As a Protestant growing up in the 1950’s, the only time I ever heard about Mary was briefly at Christmas. She rode on a donkey to Bethlehem, had a baby, and slipped quietly off stage, never to be heard from again. No doubt the elders of our church, like many Protestants of the pre-Vatican II era, wanted as little to do with Romish things as possible. In our prayers, we went directly to God or Jesus and didn’t require an intermediary. In fact, to some old-time Baptists, Mary was seen as an idol, something to keep us from following Jesus.
In 1960, a Massachusetts native son ran for president, and among the small town Baptists, there was worry that Kennedy would get his directions straight from Rome. Major Protestant leaders lined up for Humphrey in the primary and Nixon in the general election, and found themselves amazed at how independent this young Catholic president was.
Vatican II changed everything for many Protestants and Catholics alike. The wounds of the Reformation were healing. We were no longer enemies. Catholics began to see Luther as a faithful reformer, inspired by his vision of God’s grace; and Protestants began appreciate the lives of the saints, the common lectionary readings of Gospel, Epistle, Psalm, and Old Testament. In the midst of it all, Mary was rediscovered by Protestants, not as heavenly being untouched by the world, but as a spiritual guide and voice for social change. She was flesh and blood, fallible, mortal, and had children, as scripture suggests. She was theotokos, the mother of God embodied in flesh and blood, but not a supernatural being. She was an earthly woman who invited us to celebrate childbirth and God’s birth in us and claim our role as Christ-bearers, too.
We don’t know a lot about Mary, but today’s readings paint a flesh and blood picture of young woman who said yes to God, who challenged authority, who never quite understood her oldest son, but loved him fiercely to the end. She is the one who shows us who we need to be as we bring Christ to our world.
The biggest day in many of our lives comes when we hear the words “you’re going to have a baby” and then several months later give birth to our beloved child. Mary had an unplanned pregnancy, to say the least. While we don’t need to call in the obstetrician to figure out the mechanics of Mary’s pregnancy, we know that any time an angel comes calling, you better take notice. And Mary did! Perplexed and amazed, not knowing what the future would bring, she said “yes” to God’s adventure, “yes” to new life, “yes” to bearing God’s child in the world.
Maybe others said “no” before God came to this Nazareth teen, but Mary said “yes,” and with her freedom and creativity welcomed God’s birth in the world.
Mary is no wallflower; she’s not in the least passive. Just because she’s a young woman, she won’t take second chair to anyone. And, so Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit declares God’s new age:
“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.
Mary wasn’t a politician, and didn’t have a social agenda, but she had compassion and she heard the cries of the poor, and knew that the wealthy needed to turn from greed to care, and be part of God’s new world order, God’s Shalom. Mary loved her baby and knew that she needed to cry out on behalf of all the children, vulnerable and innocent like her own baby boy.
Who, as a parent, has come to the point of throwing your hands up in the air and saying to yourself, “I don’t know this child” or “the path he or she is taking is going to lead to nothing but trouble”? Mary gave birth to Jesus, knew he was special, but could never quiet fathom him. When she discovers that Jesus isn’t with Joseph and her on the pilgrimage from Jerusalem back home to Nazareth, she panics, and then when she finds Jesus, lets him have it – in true maternal fashion, she complains: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety?”
Though she couldn’t fully comprehend her son’s spiritual calling, she loved him deeply. Luke 2 simply says, that Mary, like mothers and fathers throughout the ages, “treasured all these things in her heart.”
One of the most painful moments of a parent’s life is when a child is sick or has died. This child is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. I gave birth to him, I nursed and rocked him to sleep and now he’s dead, violently, without any good reason. Mary knew the pain of grief. Mary knew what it was like to lose her child. She shares our grief; she knows loss; God is nearby to comfort all of us, to walk the way of our cross, and feel our pain not as an outsider, but with our emotions.
You will find Mary in the soup kitchen feeding homeless children, in a group providing assistance to refugee families, at Children’s Hospital with little ones being treated for cancer, with immigrants traveling northward to the USA to avoid political persecution and gang violence. Mary is everywhere when a child is crying.
We are the children of Mary; she is the strong and fiercely loving and protective mother. Mary is our sister as well. She shows us what it’s like to be faithful, to say “yes,” and to love to the very end. She tells us that the greatest joy comes from caring and from saying “yes” to the adventure God calls us to. Thank God for Mary and the pathway of discipleship she reveals to us.