It has been said that all the great religions of the world are grounded in mystical experiences. Moses encountering a burning bush. Buddha meditating under the Bo Tree. Mohammed retreating to a cave to listen for God’s voice. And then there is Mary’s encounter with an angelic messenger.
We don’t know much about Mary and since the Reformation, many Protestants have done their best to ignore her, except as the focal point of the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth. Worried that the faithful will go to Mary in their prayers instead of God the Parent or Jesus the Christ, they have pushed Mary to the sidelines.
Mary has a word to say to us. We don’t need to buy into the dogmas of the immaculate conception, that she was free from the taint of original sin transmitted presumably at conception, or the bodily assumption of Mary in which she was taken up into heaven rather than experiencing physical death, or that Mary was a perpetual virgin, despite being married and the mother of at least six children in addition to Jesus. Despite their attempts to elevate Mary, these dogmas present Mary as entirely different from us – irrelevant to our hopes and fears and of no moral value to us. They suggest that embodiment and sexuality are somehow evil.
Still, I think Mary is important to our faith. If your spirituality involves seeing Mary as an icon for your prayer life, then so be it. I am sure that God accepts the authentic prayers of all God’s children and focusing on saints and ancestors as paths to a Loving God can deepen our faith.
But, the real Mary, the flesh and blood teenager, the married woman with children, the mother witnessing the horrendous death of her child – this Mary is the one who models faithfulness and bridges the gap between spirituality and social responsibility.
Mary is one of us, getting ready for marriage, looking forward to a fully human life with her fiancé Joseph, when she has a visitor who turns everything upside down, inviting her to be part of God’s amazing future. She’s from the working class, unnoticed by those with power and prestige. Just another Nazarene girl, planning her wedding and looking forward to raising children.
Perhaps as she’s hanging out laundry or going to market, she has a mystical experience. A messenger of God, privy to God’s deepest intentions, presents her with an impossible possibility. To become the mother of God’s child.
The scripture is understated. “Mary is perplexed.” Well, if an angel showed up in your living room, I suspect you’d be perplexed too! The angel presents an amazing possibility, indeed an impossible possibility, for Mary to parent divinity, and Mary says “yes.” Not fully knowing what lies ahead, uncertain about how this will affect her marriage, unaware of the potential social ostracism and punishment. Mary says “yes.” Upon that our future depends.
Mary immediately travels to her close relative Elizabeth, perhaps to stay with her during her pregnancy. Another miraculous conception – involving a couple too old to conceive – John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, inspiring both women to speak words of faith, honoring their respective children and praising God.
Simple and uneducated Mary becomes a prophet of social and religious transformation. She would no doubt be disparaged by some today as being too political as she bursts forth in praise, in words later known as the Magnificat.
I praise you God for choosing one of salt of the earth to reveal your love for humankind.
I am nothing, but you have chosen me, and the poor of the earth, to share your message.
You have made of me, uneducated and powerless, a prophet in my womb and in my words.
The powerful and proud will be convicted of their privilege and apathy.
The poor will feast while kings, celebrities, and billionaires fast.
The rich will divest themselves of their wealth so the poor can enjoy the bounties of the earth.
God’s promise of Shalom, of peace and community, will be fulfilled.
Mary’s words are audacious and so is her faith. Inspired by the fierce urgency of hope that the world can be different. That every child has a place at the table. Every family put out in the street have lodging. That nobodies receive recognition. And the powerful care.
That is the Christmas message. God dwells among the humble. God comes to birth in a stable, among people without privilege or power. Only working class shepherds and outsiders from another religion notice the divine child. And yet, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Mother Mary, in a humble stable on a starry, starry night, in a little child…all because Mary said “yes.”