"Mary's Sunday" is this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent when many will sing Mary's marvelous hymn from Luke:
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."
It's one of the most beloved passages of the Bible. Yet preaching about the Virgin Mary presents conundrums for many Anglican and Mainline preachers.
In addition to the challenges of the immaculate conception, when we look at Mary through art or historical representations, we're tempted to see her as an other-worldly ideal, venerated as pure and holy without regard for the very real, flesh and blood travails she faced.
Or we're tempted to see her merely as a meek, passive recipient of God's will—the very image many contemporary women rail against.
In short, many preachers are not quite sure what to do with Mary's complicated role in our tradition because so many depictions are incomplete.
But I found help when I recently re-read Kathleen Norris's essay "Virgin Mary, Mother of God" from her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1). Ms Norris raises new insights to open the richness and example of the Mother of God through our sermons.
Mary as Ourselves
In Western art, why is Mary "almost always presented 'as a teenage beauty queen, forever eighteen years old...and perfectly manicured'" (ibid, p. 118)? That's the question Norris cites from Sr Ruth Fox, OSB.
Ms. Norris reflects this is an unlikely representation of an actual young girl in Hill Country Judea, capable of long treks and hard, physical labor. An olive-skinned, muscular young woman with calloused hands and feet is far more likely, historically.
Tradition actually offers us many images of Mary beyond the "Renaissance Queen." It's not surprising that nearly every culture in the world has artistically created Mary in their own image.
On the wall of my office, for example, I have four images of Mary in various traditional Native American garments. She is also depicted as the Black Madonna in a famous statue in a monastery in Einsiedeln, Switzerland and in other works throughout the world. And of course, there's Mary as a peasant woman from the mountains of Tepayac, Mexico: the Virgin of Guadalupe.
A sermon could be crafted on the question: if Mary were to bear Jesus in your culture today, what might she look like? Who would listen to her? Who would help her bring the Christ-child into the world? What if Mary were from another culture?
Mary as Revolutionary
Mary responded to the Angel Gabriel's invitation to carry the Son of God: "Let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1.37).
To many, her answer characterizes her as passive, meek, and mild. And yet, this interpretation is at odds with the song she sings spontaneously to her cousin Elizabeth when the two women greet, each as unlikely to be pregnant as the other:
"He 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" (Luke 1.51-53).
Mary's song is understood by many to be the epitome of revolutionary.
It's reported (2) that the governments of Guatemala, India, and Argentina banned the recitation of Magnificat when they feared being overthrown by the populace. The Magnificat's message was considered too empowering to those with nothing to lose because they already know of their true place in God's eternal, loving care.
Adding to this powerful interpretation of the Magnificat, Jason Porterfield points out:
"The German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer [sic] recognized the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song. Before being executed by the Nazis, Bonheoffer [sic] spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.…This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind'"(3).
Mary's strength, confidence, and sure and certain hope in God was sung for all to hear, emancipating all who felt crushed, defeated, and powerless. Their strength may not come from recognition or by governments, but came from the One who made them and sets them free from every kind of bondage.
Imagine a sermon, then, that calls us to act on our longing for human dignity. We walk in Mary's footsteps when we, too, lift up the lowly.
Mary as Honored Leader & Advocate
Mary is certainly one of "The Greats"! Like the Venerable Bede, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa, she has much to teach us.
We can honor Mary by sitting at her feet to learn and absorb her wisdom. We can read and memorize her story in Scripture or we can ponder her story in our hearts in front of icons, statues, or paintings depicting her.
And once we've learned and absorbed her example, we can follow her leadership by allowing ourselves to be moved to acts of compassion and social justice, by stepping into fear or uncertainty in order to courageously follow God's call on our lives.
As we endeavor to follow Mary's lead, some may be surprised to learn that Mary would be a wonderful addition to our list of those we can count on to pray for us. Asking members of the communion of saints to pray for us is much like asking living saints—our friends, family, and fellow church members—to pray for us. A teaching sermon encouraging listeners to consider her a fellow member of the communion of saints and "pray-ers" could be a revelation and tremendous gift of new relationship for many.
So "meek and mild" Mary? Hardly!
This young Judean woman stepped into fear and uncertainty to usher in a divine disruption of the status quo, a historic interruption in which all power structures and paradigms were upended so that love could reign on earth as it is in heaven.
A disruption we're invited to participate in today.
Help Mary break out of the gentle, gentrified gaze in which she's been cast for centuries to show us how Mary reflects ourselves, how she consented to nothing less than revolution, how she leads us, even today—and how she can intercede on our behalf as we follow.
(1) Norris, Kathleen. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. New York (Riverhead, 1998).
(2)Johnson, Elizabeth: "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary." http://www.uscatholic.org/2011/01/mary-mary-quite-contrary. Porterfield, Jason. "The Subversive Magnificat: What Mary Expected The Messiah To Be Like." http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like. Ortberg,John. "Mary's carol: Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)." The Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-12/marys-carol?reload=1513025425216;
(3)ibid, Jason Porterfield (2, above).
Backstory Preaching® receives a (very) small percentage of the sale of products through affiliate links. We only offer products we know or wish were on our shelves.
It's not too late to join us for Christmas Sermon Bootcamp
—and rest easy knowing at least one of your sermons will be taken care of by Friday, December 22nd.
Join us online for one hour a day the week of December 18th, and enjoy the process of crafting a sermon with colleagues and a mentor. Write a soulful, effective sermon for Christmas while learning strategies you can use to prep all your sermons.