Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B
20 December 2020
I grew up in the church and yet we never talked much about Mary, at least not that I can remember. And yet during Evening Prayer we would always sing her song about the lowly being lifted up and the mighty cast down. You know it’s part of Holden Evening Prayer but it’s actually been part of the vespers service since the rule of St Benedict in the first half of the sixth century.
I think that the weekly singing of Mary’s song nurtured a deep appreciation of her and of her own proclamation of God’s arrival. Which is why we must be selective about the songs we sing, not every song that has the name Jesus in it may nurture in us a love of God and of the hungry and the lowly. But as for my singing of the Magnificat: I learned to value Mary without much talk about her.
Of course, Mary always shows up around this time of the year. Not only in our readings but in the carols we sing, and as an essential part of the story. We cannot tell the story of Jesus without her, which is emblematic of where the story of Jesus will go: We cannot talk about God without talking about people.
However, when I think of Mary at this time of the year, the old carol “Sing of Mary, pure and lowly” comes to mind, and with it adjectives like fairest, wise, and mild. And that is probably a fair description of most manger scenes, scenes in which all is right, and all is beautiful.
But I am not sure that all was right and all was beautiful, even beginning with the annunciation of Jesus’ birth by the angel Gabriel. As I read the story I thought of the inconvenience of finding favour with God, for it could not have been easy (getting pregnant out of wedlock could get you killed), and perhaps we should remember Mary not as mild but as strong and resilient, as every mother must be, for you can’t carry a baby around for nine months, give birth, and raise the child (in a hostile world) without being strong.
Now, it is true that Mary said to the angel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The tradition has often emphasized Mary’s willingness to welcome God into her life and has made Mary the role model for all Christians to say “yes” to God. I find much joy in Mary’s welcoming the will of God and I wish I was as welcoming as Mary. It is worth meditating upon Mary’s welcome, and about how we could be as welcoming, and what that would look like, especially since most of us have not had the angel Gabriel visibly stand in front of us, yet there are many others we see each day, and we may ponder how their presence in our lives is representative of the presence of God?
But in all of this, Mary was not meek, at least not in the way we moderns hear the word, for she could have said “no.”
There is a beautiful painting by Sandro Boticelli (“The Cestello Annunciation”) that makes exactly that point.1
Mary could have said that she had had other plans, that she was too young, and that this was really asking too much of her. Or she could have asked for a clear road map of what all this meant and how this would work out, an assurance that despite difficulty everything was going to work out well. She did say “yes”, and as far as we know, her “yes” was unconditional, and she accepted whatever challenges this finding favour with God would entail. And together with her sister, two other women, and the disciple John, she stood under the cross when all others had left.
For Mary to help us in our own life of faith we must understand that she was an ordinary mother, an ordinary woman, and ordinary girl, and an ordinary person. She wore no halo and had no theological training and it is not particularly likely that she happened to be reading the scriptures when the angel appeared to her. Maybe she was, but it is more likely that she was otherwise occupied, besides, women in the antiquities did not commonly know to read, as most of the population did not.
See, it is relevant, that we remember Mary more than we remember Gabriel. Yes, Gabriel is important, and our family even has a little bronze plaque, a replica of a part of a church door in Italy where Gabriel speaks to Mary, but the Bible does not speak much about angels because they are messengers from God. Their importance lies in the same activity as the importance of John the Baptist: They point of God.
The Bible mentions angels but pays much more attention to ordinary people, to a young girl in Nazareth, to fishermen and tax collectors, to outcasts, and to you and to me.
And so we hear of Mary not just as a historical figure who we honour, but we hear about Mary as an ordinary person like us in whom God chose to dwell. And if God could dwell in Mary, God can dwell in us.
That Mary was with child quickly became obvious, for most people cannot hide a pregnancy, but that God dwelled with her was more subversive than a big belly and it became obvious only in the songs she sang and the way she lived. And it was never easy, I imagine, but it was always blessed. God was present not only in the happy moments of her life but in all of her life, including the parts we have difficulty attributing to God. The evangelist John says that in Jesus God has come to dwell with us, that is what Mary’s welcome is about, God has pitched God’s tent among us.
Looking at Mary in this way, makes me think of others I have met. I think of Emma in Winnipeg who had the smallest pension but the most generous spirit. I think of Art Garn who also lived modestly but who once a month would bring us a bag of change to share with those in need, I think of our friends in Winnipeg whose love was the best pastoral care we could have imagined at a time when we truly needed it, I think of all of you who embraced us and prayed with us in our darkest hour, and who seek God’s presence and express your love for God by giving God room, and as we have learned, making room for God means to make room for others.
What is integral to Mary is not only that she said “yes” but that she saw what God saw, she saw God where people would least expect God. As to her meekness, there is a new hymn in our hymnal, set to an old Irish tune that has become one of my favourites. The refrain has Mary sing:
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.
May the world turn and may we welcome it.