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Mary, Mary, Mary…like so many women today, we expect you to be it all in the ultimate “lean in” moment, at once virgin and mother, saint and sinner. We have buried you under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, it’s nearly impossible to excavate. Some Christians exalt you so highly that they pray directly to you. Others ignore you on principle alone. Some call you a victim of divine coercion, like some sort of example of a cosmic #MeToo. Others grant you the title “Mother of God,” which seems quite a thing to live up to. You represent a troubling model of pious femininity— ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother, woman, but only in the purest sense of that term, encompassing a patriarchal ideal of a feminine honor that is wrapped in conflicting paper.
As for me, I’m not sure what I feel about Mary. Her exaltation doesn’t work for me because my theology doesn’t claim her as the mother of God. She’s the mother of Jesus, who is the closest example we have of God’s love and power lived out, but not God. And the whole “virgin” motif I understand more as an example of lifting Jesus up than it is commentary on Mary herself. See, virgin births were a way, in the ancient Mediterranean culture, to claim the importance of someone. Caesars were born of virgins, Greek and Roman gods, heroes of renown all born of virgins in a claim of the strange dichotomy that patriarchy still makes on women – be virginal and yet also alluring because sex is dirty and wrong, but “oh, so right” and patriarchy heaps all of it’s anxieties about sex onto women, which is why 100% of the arguments against birth control are aimed at women, though 50% of the problem is men…maybe more.
And then there’s motherhood. This is where I give Mary lots of cred. I know that I am who I am, in part – a BIG part – because of my mother. So, could it be that Mary’s reluctant agreement to this plan the angel presents…is THIS where Jesus learned his own faithfulness in the improbable, even the impossible? Maybe we turn too soon to claiming God’s hand on Jesus and ignore Mary’s hand on him. When she agrees to this motherhood thing, I suspect she does so like lots of women I know – full of high ideals and hope. For if we ever knew beforehand what birthing and raising children was reallylike, the species wouldn’t survive. It’s a strange chemical that invades the heart and mind that allows those subsequent children to come along, too…a holy amnesia that grants grace enough to take that road again. We could say that when Mary says, “Let it be with me just as you have said,” she doesn’t really have any idea what she’s saying.
I have so many questions to ask Mary: When did you tell your parents you were pregnant? HOW did you tell your parents you were pregnant? Did you tell Joseph yourself, or did the gossipmongers of Nazareth take care of that for you? Did anyone in the village believe your story? After Gabriel departed, did you doubt his visitation? At some point, with the stories in the local paper and the constant whispering as your rounded the corner, did you question your sanity? In a culture where “honor killings” are a real thing – did you fear for your life?
We get only ten verses for this whole story, the most tangible origin story of Jesus. This story reminds us that God’s favor isn’t necessarily the analgesic we often think it is…divine favor may not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease, an assertion which might surprise some churches that spend about 10 seconds on Mary, her dream and the ramifications of the angel’s announcement before racing to her son, the one who may have been more influenced by his rebellious, faithful mother than we often say. Often this story is portrayed only as Mary’s quick yes to the angel’s offer, yet painters and poets across time have produced art in between these ten verses, giving midrashic meaning to a critical and imminently human experience. In her commentary on this passage, Debie Thomas writes, “The danger in idealizing Mary’s consent is that it distorts her humanity, and keeps her story at arm’s length from ours. For better or for worse, I can’t relate to a person who leaps headlong into obedience. I can relate, however, to the one who struggles, to the one whose “yes” is cautious and ambivalent.”
This is, after all, what I think is the more salient message for us this morning from Mary, visited by an angel in a direct line from God that few, if any, of us get to experience. And yet she doubts. She questions. She wonders and ponders and discerns what it is exactly that she will do next. At some level she knows that her “yes” in this instance means she will give herself over to scandal and ostracism. It means putting her reputation, her family’s honor, her future marriage, even her very life on the line. So she asks some specific questions about God’s intentions for overcoming what she considers impossible and, in the end, says yes only when the very last thing that has to be addressed is her willingness…her own overcoming of her own uncertainty. For God can do much, this story reminds us, but God cannot faith for us. It is we who have to engage with the mystery that is life, with all of it’s twists and turns and inconsistencies. We have to take that first step on that dark staircase when it seems like we have no idea how things might work out or what it is that we will do tomorrow. It might mean saying yes to something even when it seems like it might cost us something.
I don’t think that Mary is meant to be the model of faith for us. I think that she is meant to be the model of faith for Jesus, the example that we see influencing him to take some risks and make a stand, even when it might cost him something. And I’m not suggesting that you have to give birth to the Christ child or die on a cross to be faithful, but rather that you do have to be willing to listen to where God is leading you and trust that you can follow…that you arepreciselywho God wants in that place and time. Mary didn’t know how this would all work out and perhaps if she had, or if Gabriel had told her the whole plot to come, she would have said no. Sometimes it’s good that we don’t know the whole story, for often our best moments in life come from things that are so immensely difficult and trying that we’d have said no straightaway if we could have seen the road ahead. It is this Advent road, friends, that reminds us that in the waiting, in the darkness and doubt there is much blessing. Advent teaches us that light and darkness are not binary opposites but rather dance partners and our wounds are often the very places that light gets into our lives.
I was struck by the words of one commentary writer on this passage where he said, “Having got through [reading of her] Questioning doubt we then stand with Mary on the edge of mystery and miracle. All that remains is the “Let it be.” This is the ultimate wording for an agreement to partnership with God and Life.” He continues, “[A] great song it was by John Lennon, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, ‘Let it be.’ John Lennon was not an obvious Christ follower, but he knew enough to know that Mary would know what to do in “times of trouble” [She would] “Let it be.”
Only it wasn’t John Lennon who wrote that song, it was Paul McCartney. And it wasn’t Mary the mother of Jesus who McCartney was referring to, it was his own mother Mary, who died when he was young. Lennon and McCartney always shared songwriting credits, even when the majority of the work was done by only one of them, like Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon actually didn’t want “Let it Be” on the same-titled album, what ultimately became the last studio album the Beatles ever produced. Lennon thought it too “religious”, too “Catholic.” He called it, quite sarcastically, “Hark the Angels Come” and then insisted that a song titled “Maggie May” about a Liverpool prostitute follow it on the original album.
McCartney later recalled why he wrote the song. One night when he was paranoid and anxious, he had a dream where he saw his long dead mother, come to him in his time of trouble, speaking words of wisdom that brought him much peace when he needed it, peace that passed his understanding. That light came in through his wounded heart, teaching him that he could move forward without knowing how everything would work out. It was this sweet dream that got him to begin writing the song and later genuinely became a way to live his life – development of a comfort with being out of control.
In a way, Mary announces Advent – or rather Advent as a way of life. She listens, she considers, she debates and discerns and questions and then she says – “I’m here, God.” And that’s a pattern we can all use, right now, today. That is an Advent way of life that we can use, for God is still speaking and the incarnation – the visitation of messages from God – they are still happening. Perhaps not as neatly and dramatically as our stories tell, those, I think, would be easier to see. But they are happening. God is all around us, whispering words of wisdom, asking us to engage with God’s great plan of Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world. I don’t know about you, but I need to know that. I need to know that the incarnation matters, that God becoming flesh and living here among us matters, and that Christmas is not just the story of a baby born 2000 years ago, but the story of God born to us each and every day. It is true if we will let it be true.
Let it be.
After the sermon, Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Let it Be” was played: