Sermon, 12/19/21: And Just How Meek and Mild Is Mary?

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4 Advent

Psalm 80:1–7; Micah 5:2–52; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country. Luke 1:39

In the preceding three Sundays in Advent, as we prepare to remember in celebration the birth of Jesus of Nazareth who, so we proclaim, is God’s Messiah, our attention in our preparation has been directed to John the Baptist who did not mince words in his efforts to assist us in our preparation.  Today, however, we turn our attention to Mary, the young not-yet married girl, a virgin whose task it was to carry out the vision of the ancient prophets, whose vision it was that God would send into the world a king, who would rectify a derailment that took place at Creation.  It is, then, appropriate that we should hear from the one who was vital to that vision. 

It would be a massive undertaking, a life’s work to discover and catalog all the poems, odes, songs, and prayers addressing the attributes of Mary.  Walls of museums and churches are literally lined with painting after painting and statues that show a demurring woman.  Our adoration is unending.  Too numerous are the songs that, song after song, extol the virtues of Mary.  Searching our own Hymnal 1980 we sing to Mary (277): “Sing of Mary, pure and lowly, virgin mother undefiled.”  Another (278) proclaims: “Sing we of the blessed Mother / who received the angel’s word, and obedient to the summons bore in love, the infant Lord”

In the Roman Church, as well as in some corners of our branch of Christianity, the Anglican Church, we recite a rosary, a litany of petitions, to Mary because of her role in the Divine Plan.  All these extol Mary’s gentleness, her demurring behavior, her virtuous motherhood, sainted even before she became the bearer of the Eternal Word.  Far be it from me to deny her gentle nature.

However, if we were to step back, just for a moment, from the centuries-old image engraved into our memory and look objectively at Mary, a related, but still different image may emerge, another biblical picture of Mary that is equally true.  The question is whether we can lay aside, not be influenced by, the innumerable paintings and statuary found in cathedrals and small parish churches, in the museums of the world, that depict a meek and mild young woman, head covered, looking with awe at her infant son in a make-shift crib; then perhaps a different, less serene image of Mary might emerge. 

The possibility of a different Mary occurred to me when a parishioner at the collegiate church where, in addition to my regular job on campus, I assisted for 28 years, gifted me with a refrigerator magnet.  There Mary stands with Joseph outside an inn, with a look of exasperation on her face.  Addressing Joseph, the caption reads: “I thought YOU made the reservations!”  Our meek and mild Mary has an opinion, and she does not shy away from expressing it.

In the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song of Praise, heard in today’s Gospel, those first words may indicate a demur personality: “My soul doeth magnify the Lord.”  However, Mary recites what every devote Hebrew of her day and Jews of our own day utter at the beginning of each prayer: Baruch atah Adonai (“Blessed are you, our God” or “We praise you, Eternal God,”)  Immediately thereafter, Mary’s timidity is cast aside.  Like the prophets of old, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah, Mary pronounces God’s judgment on those who do not put God first and who abuse their social rank and authority.

Consider even further: Mary’s strength is evidenced even before she sings this song of praise with its condemnation at the end.  Mary is a young girl on a mission.  Our record, stated flatly, does not do her justice: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.”  The Bible, our Book of Records, does not state that she went alone, and it is highly unlikely that she did; nor does it state that she had permission from her parents; and nor does it state with what ruse she convinced her parents to allow her visit with her cousin Elisabeth.  But that is not the issue.  Mary sought answers to a sensitive dilemma. 

As in today’s culture, nothing could be more commonplace than a conversation between two expecting first-time mothers-to-be, even spoken by me from a male’s perspective.  And yet this conversation is anything but ordinary women-talk.  At 14 or 15, the normal age of marriage in her generation, she had surely led a sheltered life.  Yet, Mary found herself in a family way.  Instinctively, she sensed something physical was awry, and should her instincts be true, she knew her reputation, indeed, her very life, was in jeopardy because unmarried, pregnant girls and women, (but not the men, without whom this act of nature could not have been set into motion?!) were subject to death by stoning.  And our meek and mild 14-, 15-year old Mary decided to seek out a woman whom she trusted, her cousin Elisabeth.  That is our Courageous Mary.

