December 20, 2015
William G. Carter
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and explained with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
A few weeks ago, a couple of our Presbyterians had a harsh discovery: somebody had ordered the wrong devotional booklets for Advent. It was an honest mistake. The plan was to order a few different varieties, each of them undated, so that if any of us wanted a devotional booklet for the season, they would have a choice. A catalog was found, a few varieties were selected and ordered, and then they were placed out on the countertop for people to choose.
The first Sunday after they arrived, I was greeting people at the back door when I overheard a brief conversation. Two of our folks had each taken an identical booklet with a very attractive cover. They were flipping through the pages, and to their shock, a good bit of the booklet was about Mary, the mother of Jesus. There was a page devoted to the Immaculate Conception, and another page about a holy day called the Solemnity of Mary.
This was getting their attention. “Look at this: it’s not just the Virgin Birth. It talks about the Assumption, whatever the Assumption is. And here – it refers to her as the Mother of God.” The two of them looked stunned. Then one of them blurted out, “These can’t be for us. We’re Presbyterians. We don’t talk about Mary.”
I didn’t catch how the conversation went on from there, but there’s some truth to what she said. Presbyterians don’t talk about Mary. Oh, we bring her out for a Sunday or two in December – like today – but pretty soon, we wrap her in blue tissue paper and return her to the attic. Mary doesn’t get as much attention as her son.
A Catholic priest once explained why. We were having coffee when the subject came up. He looked both ways, checked to make sure the coast is clear, and said, “You may have noticed the Catholic Church is run by a lot of guys. I think we focus so much on Mary because it’s a way for women to engage in the Christian faith. She welcomes all of us in the way the she first welcomed Christ.”
Then he said, “My question is why you Protestants don’t talk about her at all.” Good question. One quick answer is we don’t know much about her, other than she is the mother of our Lord. We can presume she was young; Palestinian brides were promised to the grooms not long after they were mature enough to bear children. From the few stories we have, we know she was a faithful Jew, a child of God’s covenant.
Mary doesn’t get a lot of ink in the New Testament, especially not compared to her Son. It is quite possible that, just as John the Baptist is quickly dismissed from the Gospel stories after he does his introductory work, Mary is equally downplayed to keep the spotlight on Jesus. She appears at the beginning of the story, and at the end of the story she takes her place at the foot of the cross. After the resurrection, Luke numbers her among the first circle of Christian believers (Acts 1:14). But then, she’s gone.
What do we say about her after that? Some years ago, I was boarding a tour bus outside of the ruins of Ephesus, that ancient city in present-day Turkey rivaled only by Rome and Alexandria. It’s an extraordinary place, and a few of you have been there. Someone in our tour group said, “Hey, look at this!” There was a sign pointing to the “House of the Virgin Mary.” We looked at one another, and somebody wondered if she might be at home.
According to the tradition, Jesus handed off his mother to the apostle John when he was on the cross. He said, “Take care of her; now she’s your mother.” (John 19:26-27). Decades later, John supposedly landed in Ephesus with Mary at his side. There was a house, they say it was her house, but who can now say? It was left open enough for all kinds of speculation … and a good bit of well-placed reverence.
She gave birth to Jesus, after all. She had other children after him, but that first-born boy came completely from the grace of God. He bore the Christ Child and all that came with it. That alone would mark her as special. There are songs that ask, “Mary, did you know” what was going to happen to your Son? Just remember what the old man Simeon pronounced on the day the baby Jesus would be dedicated in the Temple. He looked at Mary and declared, “Because of this little boy, a sword will pierce your soul.” (2:34-35) It’s a description of the best possible outcome of being a parent.
Indeed it would. If God brings a child into your life, it is holy invitation to set aside your self-important agenda and to offer yourself to this heavenly gift in swaddling clothes. If you take a child seriously, it will smash the protective wall around your heart and leave you vulnerable. That’s what love does – it makes you vulnerable.
I sat with a couple of parents in the emergency room. Their daughter had tipped her bike in an intersection, got scuffed up, had a cast on her arm, but was otherwise OK. Her parents were more shaken up than she was. The father blurted out, “I didn’t realize I could be this worried or this devoted.” He shook his head and said, “God, it’s a wonderful feeling.” I took his words to be a prayer.
This morning, the Gospel of Luke tells us this story of two women who are welcoming children into the world. In their time, in their culture, that would be regarded by men as an insignificant story, hardly worthy of the pages of scripture. But Luke knows better. God comes to us in the ordinary – and extraordinary – gift of a child. Children are born every day. That’s common. A child is one of the most generous gifts that God can give us.
Oh, how the world would be so much better if we welcomed every child!
Unfortunately, the world is still a mess. Maybe the whole galaxy is, too: I went to see the new Star Wars movie on opening night, and here’s a spoiler alert – the movie is full of dysfunctional families. There is brokenness and sin, difficulty and pain, and it pervades everything that we know.
But God has something else in mind, and that’s why God sends a baby to Mary. God’s angel said to her, “He will be holy, he will be great, he will rule over God’s people forever – and he will be yours to bear.” Hers is the womb that brings the grace and healing of God into the world. Her child Jesus shall heal all the God gives him to heal. All who love her child shall live by love. And it is Mary’s task to welcome him first.
She hears all of this, she knows all of this – so she runs to her relative Elizabeth, enters the house, and says, “Hello!” But no sooner does she arrive when Elizabeth does all the talking. The Holy Spirit of God is in her as well. Without any other introduction, she knows what Mary had come to announce, because the Holy Spirit is in her. The child in her womb gives her a great big kick, which she takes to mean the Holy Spirit is with her child. And the whole moment is described by two words: blessing and joy.
It is a blessing because it is God who is at work. The nature of a blessing is that we don’t bless ourselves - there is a Power greater than us, who loves us, who desires our healing, who comes to make all things well. God is beyond us, but comes to us. That’s the blessing.
And the blessing creates joy. Not merely happiness, but joy. Joy is that exhilarating freedom that lifts us beyond our circumstances. It is the way out when there is no other escape. It is the first sign of God’s holy repair when all else seems lost. It is, as the prophets call it, “light dawning in darkness.” It is the first signal that God has found us, that indeed God is with us, and that all appearances to the contrary, everything shall turn out well. That’s joy.
And that’s why we talk about Mary. She is the first Christian, for who believes God has come in Jesus. She is also the first theologian, for we hear repeatedly that she ponders the Incarnation in her heart. She is the first practitioner of Christian hospitality: she welcomes the Word that her Son will come, and thus she welcomes the Incarnate God into her life. For her, faith is not just an idea, it’s a Child – and not just any child, but the Holy Child of God.
So we talk about Mary. Her presence in the Gospel story is a reminder that faith is not a bunch of ideas. It’s lived out in flesh and blood. Faith is singing with joy that God has heard our cry and comes to join us in the midst of our very human lives. Faith is taking care of each child entrusted to us, particularly when they are small and vulnerable. Faith is committing our time and love to those whom God has chosen to bring into our lives.
And just as the song says, faith is trusting that the baby that Mary delivers will soon deliver her – and all of us who love him and trust him.
That’s why we talk about Mary. A mother’s “yes” has changed the world.
(c) Bill Carter. All rights reserved.
 “Mary, Did You Know?” by Mark Lowry. Lyrics available at http://www.metrolyrics.com/mary-did-you-know-lyrics-christmas-song.html