Date: December 13, 2015
Title: “The Invisible Visible”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Luke 1:46-55
Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Virgin Mary. Mary, the mother of God. The Queen of Heaven. The Virgin Mother. Theotokos. Immaculate Heart. Our Lady of Sorrows. Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Blessed among women. First Disciple. Prophet. Lioness of God. The Madonna – before she was the material girl!
Whatever you choose to call her, Mary is making quite a comeback, even in Protestant circles, these days. And there is good reason for this. Mary gives us the ultimate in Christmas surprises as she makes visible what had previously been invisible. Theologian Lawrence Cunningham suggests:
There is an almost outrageous particularity in saying that God’s presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth.
It wouldn’t be that big of a deal to claim a God who is “all mighty”, or “all present” – that’s been done many times before. But along comes Christianity with its claim that God has a birthday on earth and a death day, and even more specifically, that God is part of this unpretentious Jewish family from a backwater town. That is outrageous particularity indeed!
And while Catholic tradition has embellished Mary’s qualifications in order to venerate her through the ages, I suspect it is her very ordinariness that keeps surprising us and inviting us into the story. If God can be born in the midst of a quite average life, if the invisible becomes visible in such a human way, what does that say about us this Christmas?
Kathleen Norris suggests it is high time we Protestants look to Mary to help us answer the question “what will we do with Christmas?”. It used to be, she says, We dragged Mary out at Christmas along with the angels and placed her at center stage, then we packed her safely back into the crèche box for the rest of the year, thus denying the mother of Jesus her rightful place in Christian tradition.
While Mary isn’t mentioned very often in Scripture, her importance cannot be overlooked. Luke’s Gospel begins with Mary and her agreement to participate in God’s eruption of grace into the world. She is present, and even instigates Jesus’ first miracles at Cana in Galilee. She clearly participates in Jesus’ ministry, even following him to the cross when the male disciples run away. Depending on how you read the resurrection stories, Mary is present there as well, and she shows up in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, as they receive the Holy Spirit and usher in the church.
Portrayed in paintings, sculptures, architecture, poetry, iconography and music more than any other woman in history, Mary’s appeal is not limited to the West by any stretch of the imagination. Eastern Orthodox icons are among the first representations of Mary. Churches as far-flung as South Korea and East Timor honor her with elaborate shrines. And in Mexico, where she appeared to an oppressed Aztec Indian in the 16th century, she is Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. Probably everyone has seen her image, for she is as much a political symbol for the poor as she is a religious icon. Mexican poet Octavio Paz has dubbed the Virgin of Guadalupe “the mother of Mexico.” Even in the Koran Mary takes a prominent place and is honored as Jesus’ mother.
Even so, we know nothing about Mary’s early life, or her family of origin. But we can surmise much about her faith, simply by reading her song of hope which we have come to know as the Magnificat. The Magnificat has been called the most revolutionary document in the world, as it inspires people on the margins to believe God can actually bring liberation to them. It is considered so revolutionary it has been deemed to be dangerous. During the British rule of India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in churches there. In the 1980’s the government of Guatemala found Mary’s words about God’s preferential love for the poor too dangerous to allow any public recitation of them at all. And, when Argentinian mothers, whose children had disappeared because of their involvement in political protests, when the Mothers of the Disappeared placed the Magnificat on posters around Buenos Aires, the military junta acted quickly and decisively to outlaw Mary’s song of praise.
German theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer preached about the Magnificat’s power just before he was arrested by the Nazis in 1933, saying:
The song of Mary is at once the most passionate, the wildest, even the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings…this song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God…
The thing to notice is this – when Mary sings, she doesn’t just name the promises of God to scatter the proud, to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich away empty. She does not just anticipate these things – she sings her song in the past tense, as if all those promises have already been fulfilled. Mary enters into God’s preferred future, and invites us all to do the same. In the Magnificat, Mary makes the invisible visible, inspiring Dominican monk Meister Eckhart to write:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, but I am not? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and in my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time….when the Son of God is begotten in us.
When the Son of God is begotten in each and every one of us, God’s realm will finally be reality. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a Jungian analyst with an appreciation for the power of Mary’s Magnificat as it invites us to participate in God’s presence right here, and right now. In her book Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul, she includes this prayer:
Keep me strong. Keep me fierce. Keep me loving. Keep me able in this world.
This year we are reminded that the story of Christmas has always been intertwined with longing, with violence, with fear and with loss. God has never come into a world where justice is assured and love is the order of the day. But Mary knew – and helps us to remember – that evil ultimately does not win, and that the invisible will be visible one day. We would do well to pray with Estes, “keep us strong, keep us fierce, keep us loving, keep us able in this world”… so that our souls might magnify the Lord and Jesus will be birthed in our midst. Thanks be to God! Amen.