Monday, December 04, 2006

Mary, Mary, Not Contrary

As we rejoice in this season of miracles, we sometimes lose sight of one of the major miracles of Christmas. I am not talking about the miracle of the Jesus’ birth – though, of course, without that miracle no others would matter. The one I am thinking about is the miracle that the central figures of the Christ event were people just like us. I think it is indeed miraculous that God’s eternal drama is played out primarily by ordinary women and men and boys and girls. It is one more way that God connects us with the timeless story of His reaching out in love to all creation.

Mary's one of those people. She's been getting a lot of attention lately -- in books and movies. Most of the time, when I think of Mary, I think of the halo-ified woman appearing in classical paintings. She, in those portrayals, is a saint who is surely up to this task. She is angelic, pure. She is rarely shown as a real human. Yet, that’s exactly who she was -- a real, flesh and blood, teenaged girl. The thing that makes her unique is that she was chosen by God for a great work

A Rosario Castellanos poem helps me think of Mary in a new way.

Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

“Too small for the destiny she must contain.” Ah, the simple elegant understatement of that sentence. That makes Mary’s teenage-ness real to me. I see her more as a tiny, faithful child of God than a plaster saint.

When I read the Bible, it, too, paints a picture of Mary far different than Fra Angelico or Van Eyck. It does this as much with what it does not say as with what it does. What it says is that God’s messenger Gabriel is sent to visit her and announce that she, among all women on earth, has been chosen to bear the Christ. The angel tells her this is because “you have found favor with God.”

What the story does not say is why Mary has found favor with God. For example, it does not say that she has found favor with God because she attended synagogue faithfully, or studied the scriptures diligently, or served on committees, or counted herself a spiritual person or was seen as such by the religious people around her. It does not say that she was chosen because she stood in the temple and prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like others --robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” It does not say that she was chosen because of any “religious” reason.

The only thing it does say is that she was chosen because she had “found favor with God.”
Her response, after questioning how, physically, this could be, was a simple – or not so simple – yes.

This was no easy “Yes.” This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on unwed mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to. And yet she did.

Her response to this is remarkable, or maybe miraculous. She doesn’t try to talk her way out of it. She doesn’t try to excuse herself because of unworthiness. She simply says “Yes.” Perhaps that’s why she found favor with God – God knew the heart of Mary and knew, above all, that she would do what was asked.

That’s why I think there are lessons for us in both what is said and what is not said.
The lesson in what is said is that God chooses people to do God’s work. Real people for real work. Moses, Miriam, David, Mary and many more. The Bible, indeed the entire course of human history, is a testimony to that fact. When something needs to happen, God chooses men and women, boys and girls, to get it done – be it sack groceries for the hungry or bear the savior of the world.

The lesson in what is not said is that we do not have to be worthy in the sense that we humans often apply that criteria. We are chosen because of who we are and our faithful response, not because we fit creedal criteria.

Mary isn’t chosen because she attends more services, speaks more public places or attends more prayer meetings than anybody else. In fact, there is no record in the Bible of her attending synagogue. The only time it is mentioned that she attended Temple worship was at Jesus’ dedication and later when the boy is 12 and she and Joseph find him in the Temple courtyard discussing theology with the priests. There is no record of her reading scripture.

What that tells us, solely by the lack of its being mentioned (after all, just because it’s not mentioned doesn’t mean she didn’t read scripture, pray or attend synagogue) is that Mary was chosen not because she was more “spiritual” (at least outwardly) than anybody else at her time.
That is both a promise and a warning. It is a promise because it says to us all that all God requires of us is a willingness to say yes. That’s because willingness to say yes shows a spiritual depth that outweighs all public professions of faith. It gets to the heart of what God wants from his people. “He has showed you, what is good,” writes Micah. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

“This is the one I esteem,” says God, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

That’s a good description of Mary. She trembled at the word that Gabriel brought, but, because of her humble and contrite heart, she found God’s favor – and said yes.

