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Reverend Krystal Leedy
December 25, 2017
A Reading from the Gospel:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Instead of being a cradle-raised Presbyterian, I grew up in a much smaller evangelical tradition, where we continually had lengthy sermons. Now I care deeply about this tradition in which I grew up. I still remember names and faces of the people who taught me about the love of Jesus Christ, and showed me a diorama of the Temple with a purple curtain made of felt in Sunday school, and walked into a whale’s belly with me on a youth group retreat and held me close as I was baptized. But, sometimes the sermons went long. And because of this acapella tradition that I grew up in, instead of a choir and organ leading us, we had a song leader. And he would stand up after the sermon to lead us in a hymn of response. In that moment, he could make the determination about how many verses of songs that we sang. He could literally call an audible in the service and say to the congregation, “Verses 1, 2, and 4,” and it was helpful in those moments to be able to cut our hymns for time.
But, there were moments, where the decision to sing only a few verses of song were not practical but theological. The hymn, “King of My Life, I Crown Thee Now,” appeared in the pages of our version of a blue hymnal, but we did not sing verse 3. And even though it is Advent for a few more hours anyway, and here we are supposed to be singing Advent hymns, this one would have probably appeared on Good Friday if the Churches of Christ would have actually observed Good Friday:
“King of my life, I crown Thee now,
Thine shall the glory be;
Lest I forget Thy thorn-crowned brow,
Lead me to Calvary.
Show me the tomb where Thou wast laid,
Tenderly mourned and wept;
Angels in robes of light arrayed
Guarded Thee whilst Thou slept.
Let me like Mary, through the gloom,
Come with a gift to Thee;
Show to me now the empty tomb,
Lead me to Calvary.
May I be willing, Lord, to bear
Daily my cross for Thee;
Even Thy cup of grief to share,
Thou hast borne all for me.”
Lest I forget Gethsemane,
Lest I forget Thine agony;
Lest I forget Thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.
When asked about this practice, I was told it was because that verse was too Catholic. It seems as if we were all willing to suspend that part of the story, as though our Protestant senses would be offended by even the mention of her name: Mary. Because the ironic thing is that the Mary mentioned in verse 3 isn’t even the blessed virgin, the mother of God, Jesus’ mama… its Mary of Magdala. But, so quick were we to remove even the thought of a woman from the story as important as the resurrection of Jesus, that even in the case of mistaken identity, a Christian tradition has chosen to cut a verse from a hymn because it’s just too complicated to hold the patriarchy and this scandal.
So now we meet our Mary, the young girl, quietly hand-sewing lace on her heirloom wedding veil, notebooks scrawled with Mrs. Joseph of Nazareth in the corners of pages, wistfully staring out the window when almost as if by chance, it begins to snow. The winter chill catches her by surprise, but not as much as what the cold north wind brought to her next. In what seemed like a flash of light, a winged person wearing white robes and standing with blonde curly hair was standing, almost glowing next to her sewing table. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” She tilts her head slightly to the right, but her expression of extreme calm did not change. “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Her eyes lower. “But, I am a virgin,” she says quietly. And the angel explained all that she needed to know about how this was to take place, claiming how nothing is impossible with God. And Mary consented to this, and as the angel left, with the cold north wind, Mary grabbed her light blue, woolen head covering and pondered her new reality, still with her head tilted slightly, her arm holding the King of kings yet to come near to her womb, and for some reason, she raises her other hand curling her last two fingers, and so with two fingers raised, and her thumb raised but relaxed, she stands by the window, ever thoughtful, ever beautiful, ever meek, always and ever submissive.
And this is the trouble, right? Our picture has been painted for us. Mary, the mother of God, has been carved out of stone. Quiet, head covered, wearing light blue, depicted with lilies or roses or pomegranates, carrying a baby who looks much more coherent than an infant should, the fleur-de-lis on the coat of arms of kings—she is depicted in symbols and as a young, white girl with a lesser halo above her head.
And in the liturgies of other traditions, Mary still carries so much weight as an intercessor on our behalf to her Son and she carries the picturesque expectation of what it means to be feminine—submissive and quiet, and favored for her role as mother, as though without a baby, any baby, she would not be revered, and then somehow her work is done after she gives birth to and raises a child. And during the time of the Reformation, we parted company not only with our communion but also with our doctrine of Mary, yet this doctrine still peeks over our shoulders. And if we think for a moment that Mary has not influenced our culture, let us ponder something in our hearts, like possible sermon titles: “Mary is my Homegirl” “The Hail Mary Pass” or even “Hail Mary full of grace, let me find a parking space.”
