are possible.
In the same month that Mary was named the most powerful woman in the world, I attended the funeral of a beloved colleague, who, at the age of 42, had died from a swift and vicious cancer. The organ trumpets brought us to our feet in a bold melody of the opening hymn, “Lift High the Cross.” We began to sing: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, til all the world adore his sacred name.” As a stiff, still casket began to make its way past my pew, I felt a familiar choke in my throat, not only because of the tears streaming down my own face, but because it was a proclamation I couldn’t bring myself to make in that moment. Lift high the cross? The love of Christ proclaim? This just didn’t seem the time or the place for such praise as Jae’s sobbing young widow, holding her screaming toddler and 3 crying, confused children, escorted his casket down the aisle. Jae’s death was tragic and unjust. How could we sing such a song of praise in the midst of it?
Yet as the procession continued, and the hymn continued, the words of the hymn took on a different tone. I started to realize that we sang that hymn in defiance of the tragedy before us. It was the church’s resounding “no” to the sting and victory of death, proclaiming our faith in the risen Christ. The faith of the church, the community of believers both here and in ages past, carried us, our song rising above the grief we all felt. That is the power of singing in the face of injustice and darkness. Despair has no defense against a defiant melody.
And that is what the most powerful woman in the world did 2000 years ago when she was told she would become pregnant out of wedlock, risk being shunned by her fiancé, the endure the possibility of becoming homeless and destitute, give birth in a messy stable with ox and ass for midwives, and ultimately raise a child whose brutal execution she would one day have to witness. The most powerful woman in the world sang a song in the face of all of that. Mary is so much more than a humble servant and a meek handmaiden; she gives us a defiant, prophetic “NO” to a world of injustice and the powers of darkness. Mary is more than our mother; she is our prophet. Her voice raises our own voices to say NO to the evil in this world, and to have hope for a world where sorrow and pain are no more. Mary, our prophet, goes before us in not only saying No to injustice, but Yes to God, Yes to hope, Yes to love so strong it will conquer death, Yes to love so powerful it will break into our world, shine upon it, and dare us to defy the darkness.
“To Live Joyfully,” Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy. https://sermonizing.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/to-live-joyfully/