Preached at St. Mark’s Protestant Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 20 Dec, 2009
The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Lectionary Year C
Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:47-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

This last Sunday before Christmas, before we are called to the manger on Christmas Eve to worship the newborn Jesus, our readings invite us to spend some time with his expectant mother Mary. Today I invite us to think about who Mary was, what she has come to represent in the life of the church, and what she offers to us as we try to grow in our own spiritual lives.

Detail of stained glass window, Holy Rosary Chapel, Weber Centre, Adrian, MI – photo by the Rev. Susan McCullough

If I asked you to imagine the Virgin Mary, you might very well envision a beautiful and gentle young woman. This image shows Mary as a young maiden. It captures the spirit of Mary as the “mother mild” in the words of the famous carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Because this image comes from a Roman Catholic church, the artist has included rich laces and clothing appropriate to the lofty status that Roman Catholics give to Mary as a the royal mother of God.

The Church of Rome has given Mary many titles and dignities over the centuries – Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God. Over the centuries the church came to venerate her and pray to her directly, trusting that she could plead the case of sinful humanity to Jesus and he, as her son, could not refuse her. This veneration, and the rise of doctrines such as her freedom of sin and of her being taken up into heaven (the feast of the Assumption, traditionally celebrated on 15 August), are not part of our heritage as protestants. During the Reformation in the 1500s the reformed churches saw Catholics as worshipping Mary (for example, through the rosary) instead of the Trinity. Thus, if you grew up in a protestant church, you probably didn’t think much of Mary except at Christmas time. Protestant churches believed that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception because it is clearly stated in scripture and creed, but they did not go out of their way to offer Mary any special honour or devotion since they perceived such traditions as unbiblical.

Two of our readings this morning tell part of Mary’s story and invite us to think about her. The gospel reading from Luke (1:39-45) tells the story of how Mary meets her much older cousin Elizabeth. This meeting is sometimes referred to as the Visitation, and it is one of the Joyous Mysteries in the Catholic tradition. These two women have both come to be mothers in miraculous circumstances. The childless Elizabeth, well past menopause and into her old age, finds herself pregnant. For Elizabeth pregnancy has lifted the shame of being childless or “barren” as scripture puts it, and it confirms the truth of the prophecy told to her husband Zecharaiah by the angel in the temple. For Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary, pregnancy before marriage could have been a disaster, but Mary has accepted her role in God’s plan to save humanity through the son she will bear. The link between these two women is emphasized when Elizabeth’s child leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice, for Elizabeth’s son will be John the Baptist, who will foretell the coming of Jesus. Both of these women are thus playing their part to make God’s plan of salvation possible.

Part of the Visitation story is the song that Mary sings. We read the words of this psalm together in lieu of our usual psalm. These words, like are gospel, are also from Luke (1:47-55). Today the church calls this song the “Magnicat”, the Latin rendering of the first few words “My soul magnifies the Lord”. In the liturgical churches the Magnificat or the Song of Mary has many musical settings and is a well-established part of church tradition. Some scholars believe Luke took this song from one of the first hymns to Mary of the early church, since the Magnificat appears to have been written as a song and since it is a very literary and poetic thing for a young girl from Galilee to say. Whatever its origins, the Song of Mary is important for Christians because it reminds us of God is faithful, keeping his promises to Israel and to all its generations, up to our own day. The Song reminds us of God’s mercy and of his love for all his creation, even and especially the poorest and humblest. Like God’s choice of Mary and Elizabeth, two women with no stature or importance in the world’s eyes, the Magnificat is a song of hope and promise to us that God loves us and stands with us, no matter how ordinary and insignificant we may be in the world’s eyes.

Who was Mary? Scripture is clear that in the eyes of the world, she wasn’t anyone special. The biblical scholar Elaine Park reminds us that she lived in a small town, Nazareth, which only had one well. Mary would have shared the communal life of women’s work: washing, mending, and cooking. She was no doubt used to hard work and her hand were starting to get rough with labour. Besides the community of work, Mary would have taken her place in the community of faith. She would have kept the traditional feasts with her family. She would have gone to the village synagogue and learned the traditional psalms and the stories of how God was faithful to Israel. She might well have made the pilgrimage to the great temple in Jerusalem. So, before she became known to us as Queen of Heaven or Mother of God, she was an ordinary young Jewish woman, trusting that the God of her people would be there for her throughout the life ahead of us.

