Born of a Woman

MaryIn most churches, the Blessed Virgin Mary is either given very high honor, sometimes exuberantly so, or she is cast out of mind except at Christmas where she might be allowed in a manger scene.

As with many other things, the Anglican Communion is funny about the matter. One sees both extremes and much in the middle. As a result, an Anglican preaching on the Feast of Saint Mary is apt to feel called upon to explain the place, or lack of place, of Mary in Christian devotion in just a few minutes.

Fortunately, St. Paul does most of the job for me with these words from Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 4–5) These words are so sober and so far from holy cards of Mary ascending into Heaven that they might seem to dismiss that sort of thing, but they don’t. The important thing is that Jesus was born of a woman and we know from elsewhere in scripture that her name was Mary. If we are going to take the humanity of Jesus seriously, we have to take seriously the fact that he was born of a woman and suckled by a woman. If we push her off to the side in our theology and devotion, we risk losing the humanity Jesus shares with us by having a human mother. However, Paul not only stresses the humanity of Jesus, but the raising of humans to a divine level in the sense that we are adopted as sons and daughters of Jesus’ heavenly Abba. This adoption obviously includes his mother who gave birth to him and raised the child who would be raised up on the cross and then raised to heaven. Celebrating Mary’s assumption into heaven, then, entails celebrating our assumption into heaven as well. Jesus did a great thing for Mary because Jesus is going to do a great thing for us.

In Mary’s song, the Magnificat, Mary sings that “the Mighty One” has done great things for her and that God has mercy “for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Lk. 1: 50) To honor Mary, then, is to honor her willing submission to her son’s Abba. Since it is her son’s Abba who does great things, there is no need to appeal to Mother Mary for fear that Jesus or his Abba are having a bad day. On the other hand, Mary wants what her son’s Abba wants for us, and so she prays for all of us as do all the saints in Heaven. Mary goes on to sing about God bringing down the mighty and raising up the lowly, of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. That is to say, when a young woman gives birth to a child who is God just as much as he is human, the world is in for a shakeup. Since the shakeup is as gentle as a young maiden saying “Yes,” it is easy to look at the world and not realize that it has been turned upside down. If we haven’t noticed that, we’re missing something

In the Arms of Mary, in the Arms of Christ

madonnaThe image of Mary holding her Child is arguably the defining image of the Christmas season. Its tenderness is comforting in a world where violence against the most vulnerable dominates the news. Vulnerability, such as that of a newborn baby tends to arouse either a gentle wish to nurture and protect, or it sets off an urge to take advantage of weakness in hard-hearted fashion as Herod did. We see both of these tendencies happening in the world about us and it is possible that we struggle between them within ourselves. If we let ourselves get caught up in the frantic conflicts occurring today, any weaknesses we see in our opponents become targets for increased aggression.

It takes a quiet, contemplative attitude to relax and let the tender, nurturing attitude take over, even in relation to our opponents. Like Mary, we need to ponder the birth of Jesus in our hearts. Mary could hardly have doubted that the baby was as human as any other baby as she suckled him at her breast, laid him down to sleep, and heard him cry when he woke up hungry. But as the famous song asks: Did Mary know that “when you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God?” Although a young parent knows that the day could come when the child takes care of the parent during helpless old age as the parent takes care of the helpless child, could she have known that the child she delivered “will soon deliver you?”

The mysterious annunciation was another contemplative moment for Mary as she had to be still and listen to what the angel was telling her, hard to believe as it was. That the child would be “great and the Son of the Most High” could have meant many things without necessarily meaning that the child was God. But conceiving the child without ever having “known man” would have made it clear that the child was not ordinary. Did she have to know or suspect that the child was God before she would hold him, kiss him, bathe him, and feed him? Surely not. The child needed her care and that was all the reason she needed.

When the child had grown, he would say that whoever fed a hungry person or clothed one who was naked did that the same to him. Mary actually did these things for Jesus himself, because she would have done them for anyone, which is how it should be.

And yes, the child she bore did come to hold her in his arms. Eastern Orthodox icons of the Dormition of Mary illustrate this insight when the soul of Mary, as she dies in the arms of the disciples, has turned into a baby girl held in the arms of Jesus.

Any time we hold a vulnerable person tenderly, we hold the vulnerable Jesus, who in turn holds us in his divine arms as we experience our own vulnerability during the challenges in our lives.

Just a Little Jewish Girl: A Homily for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin

MaryBack when I was a seminarian at Nashotah House, a student from the South transferred there in the middle of the academic year. Not surprisingly, given Nashotah’s Anglo-Catholic tradition, several students ganged up on him and tried to convert him to an ardent devotion to Our Lady. This student’s response was: “I thought Mary was just a little Jewish girl.”