So quickly, we fear Catholicism entering into our purified Reformed community. We turn and say that they worship Mary, that she is somehow the example to all women about how they should act and respond to the calling of the Lord. Men can follow Jesus, but women can look to Mary. And while I am not an expert of Catholic theology, I would say they even they would say that this is somehow a twisted version of what they believe anyway, but when we threw out transubstantiation, we seemed to throw out the mother of God as well. And if you don’t believe me, I will note that on many Protestant explanations of the four Advent candles, we have taken those to mean virtues, but in explanations of the pink candle for many Protestant sources, the pink candle stands for the shepherds. The pink candle stands for the shepherds. In our own right, despite our enlightenment, we have simply cut the feminine out of this story. We ourselves, yes, even us, have participated in cutting out verse 3.
This ubiquitous biblical character is so unknown to us because of our willingness to cut verse 3, usually the very verse that needs to be sung, the verse that you’ll cut out the organ for just so you can hear the words anew. The penultimate verse before the trumpets enter the chorus. The verse we don’t know what to do with: Mary.
Because we can get behind what she says, we can listen to her apocalyptic prophecy about how the baby in her womb will change the world, but we have to call that prophecy something different. We will call John the Baptist a New Testament prophet, and we will call Mary… nothing. We will sing songs about how Mary lulled baby Jesus to sleep with her sweet songs, but frankly I’m not so sure how “God sent the rich away empty,” has enough of a melodic tone to make someone sleepy, least of all Jesus—that seemed to kind of keep him up at night.
At this point, I’m not sure that we can even call her favored or blessed in our circles. I think we can call her someone’s mom, but we seem to have such a distorted view of this person because we don’t know what to do with the feminine energy that she brings into the room. Our society has so devalued all things feminine, that Mary’s voice got removed from the song. It’s almost as if we still have a hard time believing her story, that we would much rather preach on the virtues of Joseph, who agrees to be linked the scandal despite the fact that it could ruin his reputation. But when we do that, we are not watching the lowly be lifted up and the powerful to be made low. We are instead watching the powerful retain power and the lowly remain ignored.
And her voice is still singing:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
The Mary-s in our lives are the very voices that the gospel writer, Luke brings forward. He puts pen to paper in a way that remembers her song, remembers her questioning, remembers her thoughtfulness, remembers her—puts her back together into our minds so that instead of trying to fit her into a mold that we try to push on all women, she then becomes a mold for discipleship.
The most unlikely of people becomes the mold for following God, no matter if you are male or female. She was given a calling, which was not a calling simply to motherhood, but a calling to bear God into the world. It’s a calling that all of us have. It’s a calling given to us by messengers that come through Scripture and dear friends and even strangers, but usually, it’s the last place you would expect it to come from.
She responded to discipleship not as a damsel in distress but as a prophet would. “Even though no one will believe me, I’m going to do this anyway. Even if people shun me and cut me out of their lives, even if no one ever sings my song again, I’m going to sing it today.”
Because the gospel of Luke gives voice to those unlikely sources—gives a calling to the least of these.
And we can hear that verse three that is cut from our hymns, the people we have barred from our family table, not perhaps deliberately, but simply because we chose to ignore them because it would be too… complicated. But Mary is not called complicated, despite the fact that she is basically an object in a patriarchal society—but Gabriel calls her favored, Elizabeth calls her blessed.
But, she wasn’t called blessed because she was pretty.
She wasn’t called blessed because she was young.
She definitely wasn’t called blessed because she was female or because she was a virgin.
She wasn’t called blessed because she was a mom.
She was called blessed because she was called—and she fulfilled bearing God into the world.
And her story is our story. We have to deal with what it looks like for us to bear God into the world—for us to sing all of the verses of the song—and for us to hear them in the tones and melodies that they need to project—for us to sing the poetry of prophecy in order for everyone to hear it better. And it’s not so that we can get to verse 4, with its key change and the trumpet blasting and the organist hitting the keys so hard that his fingers hurt. It’s so we can get to verse 5…that one that has yet to be written. The one where we are actually in the space that we keep looking forward to—not in a heaven with fluffy white clouds and a bearded old guy—but in that place where all are fed, and God’s mercy can be felt by everyone, where powerful people are humbled, and there is peace on earth.
In our preparation, let’s listen to the last voice we ever would dare to listen to. Let us approach Mary with curiosity and compassion. Instead of cutting her out today, let her sing. Let her prophetic voice ring in these days. For she bore God into the world, and so do we.
In the name of that God, Amen.