"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
My father was, to use an old-fashioned term, a churchman. He served on the Vestry, he enjoyed being an usher, and he led more stewardship campaigns than I can count. My dad took his faith very seriously, and I truly learned most of what I know about the church at my daddy’s knee.
But there was one thing he always had a problem with – and it was this: the idea of the Blessed “Virgin” Mary. Besides the fact that he just didn’t believe the biology that is suggested in that, the whole concept did not seem, well, very Protestant to him.
I suspect many of you would agree with him.
And yet, in a little while, we are going to recite the Nicene Creed, and we will say the following line: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.”
Now I know full well that some of you will be crossing your fingers when you say that, or your voices will drop to a mumble.
So I want to spend some time today talking about Mary, the mother of Jesus; the one who was there at his birth and at his death; the one who really should be thought of as the first apostle, the first disciple; the one who said “yes” every step of the way; the very blessed one who showed more courage than an entire legion of Roman warriors.
To get there we need to cut through layers and layers of hazy church history and dense theologizing. To see Mary, we need to use a little mental archaeology.
What do we know of Mary? Her name in Hebrew was Miriam. She was very young, maybe 13 or 14 when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
The Greek of the New Testament uses the word παρθενος (parthenos), which we translate as “virgin” in English; it also means “young girl” or “maiden.” The word has everything to do with her age and martial status.
This we also know: Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a Jewish man probably quite a bit older than she, and almost certainly it was an arranged marriage. She no doubt outlived him, for we hear little else about Joseph soon after.
In the gospel of Luke today, we hear that an angel – a spirit – came to Mary in a dream, and told her she was with child, and that God was already dwelling within her.
That an angel told her she was pregnant I find easy to believe, for I have heard from mothers who tell me they had a similar dream before a medical test confirmed it for them.
Mary, though, must have been quite terrified, for Jewish law held that Joseph, if he wished, could have her stoned to death for what was an obvious indiscrection. He could have dispatched her just like this, and no one would have thought it wrong.
An angel, though, told Joseph not to do that. And so he took young Mary as his wife, and they left town, probably in shame, and she had her child naming him “Yesous,” or Joshua. In our badly translated Germanic language Bibles, our Reformation ancestors rendered his name “Jesus.”
The rest of the story of Yesous, or Jesus, will unfold in the weeks and months ahead as we walk toward the Cross and Easter beyond.
But for now, I want to fast-forward into the fourth century, to that creed that we say, and to how it came to be as the early Christians struggled to understand the life and death and their experience of the risen Christ.
The church fathers, and they were men, struggled over the question of how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. They knew there was something miraculous about his birth, as indeed there was.
To be God, they reasoned, he must be pure, he must be without sin, and by the fourth century sinfulness was becoming equated with sexuality. Some influential Greek philosophers saw the human body as revolting, and so all sex, even in the covenant of marriage, became suspect.
And so it was that the focus came upon Mary; for Jesus to be without sin, they figured, he must have been born outside of sexual relations. A legend even grew that Mary’s own birth must have been to a virgin mother.
Maybe all of that is true. But what is so unfortunate is how the human body came to be seen as a sinful vessel, and so the Church rendered Mary into a perpetual virgin. The gospels note, by the way, that Mary had many more children after Jesus including his brother Jacob, whom we know as James.
Was Jesus born to a virgin? I don’t think it matters. But what is important is his birth, and what that birth represents to all of humanity, and the “yes” that his mother gave over and over.
The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is that God chose to walk among us as a human being, and by so doing, God showed us that the human body is good, that our creation is divine, and our deepest most intimate relationships with each other are truly ordained by God and should be cherished as sacred.
Something else happened as the centuries unfolded that clouds how we view Mary. The idea grew that Jesus was a mighty warrior, and you will see that in medieval art in depictions of Jesus wearing armor and holding a sword.
With that grew the idea that Jesus was inaccessible, and so a counterbalancing cult of Mary grew. If we could not pray to Jesus, surely he would listen to his mother. So direct your prayers to Mary and she’ll talk to him for you. Call it heavenly triangulating.
Mary acquired a new title in Greek – Τηεοτοκοσ (theotokos), the Mother of God.
Centuries later, Protestant reformers railed against the idea that they needed Mary to reach Jesus, and so they sought to rid Christianity of the cult of Mary; and people like my father grew up highly suspicious of Mary statues and rosary beads.
That, too, is unfortunate, for we may have lost sight of the real Mary in the process.
And so I bring you back to Mary, the Blessed Maiden Miriam, who rejoiced at hearing she would have her child, and was with him at every step of his life, even to his death and beyond. She certainly had a mother’s worries, but she moved forward in faith anyway.
She was truly the first Christian, and she still has much to teach us about how to say “yes” when it is hardest, and how to be a servant to the lowly, and what it means to face tremendous challenges with courage and even joy. Amen.
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Painting of the Virgin and Child by Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520)