“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. It’s hard to believe this speech was uttered by an illiterate 14-year-old who has just been told she is pregnant. In her unmarried state, extra-marital sex and pregnancy could get her stoned.
“Oh, crap,” would be a more understandable response.
But it is foolish to underestimate Mary. With titles like Queen of the Universe, Queen of Heaven, and Mother of God, she is a major player God’s drama.
Less known but equally important is her title, “Untier of Knots.”
Indeed, some of the thornier knots she faces can be detected in the Magnificat, one of the scripture readings designated for the third Sunday in Advent. There are no greater tangles than the pride that makes people think they are greater than God, or the arrogant power of politicians who oppress the poor. But the little peasant girl perceives that no imbroglio is beyond the power of God, who casts down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away.
But we all have painful knots in our lives, and one tradition of the church is that Mary has been given the power to loosen, unravel, and untie the bonds which paralyze us. The beautiful painting above, posted on her blog by Debby Bird, is based on classical art and an ancient novena:
Mary, my Mother, God has charged you
With untangling the knots in the lives of his children;
Into your hands I place the ribbon of my life.
No one, not the evil one himself,
Can deprive it of your merciful assistance.
There is no knot that cannot be untangled by your hands.
Anyone who has spent a morning detangling a gnarled spaghetti of Christmas lights or computer cables knows that untying knots requires patience. Untying knots is a persistent trial-and-error of inserting ends through likely snags, un-inserting them when the knot tightens, gingerly reinserting in the hopes of loosening the kinks, and resisting the temptation to cast the jumble aside and walk away. Any time a knot is untied, it's a miracle.
If Mary has the power to untie knots, it’s no wonder she’s the Queen of Heaven.
Sometimes the knots we get in our lives seem beyond untangling. We send an email to a trusted friend, complaining about a colleague, and accidentally send it to everyone in the office. We drink too much at an office party and the boss discovers us asleep beneath her desk. We forget to set the emergency brake of our car and it rolls down the driveway into a passing police car.
But most of our personal knots are less dramatic. We say cruel words to a friend that cannot be unheard. We get overwhelmed by the complexities of our jobs and can’t get out of bed in the mornings. We shun family members because of imagined slights and can’t figure out how to start talking again. We are angry and frustrated by friends or relatives whose political views we regard as neo-Nazi and we build emotional barriers between us. We fall into a morass of boredom and ennui and don’t know how to restore meaning to our lives.
As a Protestant with a Baptist background, I know enough to pray to the Lord when these predicaments appear, and I know how to do it: “Lord, we just pray that you will help, and we just pray Lord that you will just make things good again, and we just pray …” In my tradition, the word “just” is used the way “selah” is used by the Hebrew Psalmist. It gives us a sense of timing and sometimes makes us feel better.
Certainly Jesus loves us and understands our pain. But sometimes I wish we Protestants hadn’t forgotten how to pray to an untier of knots who knows what it’s like to be a loving and a long-suffering mother.
Unfortunately, most of us Protestants have cast Mary aside as if she was a remnant of archaic papist habits we have rejected, like making the sign of the cross or saying vain and repetitious prayers or 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.
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.
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. No sooner than she opens her mouth than she begins untying the cosmic knots she sees around her.
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, 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. Baptists also exchanged priests, bishops and hierarchs for soul liberty and the priesthood of all believers, and who can say they 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.
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.
And precisely because she is a mother Mary has the spiritual and moral power to be the untier of knots.
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. Untie our knots. Let it be.