“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor 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.” Luke 1:46b-55
Great stuff. Hard to believe this speech was uttered by an illiterate 14-year-old peasant in response to the news she is pregnant, which in her unmarried state is a capital offense.
“Oh, crap,” would also be an understandable response.
But it is foolish to underestimate Mary. With titles like Queen of the Universe and Mother of God, she is a major player in most Christian traditions.
But not in all. Mary cannot be ignored altogether in reformed and evangelical churches because she is an indelible fixture in scripture. Some lower-church Protestants pay her due respect, but they have demoted her to second string behind the male apostles. Other traditions have tossed her out altogether along with other unacceptably papist ploys like making the sign of the cross, or saying vain and repetitious prayers, or — worst of all — imbibing actual wine during the Lord’s supper.
Mary remains, however, an important character in our Christmas pageants. In our little community church in Morrisville, N.Y., we’d find a blonde girl who looked cute with a white towel draped over her head and give her the role of a lifetime: gazing adoringly at a 40-watt light bulb in the manger.
But the rest of the year, Mary was rarely mentioned in church. It wasn’t until I was an Air Force chaplain’s assistant that I got a sense of Mary’s supremacy in other Christian traditions.
One of the Catholic chaplains I worked for was Leo Lyons (his real name). Father Lyons was tall and white-haired with a crinkly Robert Young smile and a serene father-knows-best manner. He was relatively egalitarian when it came to relating to teenage airmen so I tried to be open minded about his theological views. Whatever he believed was fine with me.
One spring Father Lyons announced he was going to Portugal to visit Our Lady of Fátima.
“Who?” I asked, envisioning an exotic dancer.
Chaplain Lyons raised his eyebrows the way he did when I thought a monstrance was the character in Frankenstein.
“Our Lady the mother of Jesus,” he said, spelling it out in words I could understand.
“She was from Portugal?”
“Noooo,” he said with the patience of a veteran teacher who knows some students require special attention.
“She appeared miraculously to three shepherd kids in 1917."
I was speechless. The Baptist tradition doesn’t offer anything quite so interesting. Catholicism and its panoply of miracles impressed me.
Mary’s manifestation in Fátima also astounded me. Her sheer power to appear and talk to people was a startling contrast to the chipped plaster Marys of manger scenes who stare blankly at their plaster offspring.
The more I learned about the Mary of Fátima, the more astonishing she became. The shepherd children testified she was beautiful. She emanated light so bright it hurt to look at her. She addressed the children in fluent Portuguese and gave them spiritual insights, images of hellfire, and famously revealed unto them three eschatological secrets.
What Mary told the kids was so incredible that the Roman Catholic Church kept her final prediction a secret until 2000. By then, most people assumed the secret warned of worldwide nuclear conflagration, but the actual interpretation was more prosaic. During a visit to Portugal in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI exegeted it as a forecast of sorrows that would be heaped upon the church, in part wrought by the scandals of sexual misconduct of priests.
Be that as it may, it is awesome — to use the word when it actually seems appropriate — that a woman absent from the stage for some 2000 years still had the power to influence world events and distract political and church leaders. In October 1930, following a canonical inquiry, the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima declared the visions “worthy of belief,” and every pope since Pius XI has declared the Fátima miracles really happened.
Whatever happened at Fátima, the story usually rolls the eyes of Baptists and other non-liturgical Protestants. Skepticism about faux miracles is one of many issues that led to the Reformation, and there are many Doubting Thomases on the ecclesial landscape. Not that we’re incapable of believing improbable things, but when it comes to miraculous manifestations or bleeding statues, we won’t buy it until we see it.
Even so, one has to wonder why low-church Protestants have been so unaffected by Mary’s charisma. She was, after all, the mother of Jesus. We can't ignore that, but neither do we regard her with the same high status and deep respect as our Roman Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers.
Given what we know about Mary, we have vastly underestimated her. She was, among other things, a peasant girl. She was born into a patriarchal culture where girls counted for naught, and her family had to contend each day with an occupying army that regarded the Jews as superstitious bumpkins.
Mary and other girls were inconsequential members of their families, valued only for their cooking and cleaning skills. Mary was not expected to read, have opinions, make decisions, or fall in love. She did not go out and choose her husband because she liked his limpid brown eyes and sinewy pecs.
Joseph, like everything else in her life, was assigned to her by her father. Joseph, one might even say, was forced upon her. Based on what we know about the culture, Mary would have been between 12 and 14 when she was betrothed, which probably happened shortly after her first menstrual period.
What happened next must have been terrifying. Look at it from her point of view. She’s 14. She’s engaged to a stranger. She’s innocent of the ways of the world. She may not even understand what sexual intercourse is, but she’s old enough to know that if she does it before she is married, her parents and her neighbors will drag her out of the house and kill her with rocks.
