Sermon #162 St. James the Less #69 12/15/19
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever. Luke 1:46-55
One of my favorite things about the season of Advent is the people we get to meet along the way as we head towards Christmas. Last week we met the prophet Isaiah foretelling of the great things that would happen in the wilderness, and then we met good ole John the Baptist in the wilderness eating honey and wearing strange clothes while calling people to repent.
This morning we get to meet yet another important person on our Advent journey; one who is quite essential to the Christmas story- it’s Mary. Instead of reading a psalm like we usually do, today we said the Magnificat which starts out so beautifully, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
In this hymn of praise Mary sounds a lot alike Isaiah. What God is doing in her life, she says, he will also do for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed. The tables are being turned, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
This great reversal, where the lowly are raised up, has already begun as evidence that the Holy One has called a poor, young girl from Nazareth to give birth to the Son of God.
Mary’s song of praise is one of the most beautiful pieces in the entire Bible, and it comes from one of the most extraordinary persons in Scripture.
Modern Day Mary
But Mary can be a very hard person to understand these days. Time has really distanced us from that simple, yet beautiful scene where she is praising God with every fiber of her being while Jesus is in her womb.
Though I’ve been fascinated with Mary over the years, I have also been intimidated or even confused about the Mary that I’ve seen in art and read in literature.
The Madonna and Child captured the imagination of every late medieval and renaissance artist. In those grand paintings Mary always seems distant, and regal with all her fine, Italian clothing shimmering in the light. Looking up at those works of art, Mary just seems larger than life, and rarely do you ever see her smiling in those paintings.
I’ve also been tripped up that the titles the church have given her over the centuries.
I wasn’t fully sure about the title “Mother of God” until I discovered that one of the early councils of the church was dedicated to talking about this title, and they came to the conclusion that if Jesus is in fact God then yes, Mary gave birth to God.
But titles like Gate of Heaven, Mirror of Justice, and especially, Queen of the Universe have made me really scratch my head. And I’ve never fully understood the Catholic devotion to Mary, or what Hail Mary’s are supposed to do.
I’ve really been confused by the Catholic Church’s stance of the Immaculate Conception which says that Mary was sinless. Are we still talking about the same young Jewish girl here?
I imagine that for some here, you’ve had a similar experience with Mary. Intrigued and yet confused. If only we could meet the Mary we see in the Luke chapter 1 before the medieval artists got to her and put a crown on her head and a perpetual frown on her face.
But a few years ago, that intimidation of Mary changed into pure admiration for me. In 2006 a movie called The Nativity Story came out, and unlike so many other movies based on the Bible, this one was actually good.
It was really well done, and most of the movie focused on Mary the months before she gave birth to Jesus. It showed her relationship with Joseph grow as they began to trust each other more and more. It showed her faith, and yet also her fear of what would happen once this son of hers was born.
For me, the movie took Mary out of those lifeless medieval paintings, and added depth and emotion that I had never seen in her. It took her from her cosmic throne as Queen of the Universe and reminded me that she was in fact a person who walked this earth-a person who must have been so humble and loving and faithful to God that he would invite her to do something that he hadn’t invited anyone else to do.
She was the only one in all of human history to be asked if she would bear the Son of God.
For God to have asked her, she must have been such an amazing woman. And God wasn’t impressed with her wealth, cause she didn’t have any. He wasn’t impressed with her looks or her intelligence, cause those aren’t mentioned. Rather he chose her because of who she was-the kind of person she was and the faith that she had.
God believed she was the one who could handle the responsibility of not only giving birth to Jesus, but also raising him. God bestowed on her the greatest honor but also the greatest responsibility.
In the amazing way God works, God was asking the free consent of a creature to help him to be incorporated into humanity (paraphrased from Fulton Sheen). God needed Mary to make this happen. It would be through her that the Savior would come to make right all that had gone wrong since the time of Adam.
The great theologians have all looked back to Mary, and realized the Incarnation had to happen this way. They looked back to how things were in the Garden of Eden. As Eve was formed from Adam’s body, so the new sinless Adam, Jesus, would be formed from a daughter of Eve.
Mary was the vessel that carried the answer to all the world’s problem. In beautiful irony, the one she carried in her womb was her own Creator and Lord.
I think we as Protestants, and especially as Episcopalians, need to reclaim a deep appreciation for Mary. She is a great reminder of how God likes to turn the world’s (and our own) expectations upside down.
If God can call Mary out from her ordinary life, from an ordinary family in an ordinary town to do something extraordinary for the whole world, then what might God want to do with us?
Mary realizes that best of all. “‘For [God] has looked with favor on his lowly servant,’ she says. ‘From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.’”
But if you’re still on the fence, and not really sure if Mary is worth all the whoopla then consider this: Mary was the first person to love Jesus.
Before Joseph had heard the news, Jesus was already being formed in Mary’s womb. She loved him first, and with a love so strong and so pure, that nothing could break her love for him.
A mother’s love is a powerful thing. It is abiding and enduring. Watch any mother in the animal kingdom and you will see that. Whether it’s a duck with her ducklings, a dog with her pups, or a bear with her cubs: you don’t mess with momma.
The same is true with humans. Hopefully all of us have experienced a mother’s love, or someone who is a mother figure to us. Some here have experienced what it means to be a mother.
And with that same unbreakable bond, Mary loved Jesus.
As disciples of Jesus we are called to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind. We are called to love him because he first loved us. We are invited to love him like Mary loved him with a sense of awe and wonder.
So why is Mary important? Because she is the first of billions of people throughout the ages who have loved Jesus. If for no other reason, that is what makes her significant.
Jesus’s love is transformational. If we allow it to work its power in our life, we will never be the same. How might our life change with that kind of love? How might we become a better friend, coworker, spouse, parent, or neighbor with Jesus’ love in our life?
How have we as a church shared that love with one another and with our community? And how would this church be transformed if we loved each other even more intentionally and deeply.
Sharing the peace may take on a new significance. Kneeling next to an old friend for communion may be inspiring. Welcoming a newcomer or catching up with a longtime member may be the highlight of your morning.
Even asking one of our children or teenagers how school is going, or what they’re passionate about may be the most significant thing you do while at church. Coffee hour itself may be transformed from small talk to real honest conversations about the ups and downs of life.
Because when you love someone you can’t help but to seek after their well-being.
My prayer for us is that we can love Jesus like Mary has. That we can love each other as Jesus calls us to do. That our love for God and our neighbor can be as deep and strong and abiding as it was for that young Jewish girl from Nazareth.
For indeed the Almighty has done great things for us, and holy is his Name!
Advent III. Year A. Photos of paintings taken by the writer.