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.

The Word Became Vulnerable Flesh

creche1When St. John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he is sharing a mystery so deep that we don’t know what to say. The mystery only deepens when we recall that the Word was with God “in the beginning” and without the Word, nothing was made. What is more, the Word was God. Which is to say, the Word is God for all time.

So why would the Word enter into the Creation that the Word shaped? Isn’t that a case of ultimate downward mobility? Later in his Gospel, John says that God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son who died on the cross. Suddenly, the Word who in the beginning was with God and was God is much more concrete and understandable. Except why would God and the Word love us so much that they would do that? Looking around at ourselves, there seems to be no accounting for taste.

What is so amazing is that God, who we might think is the ultimate in invulnerability, chooses to be vulnerable. God’s vulnerability is attested by the prophets who spoke of God’s distress over human waywardness and infidelity. But even then, “the boots tramped in battle” in Isaiah didn’t trample the Word who was with God and was God. But once the Word was born in the flesh of a human mother and laid in a manger, the Word had become just as vulnerable to trampling boots and automatic rifles as the children at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut and the children slaughtered in Bethlehem by order of King Herod.

Here is where the mystery deepens so profoundly as to escape comprehension. It goes against what we think are our deepest instincts. We do everything to make ourselves less vulnerable from putting on plated armor, to hardening our feelings to buying weapons to defend us for the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to quote Hamlet. If the Word without whom nothing was made that was made is willing to be so defenseless, than perhaps it isn’t really our deepest instinct to defend ourselves so aggressively after all.

Perhaps if we, like Mary, would treasure these things and ponder them deeply in our hearts, we will find within ourselves a Love created by God that loves so abundantly that it melts all our defenses and we no longer worry about accounting for God’s taste in so loving the world.