Who is Mary to us? I just said at the outset that Mary was trusting, and that leads me the first of Mary’s qualities that are important for us. Mary is faithful. When the angel came to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah in the Temple he doubted that his wife could conceive, and so he was struck dumb until his son was born However, when the angel comes to Mary, she does not doubt. She is certainly puzzled, and she asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34), but when the angel explains how she will receive the child through the Holy Spirit, she does not doubt. When you think of how strange a thing the angel was saying, Mary could easily have doubted. How often do we doubt far less strange things in our own spiritual lives? It is easy to doubt that God will answer our prayer, that God is listening, or even that God loves us. In such cases, we would do well to remember the faithfulness and serenity of Mary

Mary does not doubt, and she does not refuse. The second quality of Mary is that she is obedient. Yes, if you are wondering, I said obedient. I know that is not a popular word, not even in today’s military, but obedience is part of the Christian life. I recall a comment I heard the theologian Stanley Hauerwas make about his frequent visits to churches as a guest preacher. Usually, he says, there’s someone at door after the service who shakes his hand and says “Interesting message there, preacher, I’m not sure I agree with it”. Hauerwas said that he is often tempted to reply “It wasn’t my message, it was God’s message, and your job isn’t to agree, your job is to obey”. Mary knew that what the angel was saying to her could easily wreck her life as an unwed mother. God allowed his plan of salvation through the birth of Christ to rest in her hands, just as he allowed it to rest in Jesus’ hands in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both said yes to God, and allowed the doors of salvation to open for us. How can our faithfulness and obedience open God’s doors for others?

The third quality of Mary’s that I want to stress is her desire for justice. The words of the Magnificat are about God’s concern for all people, especially the least among us. Mary says “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 1:52-53). The Christmas story is full of signs that God’s salvation is for all people, from the choice of two humble women to be mothers of God’s messengers, to the message to the shepherds to come to the manger, to the promise of the Magnificat that the hungry will go ahead of the fat cats. As we look back on 2009 we see many signs that the Fat Cats have been doing pretty well for themselves. I know however that many of you have the Magnificat spirit firmly in your hearts, whether you work for Lions or for the food bank or for all the other charities you support. In the 1800s Charles Dicken had the Ghost of Marley in A Christmas Carol remind Scrooge that humanity was his business.

Mary’s final quality that I want to highlight is her joy. At least one biblical scholar has noted the importance of Mary’s words being in the form of a song. We sing at times of sorrow, and we sing at times of joy. The Song of Mary echoes another song of joy of another Mary, that of Moses’ sister by the Red Sea after God has drowned the army of Pharaoh and saved Israel (Ex 15:20-21). We think of Mary as being “gentle”, “meek” and “mild” but the Magnificat is a moment of joy and celebration. In the worship of the church it can be sung as a solemn chant, as in the Anglican service of Evening Prayer, or it can be sung in upbeat and lively ways, as our choir did this morning. The Magnificat reminds us that Mary does not accept her duty as a burden to carry, but rather as a cause of joy and wonder at what God is doing in her life. For Mary, her joy comes from the totally unexpected grace that God has given to her. When the angel comes to her, he twice calls her “favoured one” (Lk 1:28, 30) and Mary is amazed that God should love her so much. Likewise, when Elizabeth realizes that she is being visited not just by her young cousin but also by the mother of her Lord, Elizabeth asks why this honour has been given to her. The joy of Mary is the joy of the unexpected blessing, it is the joy of every Christian that God should reach out to us and choose us to receive his love and have a place in his kingdom. Mary’s joy is nothing less than the joy of salvation, and it is a reminder to us to carry our own joy beyond the season of Christmas and into the year to come.

Mary is many things to the Christian churches, and we may not all agree on what she stands for. I have suggested today that she stands for faithfulness, obedience, justice and joy. She models these qualities for us as qualities of the Christian life, a life open to the will of God, trusting in God’s purposes, sharing God’s love for all, and joyous in the gift of God’s love and salvation. May we all share in these eternal qualities which makes Mary model for Christians of all denominations in our common life with Christ, now and always.