Mary: Exemplary Christian
One of the pleasures of the Advent season is its use of the Fourth Sunday of Advent to turn our shared attention to the Virgin Mary. When the season began in late November, it emphasized the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. For the intervening two Sundays we heard the proclamations of John the Baptist. Now, in this fourth week before Christmas, we have moved closer to the moment of Jesus’s actual, historical birth. The person at the center of the action is his mother, Mary.
Those churchgoers who grew up in a Catholic form of Christianity—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglo-Catholic—are quite familiar with Mary, usually referred to in those traditions as the “Blessed Virgin” Mary. For several centuries, Catholic expressions of Christianity have venerated Mary both in her role as Jesus’s mother and as a feminine aspect of the divine. Those who grew up in a more Protestant form of Christianity—Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, low church Episcopalian—have not had much opportunity to consider Mary on her own terms. Because most Protestants have been skeptical of what theologians call “Maryolatry”, they have tended not to think about her very much at all.
One of the great achievements of the 20th century ecumenical and liturgical movements has been the opportunity for every sort of Christian—Catholic and Protestant—to reevaluate their understanding of Mary and the meaning of her life and witness. For Catholics, this has meant looking at her in more historically human terms. For Protestants it has occasioned serious, sustained reflection about Mary as an exemplary follower of Jesus.
Two excerpts from yesterday’s readings help us see and hear Mary as a Christian witness and prophet. In the Gospel (Luke 1.26-38) the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. This is a startling announcement: Mary is not married, and bearing a son who will reclaim the throne of David is a daunting task. Mary is being asked to bear two burdens—social opprobrium as a single mother (see Matthew’s version of the story [Matthew 1.18-25] where Joseph has to be convinced that his betrothed’s pregnancy is of divine origin) and the added weight of raising a child possessed of an immense public and religious destiny. Many would shrink from this task, unwilling to bear these burdens. Mary does not. She faces directly and faithfully into them. “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’" [Luke 1.38a]
So Mary shows herself to be a willing, faithful servant of God and God’s purposes, however strange or frightening that service might appear. But when she has some time to settle into the consequences of carrying out this role as Jesus’s mother, she discovers her own special vocation as one who proclaims God’s purposes—that is, as a prophet. On her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with John the Baptist, Mary proclaims the prophetic canticle we call “The Song of Mary” (in Latin, Magnificat) (Luke 1.46-55), familiar to many from the service for Evening Prayer. Mary says,
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.From this day all generations will call me blessed: *the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.He has mercy on those who fear him *in every generation.He has shown the strength of his arm, *he has scattered the proud in their conceit.He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *and has lifted up the lowly.He has filled the hungry with good things, *and the rich he has sent away empty.He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *for he has remembered his promise of mercy,The promise he made to our fathers, *to Abraham and his children for ever.
In this stirring and powerful song, Mary aligns herself with the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others who proclaimed God’s vision for peace and justice among human beings. She announces that what God is doing through her is consistent with what God was doing in the Old Testament—casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, calling into question the self-satisfaction of those who have perhaps too much. The coming Messiah to whom she will give birth will be God’s agent of this prophetic challenge and blessing. As the prophet who announces Jesus’s mission, Mary claims her role as Jesus’s first and most consistently faithful disciple. And she will live out this vocation all the way to the cross, the empty tomb, and the birth of the Christian movement.
As we move toward Christmas this week, let’s give thanks for Mary and the way she points us toward what Jesus’s birth really signifies. God is doing a new thing that will bring about health and wholeness, peace and justice, for the whole human community. God calls us into that wonderful noble effort as colleagues and companions with both Mary and Jesus. May we have grace to say “Yes”, as Mary did. And may we have vision to see with her and Jesus the world God is asking that we help create.