Reinvent Advent: Mother Mary of Aleppo

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Read Luke 1:26-56

My friend and PC (USA) colleague Rev. Shannon Meacham wrote an essay about Mary, Mother of God that I think should be required reading each year before pastors—especially male pastors—craft services and sermons around the Magnificat. Preaching on the Narrative Lectionary calendar, I am a week off from my Revised Common Lectionary peers in considering this vital element of the Advent and Christmas story. So last week I saw play out online a very interesting conversation on how we talk about Mary from the pulpit; another female colleague in the UCC wrote to those about to preach, asking them to think about the little girls sitting in the pews who see their pastors as connected intimately with God. Think about what you will say, the colleague intoned, because it will stick. Amidst all this were regular Facebook posts from the myriad women I know who are participating in the upcoming march in D.C. I’ve been reading, hearing from, and thinking about women this week. I’ve been thinking about Mary.

It is hard to believe; we will gather together in a week to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Like the old spiritual intones, Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.

But not before we see the Queen Mother.

Let’s try to banish from our minds the image of placid, docile Mary in her light blue robes and white headscarf. See her as Luke presents her. See her as the one who bats not a single eyelash at seeing the angel Gabriel, but rather is perplexed by being called a “favored one” and wonders what sort of strange greeting she just received. See her as the one who hears the prophecy of pregnancy from Gabriel and then argues for bodily autonomy. Hold up, she says. Slow your roll. I’m gonna need to know how this baby is going to get up inside of me since I’m a virgin. Gabriel describes the process—causing some exegetes to query whether or not this is rape—and Mary responds with a resounding, “Here am I.”

I want to make sure that you see it. Really see it. How Luke paints it. Mary. Alone. Fazed not one iota about the presence of an angel, but making damn sure she knows what is being proposed for her body. Gabriel clarifies, and Mary assents. No more questions. No doubts. Just three words.

“Here am I.” How Abraham responds to the angel in Genesis 22:11. “Here am I.” How Moses answers God’s call in Exodus 3:4. “Here am I.” How Samuel responds when called by the Lord in 1 Samuel 3:4. “Here am I.” How Isaiah answers the call in Isaiah 6:8 “Here am I.”  How Ananias will respond to God’s appearance to him in Damascus as reported in Acts 9:10. “Here am I.”

There should be no queries by us about Mary’s strength. About her role in our sacred story. For too long we have been told to see Mary as submissive. To see her as one pleased with simply being a vessel, of having her importance be defined by that which comes out of her body. But even that she doesn’t get full credit for because it is God’s role in the act that is regarded as really important. At least, that seems to be how the story most often is taught. Mary is one step removed, even in the most intimate moments of her life. Mary stays out of the fray. Or at least that’s how we tell it. Mary has Joseph to protect her; Mary gets visits from astrologers and shepherds. The presence of so many men around her in the story has allowed us to turn her into a chaste incubator who spends her entire life either cradling the suckling Son or embracing the suffering one. Nativity crèche or Pieta.

Rev. Meacham writes in her essay, “For the love of all that is Holy, literally. Can we stop pressuring each other into pretending that Mary wasn’t scared, can we stop pretending that she didn’t know for one second the risks her son would go through? She knew the world better than anyone, and despite all the bullshit she had been put through not only did she know, she said yes!”

I agree with Shannon completely. But I have to confess that my agreement is in a roundabout way. I’m a man who has no children. I have spent most of my life regarded as fairly important by the dominant culture; I’m White, male, Christian, educated, married to a woman. My sense of justice and injustice has been tempered by the fact that I have experienced very little personal injustice in my life; my engagement with it has most often been as an advocate or agitator. So it can take me a minute before I see something that persons who experience it of course have seen long before.

Take the popular song, “Mary, Did You Know?” Personally, I have never been a fan but I sure do know a whole lot of people who love that song and post just about every version possible on their Facebook pages. For those who don’t know, here’s a taste of the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you

But it took until I read the piece by Shannon for me to really think about what has happened to Mary in our popular imagination. We forget the facts around her situation. She is betrothed, not married when she got pregnant. Gabriel visits her cousin’s husband as part of planning for the baby now in her, Mary’s, belly; she is not allowed to name the baby what she wants; and her elderly cousin, who herself is a scandal for being pregnant at such an advanced age, is treating Mary like she’s royalty. Plus, Elizabeth makes it clear that Jesus is King so, yeah. Mary knows. She’s good. And we should really stop talking about her like she’s a human petri dish.

Discussions of gender and God always get messy. But our answer cannot be to simply ignore the problems. We cannot act like we have not spent thousands of years presenting God as male, and then respond as though it is an affront when those who are not male—more specifically, not male in the narrow way maleness too often is defined—push back against how non-males are presented in scripture. Or, to get real, how these individuals are interpreted and then projected on to others of their gender. The two Marys, right? Virgin or whore. That’s what we get. But there’s so much more in scripture. Let’s see Mary the way Luke presents her; let’s not sanitize the birth process. Once again, Shannon’s words are better than mine: “There was sweat, there was blood, there were tears and screams and cow dung. Silent Night my ass. But that doesn’t appeal to us this time of year. In order to truly appreciate the story she wouldn’t have broken a sweat, laid down, popped the perfectly clean baby out and immediately made tea for her guests. This is what brings us close to God, she pondered these things in her heart, and iced her whoha.”

In the fourth Sunday of Advent we celebrate love, and we do so because God chose a girl barely a woman or a woman still a girl, take your pick, and presented her a proposition. You’ve been selected. Do you consent? And she does. She puts herself into the way of cultural and religious harm in order to say “Here am I,” just like the prophets before her. If we are going to see Christ as the Logos, then we should see Mary as the vocal chords that deliver the Word. But let us not silence in her that which makes her a woman. Many of us attest to Jesus being fully human and fully divine; let us not just do this so that we can have evidence of original sin, let us see it as God’s plan. Jesus’ humanness comes from his mother. The human love that he learns comes from Mary. Let us not rob them of that; this is one of the most potent and sometimes punishing love there is, the love of a mother and a child.

Let us not think that there aren’t still millions of Mother Marys out there, right now. Mother Mary of Aleppo is making appearances daily on our televisions. Roman occupation was brutal, and the subjugation of non-Romans was total and complete. Her life mattered to God, but not to the State. Her child was not precious in the eyes of Caesar, who would see only a boy who would become a man. Men who have suffered injustice as boys are dangerous. There is no valuing of life around Jesus except that which comes from his mother. And, of course, from God. It takes men such little time to destroy what God and women labor to make.

Mary gives us our last word before we light the Christ Candle Saturday night. She is singing a song only she’s qualified to sing; Mary knows what is going to be required of her. Mary understands, in ways that none of us ever can, the totality of what is unfolding and what will unfold. She chose it. So instead of asking, “Mary, Did You Know?” let us say, “Thank You Mary, For Telling Me.” Amen.

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