The story is a warning because it reminds us that God didn’t choose a “spiritual” acting person to be the bearer of the good news. Indeed, Mary’s son later issued a scathing indictment of people who acted this way. “Woe to you, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

But if Jesus’ words bother your soul and you find yourself wondering, "Am I like that?” I would maintain that you are more Mary than hypocrite. And that’s exactly what God is looking for. God is looking for men and women, boys and girls, of humble and contrite hearts who desire to walk with God. We, like Mary, may be “too small for the destiny we must contain” – but with God’s loving help, we can, like Mary, be used for great things for God.

We can be contrary. Or we can be Mary. “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”


Anonymous said...

i would just like to tell you i am enjoying your blog posts.

but i must ask you, isn't it easier to say yes when it is clear who is asking?

i am not trying to discredit your notion of Mary, i think you are largely right and it is a good insight. but Mary knew she was dealing with God and his emissaries.

these days he does not really seem to put fire on bushes; he does give babies to young girls, but he does not appear to their boyfriends in dreams to tell them she will bear the son of God.

for us to say yes, we must know how to listen so carefully, it is difficult...what do we do if we do not hear?

i do not think most people would fail to follow God's way if they had an audience with him, or with Gabriel (though Mary's and Muhammed's experiences of Gabriel are quite different, we see!!). but what to do if no archangel appears, and we hear only an echo from afar in our heads, if we are so lucky...

thank you friend for your writing.

Brent Bill said...

Thanks for reading. And you're right, it is easier to say yes when it's "clear who is asking." But I think our dilemma (in this time seemingly lacking in angelic visitations or vocal pronouncements from God) is not so different than Mary and Joseph. They still had to determine how they knew it was really a message from God -- and not an overworked imagination or from too much wine. One way Mary was certain it was from God was when it was confirmed by her cousin Elizabeth. So perhaps the role of a faith community comes into play here -- to, as the Quakers say, test our leadings. To check with others the validity of the message.

And the story of Elijah teaches us that God is not in the noisy, but in the still, small voice. Perhaps, in this day, learning to listen for God's voice in the "echo from afar in our heads," will be more helpful than hoping for archangels -- though a touch of the dramatic would be exciting!
-- Brent

Nancy A said...

I grew up Catholic, where the Mary thing isn't a small matter. It seems almost every church in Europe is named after her and that she was used to supplant the Mother Goddess that was worshipped by the early Europeans. So I have difficulty approaching the Mary topic with any freshness.

In general, I'm not at all sure about the whole virgin birth, angel announcement thing, especially since it isn't mentioned in two of the gospels. I'm also not at all sure that Joseph existed. All we know for sure is that Jesus had a few brothers and at least one sister, and that he had a mother. In the streets, he was referred to as "Jesus, son of Mary" not "Jesus, son of Joseph." So as far as Nazareth was concerned, he was a bastard child, born to an unwed mother. I'm sure his childhood was cruel as a result.

Did the early church add in this virgin birth story to help make Jesus' mission more acceptable to a culture that was obsessed with women's sexual virtues? Would it have otherwise been impossible for a fatherless boy to have been exalted as any kind of God's Chosen One? Certainly the people of Nazareth had a hard time accepting it!

I think the notion that Jesus was the child of a poor unwed mother, who may or may not have married later, makes for a more interesting story. Then there is no need to have him born in a stable in a manger: he would have already been in one before he took his first breath.

[[Brent, I read your blog regularly, though I don't always comment. Just so you know someone's looking in. The writing and depth of message is always excellent.]]

Brent Bill said...

I guess I am one of those goofy types -- fairly liberal in regards to social justice and lifestyle issues, open to other's theological views and interpretations of the Divine encounter, open minded about God's truth, yet fairly conservative in my personal faith. My evangelical Quaker upbringing still brings great weight to bear on my thinking/belief today -- and so I don't have too many "problems" with the virgin birth, etc.

Having said that, though, I don't think any of that stuff is the miracle of Christmas. The miracle to me is still that God uses the least of these, instead of the most of these. Mary (a teenage woman) Joseph (a carpenter), shepherds, ... regardless of whether you take the story literally or as cosmic myth, the Christian scriptures (both Old and New) are the record of God working with common folk, not the powers and principalities of this world. And so, if God works with them, I feel that glimmer of grace and hope that God considers even me and moves with power and wonder throughout my life, even when I'm too blind to behold it.

Thanks, Nancy, for the comments -- and your blog, too. Interesting stuff.

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