And though the gospel lesson for today, Matthew 1:18-25, is focused on Joseph, I still felt like preaching about Mary. Here is my sermon for today:
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The Blessed Virgin Mary
Grace and peace to you this Holy day.
We’ve officially reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent. In popular lore, today is known as Mary Sunday.
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 literally or figuratively crossing your fingers when you say that line, or your voices will drop to a mumble.
So I want to spend some time today talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary. To see her, 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? Not a great deal. 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, which we translate as “virgin” in English; the word also means “young girl” or “maiden.” The word has everything to do with her age and martial status, not just her biology.
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 Matthew, an angel tells Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy and to not be afraid. The angel tells Joseph that a child will come and he is to take care of him and call him “Emmanuel” – God is with us. He has no idea who the father is – the angel doesn’t tell him. All he knows is the maiden he is about to marry is pregnant and not by him.
Jewish law held that Joseph, if he wished, could have had Mary stoned to death for what was an obvious tarnishing of his honor.
He could have dispatched her just like this, and no one would have thought it wrong.
It is a great act of faith on the part of Joseph that he weds Mary anyway and protects her child and takes her child as his own.
We don’t get much of a portrait of Mary in the Gospel of Matthew. She gives birth in a stable but we don’t hear from her in Matthew. She is almost a secondary character in Matthew.
It is to the Gospel of Luke where we must turn to catch a glimpse of Mary’s personality.
In Luke, we hear that an angel came to Mary in a dream, and told her she was with child, and that God was already dwelling within her.
Mary must have been terrified. She knew Joseph could have her put to death, and still she said “yes” to having this child, and she trusted all would be well even when reason was screaming otherwise.
"My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
The rest of the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus will unfold in the days and weeks ahead as we walk toward Christmas and the Cross and Easter beyond.
There is another side to the Mary story, and to hear it we need to fast-forward into the fourth century, to that Nicene Creed that we say, and to how early Christians struggled to understand their experience of the Risen Christ.
The church fathers, and they were men, knew there was something miraculous about the birth of Jesus, as indeed there was. But they struggled mightly with the idea that Jesus was both God and man at the same time.
To be God, they reasoned, he must be pure, he must be without sin, and by the fourth century sinfulness was becoming equated with the human body and sexuality. Some influential Greek philosophers saw the human body as revolting, and so all sex, even in the covenant of marriage, became sinful.
For Jesus to be without sin, they reasoned, he must have been born outside of sexual relations. The focus on Mary as a pure “virgin” came into high relief.
A legend even grew that Mary’s own birth must have been to a virgin mother, becoming known as the “immaculate conception” of Mary. Mary needed to be born in purity for Jesus to be born in purity. You can see where this is going.
Maybe all of that is true. But what is so unfortunate is how the human body came to be seen as a sinful vessel. Our current conflicts over sexuality began right here.
The Church began to lose sight of Mary’s humanity and her act of discipleship toward the child she bore. The ancient 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.
His siblings pop up all over the place in the gospels, and yet the Church began to maintain that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Even in the gospel lesson you hear today, Joseph had marital relations with Mary.
The real miracle of Jesus’ birth is that God chose to walk among us as a human being. By so doing, God showed us that the human body is good, that our creation is divine, and our deepest most intimate and committed 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 can see that reflected 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, the Mother of God.
Centuries later, Protestant reformers railed against the idea that they needed Mary to reach Jesus.
So they sought to rid Christianity of the cult of Mary. The new Protestants banished Mary statues and rosary beads, and mocked apparitions of Mary as superstition.
That reaction was also unfortunate side to it. In so doing, Protestantism lost sight of Mary as the mother of Jesus.
She was there at his birth and at his death; she is the one who ought to 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 a legion of Roman warriors.
There is one more level to this that I would commend to you.
I believe the images of Mary are another way for the Holy Spirit to reach us in unexpected ways. The Holy comes to us not just in male imagery – not just as God the Father and God the Son.
The Holy Spirit can come to us as female, as she can and will touch us here in our heart in ways that will comfort us, give us courage and strength, and change us in ways we can scarcely imagine.
The Holy Spirit is like a wind that will blow where she will, and will show her face in ways that speak to us in the depths of our soul, and gives us strength and courage when we most need it most. The question is do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?
To me, this idea of Mary is a reminder that not all of life can be understood by our intellect. Not everything lends itself to neat equations and philosophical categories.
Much of life is inexplicable and only can be experienced as the inexplicable. Sometimes a legend or a poem is more powerful than a dense theological treatise.
The holy can come when we least expect it, coming as a friend who listens, or in the quiet of the night, or as an image of a young mother, or as a newborn child.
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.
"My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”Theotokos icon by Kenneth D. Dowdy.