Texts for the day: Isaiah 61:7-7, Psalm 34:1-9, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55
On this day we hear the song of a young peasant woman of the first century. A poor woman. A small woman. A very small thing she is, in comparison to the whole world, the whole universe. Tiny little helpless voice, singing out her praise to God with all her heart. Who would hear her little song over all this noisy world? Who would ever remember this little verse written by what should be an utterly forgettable and insignificant woman so very long ago? And what does it have to do with us, anyway?
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 and from now on, all generations will call me blessed…..
I spoke the words of Mary’s song once. Not reading them as part of the gospel lesson or singing them as part of a hymn or liturgy but in a worship drama. When you speak those words to the people of God in worship, they do not feel small at all. Mary doesn’t seem insignificant from the inside of her words, recounting the salvation history of her people. All the more profound is it when we realize her words are also the salvation history of our people. The future salvation of the world.
Today we celebrate the festival of St Mary, Mother of Our Lord. What does Mary mean for us now? What does she have to say to us at this time, so far from hers? Most Protestants are quite allergic to things surrounding Mary, perhaps fearing to be ‘too Catholic’ or perhaps we are rightly leery of giving credit for the action of salvation to the wrong source. But in what seems like faithfulness, we may have we lost a priceless treasure of the church.
As we ponder this, let’s look at what Martin Luther said about Mary.
…our purpose [in celebrating the visitation] is to praise and thank God, in accordance with the example of the beloved Virgin, so that we celebrate just as she did…. She thanks God and sings a beautiful song of praise for us, so that we might learn to live godly lives, both inwardly and outwardly in this world, with joyfulness, thanksgiving, and faith before our God, which is our reasonable service. — House Postils 3:324 (sermon from 1532)
No doubt, the Virgin Mary is the greatest and most excellent of all women, above queens and empresses. This eminence has not made her one hair’s breadth more proud. She remains humble, lowers herself to be a maid, places herself in the service of her aged cousin, Elizabeth, remaining with her until John the Baptist is born. — House Postils 3:362 (sermon from 1533)
The church has for centuries called Mary Theotokos. It means the God Bearer. Luther’s focus is to remind us that she is both the ‘Highly Favored One’ that scripture attests of her, the one who bore Jesus in her body as a baby, and yet she is also a model of humility and obedience. In comparison to many people in scripture, she is remarkably faithful. Abraham tried to modify God’s plan because he couldn’t see it working. Sarah laughed right out loud at God for saying she’d have a child in her old age. Jacob wrestled with God in the middle of the night on a lonely road. Countless prophets protested their calls, not the least of which was Jonah who ran the other way and was outright defiant of God’s mercy. Elijah whined about being all alone. Amos protested that he was not good enough because he was just a farm boy. And the disciples! Nathaniel said: how could anything good come from Nazareth? James and John search for political power by asking to sit beside Jesus’ throne. Martha scolds the Savior when he arrives “too late” to save her brother Lazarus from dying and sharply reprimands him when he opens the tomb to raise him from the dead. And Peter…poor Peter…he even denies the Messiah repeatedly to save his own skin.
But Mary is faithful and obedient. And her burden all the much greater than theirs! She reminds us that it is ok to ask questions. She asks Gabriel how it is possible that she will bear a child when she is a virgin. But when a faithful answer is given—All things are possible with God—she is faithful in response. Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. To me be as it pleases God.
And yet, when we speak of Mary we are, most importantly, saying something about Jesus. When we say that Mary was holy, pure, virgin, we are not saying that God required something that perfect in order to be born or that Mary was, by the force of her will, holy, or that she chose to be through some kind of meritorious act make herself to be above all Queens and Empresses. In fact, we say the opposite. We say that Mary is pure, is holy, is the very Queen of Heaven, because of who her son was. Who her son is. God chose her to bear the savior of the world. He did not choose a couple already pregnant with a baby; he did not choose a new born child to just move into. He chose her and after she consented, she became pregnant with the Son of God. It is not so much that her purity and holiness is present before this but that through her call to be the God bearer, she was made holy.
For most of the world’s royalty, a person holds a particular title or leadership role because of who one’s ancestors were. But, in this case, God set everything upside down. God turned the world on its head because he did not choose a Queen to bear his Son, he made a Queen. God took a small, poor girl, someone easily disregarded or put to the side by the world—someone almost invisible—and made her the Queen of Heaven. Not because of her triumphs or greatness but because of God’s. Because her son is the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings.
Over and over in her song she points to God. It is unusual for us to have a Gospel reading that doesn’t have Jesus in it—but actually it does! Mary is not singing about herself. She is not pointing to her own greatness. She is not telling us about anything other than the miracle of the birth of Jesus himself.
My very soul sings of how great God is. He has even taken notice of me, unremarkable as I am. Everyone from now on will call me blessed—not because of me but because of God…because of what God has done for me. God is strong, lifts up those who are weak and makes the proud humble. He is merciful, feeding those who are hungry. And he keeps his promises. Forever.
When we look at Jesus, our salvation and our very life, we see God himself. When we look at Mary, we see what it looks like to be a human completely filled up by God. To see what it is like to be made utterly free by a life touched in every way by God. We see what a fully Godly life looks like—and it looks like telling about, singing about, pointing to, taking every breath and making every move for Jesus.
Maybe, if nothing else, Mary perpetually reminds us of the mystery of God woven inextricably into the human. Mary persists and endures in our hearts, her song giving voice to all that is small, forgotten, pushed to the side and seemingly insignificant. Maybe Mary is the proof that all that smallness is never forgotten by God and is, actually, priceless. All the small places of our hearts, of our lives. All the places we think no one cares. All the times we think we have been forgotten or feel invisible and all those whom we have forgotten or refuse to see in this world. Maybe Mary teaches us what a life becomes when it is permeated by God.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, so full of Grace. Blessed are you among women! And blessed indeed is your child, the holy one of Israel, the King of the Universe, our Lord, Jesus Christ.