Then one day Mary is told she is pregnant. That could not have been good news, even if it was delivered by an angel. Her first thought must have been that the angel was delivering a death sentence.
And even when the angel sought to reassure her that everything was all right, it’s hard to imagine she was in any sense relieved. With child, you say? With child? By God? You wouldn’t believe it today if someone said you or your daughter was pregnant by God.
And chances are, Mary didn’t believe it either, at first. She was an unbelievable choice to have an unbelievable conception to bring an unbelievable baby boy into an unbelieving world. The salvation of humanity requires of us the same intellectual discipline claimed by Alice, Lewis Carroll’s own precocious teenager: to believe three impossible things before breakfast.
This moment at which Mary was informed of her pregnancy — the Annunciation — has been portrayed in literature, song, Frescoes, statuary and art for two thousand years.
Certainly a miracle has happened, and throughout its history the church has seen it this way: a virgin has conceived by the Holy Spirit, God knoweth how.
But, according to Luke, a new miracle of equal power began to unfold. Once the shock wore off and Mary caught her breath, this 14-year-old peasant girl, this cipher who can’t read and has been told never to think, commences to utter one of the most revolutionary statements in human history.
"God 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 for ever (Luke 1:51-55, NRSV)."
Overthrow the powerful?
Raise up the peasants?
Feed the hungry?
Reject the rich?
The angel must have been as shocked as Mary was when she was informed she was pregnant.
From the very beginning, demure little Mary far exceeded the expectations of her family and culture.
In the same way, she obviously exceeds the expectations of Baptists and others who set her aside along with the high liturgical trappings and arbitrary hierarchies of the oppressive churches we escaped.
Ironically, as we can detect from her opening speech (“The Magnificat” as it is known in those high churches), Mary is the one thing we should have held on to.
Many low-church Protestants shed a lot of high-church trappings that reminded us of the Church of England and other oppressors.
Given the importance Mary’s son assigned to his last supper, for instance, it seems almost heretical that we limit our communion ordinance to once as month. We’ve abandoned the beautiful litanies and liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer because we think it’s holier to pray from our hearts. And despite our eagerness to be transparent witnesses of our faith, we toss aside the most visible demonstration of what we believe: making the sign of the cross when we pray.
I guess we can live with that. We also exchanged priests, bishops and hierarchs for soul liberty and the priesthood of all believers, and who can say we are not better off?
But when you consider the importance of Mary to the church and to Jesus, I wish we had not been so quick to set her aside.
Mary’s first utterance, as recorded by Luke, sets the scene for all that is to come. She quickly grasps what is happening: the God everyone expected to come in shock and awe is actually coming as a mewling, puking boy. But that counter-intuitive revelation preceded the turning of the universe on its head. And with Jesus still zygotic in her womb, Mary knew it all.
But more than that, it was Mary who nursed him, guided his first steps, toilet trained him, and whispered in his ear the Godly secrets that would change the world. Jesus was God, and Mary was his mother.
In a sense better understood by our higher church sisters and brothers, Mary is also our own mother in that she symbolizes a side of God we rarely acknowledge: God’s feminine side.
Years ago I attended the funeral of a good friend on the American Baptist staff. He was young and energetic and his sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage was a devastating shock.
As we sat sadly in our pews, my late friend’s wife was surrounded by her young children. The children, confused and frightened, began to cry. And their mother reached out her arms to them and hugged them tightly, whispering comfort in their ears.
The minister who officiated at the funeral pointed to the widow.
“Here we see how God comes to us as a mother,” he said. “God shares our grief, our sense of loss, but the Mother God’s first instinct is to embrace and console her children.”
Sometimes we need a divine mother, a goddess, who knew something Jesus didn’t: the experience of motherhood.
One thing the angel did not reveal to Mary at the Annunciation is that giving birth to God’s son would not be all gold and frankincense. That message fell to a dying old man when the baby Jesus was presented in the temple.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too (Luke 2:34-35, NRSV)."
Throughout history, when a woman is overwhelmed by the joys of motherhood, or when the sorrows of motherhood break her heart, the mother of Jesus understands with an intimacy that transcends the experience of fathers and sons. “I’m a mother so I pray to Mary,” many women say. “She was a mother, too.”
Sometimes I wish I was as comfortable as many of my Catholic and Orthodox friends in relying on Mary as an eternal reminder that God whom we call Father has another dimension we rarely call on: the Goddess. God the mother.
That aspect is clearly revealed to us in the person of Mary, and we Baptists need to work harder to see it.
Advent is a perfect time to remind us of the crucial role this peasant woman played in the life of Jesus and in the foundation of the church, and give her the honor she is due.
Mother Mary, come to us, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.