Consider the chances of her story being believed, in our era 2021.  Since pubescent girls and young, unpromised women were kept cloistered from young men who would have believed the tale that she shared with Elisabeth, namely that she had been visited by a messenger from God who announced that she was to bear a child of the Holy Spirit who would be the savior of the world.  A 2021 response would be: “Say what!  Who does she think she’s kidding?!”  Even in our contemporary culture (depending on one’s social status and geographical location), to expect a child in an unwedded state may still spell disaster, of being declared a social pariah, a social outcast.

It is little wonder then, that Mary rushed off to be with her cousin, the one person who perhaps would believe her extraordinary story of divine intervention, for Elizabeth, the mother of troublesome John the Baptist, had herself experienced God’s special touch.  Surely, Mary could count on her for advice on how to handle her situation.  This conversation was therapeutic, because Elisabeth confirmed immediately Mary’s special status: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb …. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Lk 1. 42 and 45)

Mary’s response was not a mere sigh of relief.  Elisabeth assured her that with God all things are possible.  Is it any wonder that she sang with joy—the Magnificat?  Our meek and mild Mary become the Bold Mary.  She finds her voice.  However, it is precisely this song, which supposedly certifies her meekness and her mildness, that places Mary up there with the major prophetic voices of her time.  She turns attention away from herself and back to God.  What matters is what God has done and whether God gets the praise.  That is not an easy thing to do when we have achieved something significant—clinched the big deal, landed a new appointment.  No Magnificat crosses our lips. Meek and mild Mary becomes Teacher Mary, on how best to recognize those who assisted in one’s success.  

Mary’s humility is but another reason that she has become a model for people of faith.  Humility is rare.  Years ago, I forget when and where, I stumbled across a story, an anecdote concerning the late Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, who, as the story goes, once called one of her cabinet ministers on the carpet by saying: “Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.”  Mary’s humility consisted in waiting for God to act.

Mary’s song does not draw attention to herself.  Rather, only one should be adored and that is Yahweh, the Eternal God.  Beyond pointing to God, Mary’s song points to the radical nature of the Gospel.  In Mary, God projects loud and clear a prophetic voice.  In selecting for the Divine Act of Reconciliation a teenage girl, a very young woman, if you will, with no status or economic power, God announces a new order, a shake-up in the way things ordinarily happen in this world.  The God who called Mary, is the one who deserves and commands our praise and thanksgiving, for that God turns the world upside down.  “….he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  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.”  (Lk 1.51-53) 

Appearances can be deceiving, as you and I know.  Notwithstanding what our statuary and gilded painting would have us believe, this is no gentle, meek and mild Mary who sings here, but rather an emboldened Mary whose word proclaims God as breaking into life in ways that shatter old assumptions, preconceived notions of who is important.  Mary lends credence to the admonitions of John the Baptist.  There is something threatening to those who hear Mary’s prophetic voice, if the words are taken seriously and put into reality!  And we silence Mary behind a veil, and dress her in flowing attire that, if her status be true, she would not have worn. So, in the comfort of your private space, read again Mary’s message, for the clarity of Mary’s message cannot be denied.  Mary’s song, the Magnificat, with God at its center, offers a hope and a promise of re-creating the world and of righting wrongs.

In 2021, we need a song like Mary’s. Even prior to COVID, we needed Mary’s song.  And today, we need it no less.  Indeed, I would perhaps argue, we need Mary’s song all the more, like a sun, to break through our clouded overcast of anxiety and uncertainty which has hovered over us and obscured our vision far too long..  We gather strength from Mary’s strength, for even in her most troubled and precarious circumstance, she directed praise to God.  And that is cause for much celebration.  If we heed Mary’s song, our own would echo hers with the refrain (277): Glory be to God the Father, glory be to God the Son; glory be to God the Spirit; glory be to the Three in One.  From the heart of blessed Mary, from all saints the song ascends, and the Church the strain reechoes unto earth’s remotest ends.  Amen