Not surprisingly, this student never got into rosaries or other Marian devotions. For myself, young and zealous over the Anglo-Catholic way but cautious about going as overboard as some of my classmates did, I was bemused by the remark and it has stuck with me. As I think about it now, I am convinced that this student’s remark, surely meant to be dismissive, was spot on. Mary was a Jewish girl, and if we want a sound Mariology, we are wise not to forget it. In fact, when we look at the Gospels, we see a Jewish girl who said very little, although she pondered much in her heart.

Some of the overblown piety directed at Mary has been enough to make one forget she had ever been a human being, let alone a humble girl from a humble Galilean village. The Gospel canticle known as Magnificat, which was read for today’s Gospel, has this little Jewish girl flinging the mighty from their seats and scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts. Maybe this little Jewish girl took some Judo lessons and got herself a black belt. Then the paintings of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven and her coronation there make her look something like a goddess. Many devotions to Mary suggest that she is the vehicle of salvation and either her son is just an afterthought, or he just as stern and unapproachable as his heavenly father. This little Jewish girl sure rose up in the world.

However, if God was going to send His Son, born of a woman, at the “fullness of time,” (Gal. 4: 4) a woman would gave to give birth to him. If Jesus was going to be born a Jew, then his mother would have to be a little Jewish girl and not a goddess organizing the heavenly realms. Jesus would not have been fully human otherwise. As a baby and little boy, he needed to be cared for by his mother and adoptive father. Nothing unusual there. What was unusual, to the point of being earthshaking, as the Magnificat proclaims, was that God had entered human nature so that this human mother was not only the mother of a human boy but the Mother of God! So it is that in the Magnificat, it isn’t Mary who is throwing the bad guys around; it is God raising up a little Jewish girl and, with her, the whole human race, little old me and little old you included.

In this festival, we do not celebrate a goddess; we celebrate a little Jewish girl who said “Yes” to God’s Desire, just as every human is called to do. It is saying “Yes” to God’s desire that scatters the imagination of our hearts and raises us up to the level of this little Jewish girl.

Mary’s Blessedness, Everybody’s Blessedness

MaryMary has been both deified and vilified. It seems the main reason she has been vilified is precisely because she has been deified. The dogma of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, traditionally celebrated by Roman Catholics on this day, tends to suggest deification and thus provoke a corresponding denigration. Why should this particular Jewish girl be raised to such heights? Sound theology has always been clear that Mary was a human being and not a deity. Any glorification of her is a glorification of her divine son who gave his mother whatever glory that she has. Like the rest of the world, Christianity has had its superstars who are put on a pedestal and everybody on a pedestal draws detraction as a matter of course.

Mary’s real glory is that she was a human being every much as the rest of us. That is, she was and is a Jewish girl. Mary is, of course, inseparable from the Incarnation of the Word in her womb. Although Mary’s son was (and is) divine, Jesus was (and is) fully human, like you and me. In his excellent book Sheer Grace, Drasko Dizdar says that Mary, far from being a deity or demigod, “is the utterly and simply human subversion of this deification of human “archetypes” into the divine feminine.’” This is what the famous words of Mary in the Magnificat are all about when she says God “has cast down the mighty from their seats and has lifted up the lowly.” If such words simply mean other people become just as mighty as the ones who were cast down, then the words change nothing for humanity. The ones who are raised up are lowly and continue to be raised up only by remaining lowly. The proud are scattered in the “imagination of their hearts.” The rich are sent away empty because their hearts are too full of their desires to have room for God. What is so subversive about Mary, then, is her humanity. While other humans try to make themselves more than human by being movers and shakers, Mary is blessedly content to be human. As Dizdar says, Mary is a whole human being “as God has always intended the human creature to be as creature.”

Throughout, the Magnificat is a song of praise of God, not of Mary herself. All generations call her blessed because of what God has done. Mary only did what every human being should do, rarely as it actually happens: She said “Yes;” she didn’t say “Maybe,” or “No.” Saying “Yes” is what is so extraordinary about Mary. If this simple response makes her so singular among human beings, it only shows how the rest of us fail to be human beings. Far from isolating herself, Mary proclaims her solidarity with all God’s people, the promise made to all Abraham’s children.

Does all this relegate the belief in the Assumption of Mary to mere mythology that must be discarded in our modern age? Not at all, if we open our hearts to the Love God shows to the created world in its sheer materiality. Dizdar says that God’s love “is so concrete (‘body’) and complete (‘and’ soul’) that it draws into itself (‘assumes’) our happily (‘blessed’), sovereignly free (‘virgin’) and simple, created humanity “(‘Mary’), into the very life of God (‘heaven’).”  If we glorify Mary for an allegedly singular grace or denigrate her for allegedly getting “special treatment,” we only show how readily we project our rivalrous desires on Mary and God. Far from being a special grace, the Assumption is God’s invitation to all of us to enter the depths of our created humanity that God loves unconditionally.