2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
That we might be granted the strength of Mary, to carry our lord’s will into the world with enduring faith.
Today is Mary Sunday and if you have not yet gotten to know the mother of our Lord, I would like to introduce you to her because she is a saint whose love for you will surely bring you closer to knowing the endurance of God’s love.
When Mary said to Gabriel “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), we can only imagine the excitement, wonder and terror she must have felt. Not only because she was to carry the Christ Child, but because of the time in her life when she was asked to do so. Mary was a virgin and not yet married. And just because she had faith in the purity of her conception did not mean that everyone else would. The judgment of her fiancé, family and neighbors could have been devastating. The Jewish Talmudic Law at that time dictates that a girl who is pregnant out of wedlock can be stoned, strangled or burned alive by the men of her family, in order to compensate for the shame of her indiscretion. Mary was taking enormous risks with her reputation, her health, and her life in order to carry the Christ Child. As a people of faith, we must ask, why was she so willing to say yes to God?
First Century life for Mary and the Hebrew people was enormously difficulty. It was characterized by violence, political and social upheaval and deep injustice. The heavy hand of Roman occupation made life in Israel terrible for Jews. Given such an environment, it’s no wonder that Mary was willing to risk her life to bear the messiah her people had long awaited. She was just as desperate as anyone else for liberation from Rome.
Mary, was a pregnant child in a very dangerous time. That may be why, soon after Gabriel’s visit she goes quickly, indeed some translate that as “fled” to the hill country to be with her cousin Elizabeth. It was a treacherous journey, yet we must be grateful for her time with Elizabeth because in the intimacy and safety of her relative’s home, Mary reveals in detail what her hopes are for her unborn child. She tells us why she is risking so much. Mary sings a song to her Elizabeth, now called the Magnificat. She sings:
The mighty has shown strength with his arm; 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. Luke 1: 51-55
Mary believes her son, the messiah, will fulfill the hopes of his people; bringing down Rome, uplifting the poor and feeding the hungry. Her’s is a vision with revolutionary political, economic and social expectation. And she is so sure of this that she sings it in the present tense, as if it has already happened, though she has just conceived. Wow, talk about high expectations for your kid!
Mary knows suffering. Indeed, Mary’s name, from the Hebrew, Miriam, means “sea of suffering” and given the trials of her life and the sufferings of her people that she protested in her Magnificat and witnessed in the life of her very own son, she was surely well named. Mary’s example is a special one: of sacrificial faith in the midst of great hardship. Hers is not a blind faith. There was nothing passive, weak or naïve about Mary and though she was a virgin, her virginity was no talisman to suffering.
I have to ask, is this the Mary you know? Imagine how she has so often been portrayed. Her’s is a name we immediately associate with passive, gentle compassion radiating with the plump purity of the untouched saint. In paintings, sculpture and popular lore she carries the perpetual countenance of absolute peace.
Take for example her famous portrayal in Michaelangelo’s pietá, a marble carving of a woman with gentle, loving, down-caste eyes upon her son’s dead body cradled in folds of fabric like a sleeping infant. Her left hand gently opened in an apparent gesture of acquiescence, as if to say in perpetuity, “well, as I said, Lord, thy will be done”.
Now, Michaelangelo’s sculpture is a great work of art, no doubt, but that statue bears no resemblance to the real story of Mary. Mary was a woman who cared deeply for the life of her son, who fought long and hard that he might liberate her people. Any woman or man who has had endured the unnatural hell of seeing their child die, especially before he really had a chance to live can tell you that there is no way Mary was so passively resigned as that post-crucifixion.
There is another version of the pietá, one that 19th Century painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, offers us that is much more congruent with the Mary of scripture. She is clothed in crimson red and black, clinging to her son’s limp body, surrounded by angels in the throws of weeping and mourning and she stares straight at you with eyes ringed in haunting darkness. Her face is battle worn with shock, disappointment, and anger. She is a mother who made enormous sacrifices for her faith and at that moment, in the eyes of everyone: the government, the temple authorities, her family and Jesus’s followers everything had failed.
Yet we know that image is but a snapshot in a life of faith, and in that darkest of hours she believed. With all she had lost she still trusted in God and believed God still cared for his people. It is that faithful love that made her wake on the morning after her son’s burial and travel to his tomb to keep vigil. Everyone else had abandoned the cause and the disciples had gone into hiding, she, who had sacrificed the most still carried the most faith. Mary found the tomb empty and through her grief, her faith grasped the import of what had happened.
Her son, Our Lord, was raised. Even though Mary had thought her son would be a military hero brought to overwhelm Rome by force, his resurrection had exceeded her expectations! The greatest tool of oppression, what had held her people in captivity: the fear of death, had been overcome Her son had indeed fulfilled the promise of God, and a freedom that she could never have imagined became real.
That is the Mary of scripture and prayer. She is faithful AND she suffers. She hears our cries and she understands them. She suffers on behalf of us, her people, because we are so important to her she is willingly suffered the indignities of life so that noone will have to suffer again. She loves us so much that she is willing to do whatever she can to bring us liberation.
When Mary offered herself to the angel Gabriel saying “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” she could not have known what God’s will was for her. None of us do. Yet we, like her, have dedicated ourselves on the path to follow the will of God. Where it will lead we do not know, but we must follow in order to know the love of God. The path to God is one of faith, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Tonight, there will be dozens and dozens of children gathered here to commemorate that glorious night wherein our Lord became flesh, was born into this world of a woman, so that we all might be made free. In that pageant we are teaching yet another generation that there is power in saying “yes” to God. There is power, and sadness, and difficulty and challenges beyond our wildest dreams in saying “yes” to God. We are teaching yet another generation that the way of yes to God in not an easy one, but the greatest power on earth, which overcomes all suffering, even the ultimate suffering of death itself is within our reach. Faith. Ultimately nothing can keep a hold on the faithful…not sin, not suffering, not injustice nor persecution, not death itself. Mary IS a saint whose love for you, in your struggles and faith life, will surely bring you closer to knowing the endurance of God’s love.
Thanks be to God.