A sermon on Luke 1:26-38 (etc.) preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church on the Fourth Sunday of Advent
It is said of Jewish mothers that they typically think of their sons as God’s gift to the world. Mary was one Jewish mother who could legitimately make this claim. It has been my experience that Protestants don’t give much attention to Mary apart from the season of Christmas with our nativity scenes that minimally include Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child (“ox and ass sold separately”). I think that we Protestants largely avoid Mary because a lot of us are squeamish about the level of attention that our Catholic sisters and brothers give Mary.
Mary, of course, is a figure of central importance in Catholic theology, liturgy, and spirituality. She is often depicted in Catholic art enthroned in heaven alongside Christ; she is routinely asked by worshipers to intercede with God the Father and with her son Jesus on the basis of the position she is believed to occupy as “queen of Heaven” and on the basis of the relationship that she still enjoys with the glorified Christ as his mother. Based on the almost universally shared Christian conviction that Jesus was God the Son in human flesh, our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters will speak of Mary as the “Mother of God” which, while we Protestants would have to concede that this is technically true in a limited sense, nevertheless makes us profoundly uncomfortable.
In reaction against all of this, we tend to ignore or diminish Mary, probably erring too far in the opposite direction. I have heard Protestants object: “Mary was a sinner like us whom Jesus would have to redeem, an ordinary woman like any other.” While I regard the first statement to be true, I think that the second is not. Mary was an extraordinary woman who, in yielding herself in obedience to God’s will and in embracing her son’s mission, shows us a great deal about the heart of the genuine disciple. She also had to become an extraordinary mother to love, nurture, and support such an extraordinary son on such an extraordinary mission – one that would cost her most of the natural joys that mothers might expect of their children.
In our Scripture reading today, we heard once again the familiar story of the annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s appearing to Mary to tell her of what God would accomplish through her in the son that she would uniquely engender and bear. While we think of the virgin birth in terms of the miraculous and wonderful significance of Jesus as “Son of God,” we should never lose sight of the cost that accompanied Mary’s embracing her role. When Elizabeth, Zechariah’s barren and aging wife, became pregnant, she declared that God had taken away her reproach among her neighbors (Luke 1:25); when Mary became pregnant, it could only have brought her reproach.
We might not appreciate the importance of Mary’s assertion, “I do not ‘know’ a man” (Luke 1:34). Sexual purity was the indispensable element of a woman’s virtue and honor in Mary’s world. One example will have to suffice. A century or so before Jesus, an anonymous Jew wrote a historical romance about a woman named Judith, who became the savior of her city and ultimately of the Jewish people by seducing an enemy general into a drunken stupor and cutting off his head. Her first words when back in the city with the general’s head in her knapsack? “I only seduced him with my looks. He committed no sin with me, to defile and shame me” (Jdt 13:16). Having delivered her city from a desperate siege, Judith still couldn’t let anyone think that she had extra-marital sex to accomplish it!
Mary was about to sacrifice her reputation for the sake of serving God’s design for deliverance. The Gospel according to Matthew gives more attention to the unwelcome consequences of the angel’s “good news” for Mary. While Joseph, her betrothed, might have planned to break off the engagement as quietly as possible so as to spare Mary any unnecessary shame, coming to full term as a single mother would have nevertheless brought a great deal of unavoidable shame in first-century Judea or Galilee. One wonders about the extent to which first Mary, then Jesus, had to endure taunts regarding his irregular birth. Mark remembers the villagers of Nazareth asking one another in response to Jesus’ sermon there, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mk. 6:3). Matthew would render this differently – “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt 13:55) – but Mark may preserve something closer to the real thing. And to be called “the son of Mary” is quite a significant thing in a village where every male takes his father’s name as an identifier (think of Simon Bar-Jonah – Simon, son of John — or Jesus Bar-Abbas – Jesus, son of Abbas). One wonders if John’s Gospel doesn’t preserve some reflection of this as well when those with whom Jesus finds himself in an argument about whether or not they are truly Abraham’s children say: “We weren’t born from fornication” (John 7:41).
Mary valued God’s promise enough – what this child would become and what this child would accomplish for God’s purposes in the world – to endure the shame that was likely to come. This cannot help but foreshadow for us the very posture that her son would one day take, who, “for the sake of the joy set before him, endured a cross, despising shame” (Heb 12:2). It would be a posture that many in the early church would have to imitate in order to follow Jesus; that many over the centuries, most numerously in the 20th and 21st!, have had to imitate. But Mary was willing to bear reproach for the Christ before the Christ was even born.
Eight days after Jesus’ birth, an old man named Simeon hinted to Mary that she might not be raising this child with a view to enjoying the typical life-long relationship that mothers cherish having with their children. After he celebrates having lived long enough to see the one through whom God’s redemption would come into the world – the one who would be “a light for revelation to the nations and the glory of God’s people Israel” (Luke 2:32) – Simeon looks at Mary and adds: “This one is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign that will provoke controversy in order that the inner thoughts of many hearts may be uncovered – and a sword shall pierce your own soul as well!” (Luke 2:34-35). Thank you, scary old man loitering in the temple. May I have my child back now, please?
Much of what Simeon had said about Jesus might have been unsurprising to Mary, after what the archangel Gabriel had announced prior to Jesus’ conception and after what the shepherds had reported seeing and hearing at his birth. But this last bit was new: this “good news,” this divine revolution, wasn’t going to be painless for Mary or her son. Accepting his destiny meant steeling herself for suffering as well – another foreshadowing for us of what it means for most of the world’s Christians to follow, to hold onto, this Jesus.
The very next episode in Luke fast forwards us twelve years to the story of Jesus in the Temple. (Parenting Pro-tip – don’t leave a major city during its most crowded tourist season assuming that your pre-teen is somewhere in the caravan.) We can surely sympathize with Mary once she and Joseph have found Jesus: “Child, why did you put us through this? Your father and I have gone crazy looking for you!” (Luke 2:48). Jesus’ answer – “Why did you have to look for me? Weren’t you aware that I’d have to be attending to my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) – was a reminder that her son had a calling, in response to his heavenly Father, that would take him away from his family and that his mission eclipsed his attachment to them. The most surprising thing here for me, who as a child could get lost and as a parent could look for a lost son, is how unperturbed Jesus is after having been left essentially on his own in a big city for three days! How that strange calm must have unsettled Mary, who had been frantically searching for a boy who was completely untroubled that he was without her for such a long time. Did it remind her once again: “My son was not born for me”? Did it remind her that the love and nurture she was pouring into him – and would continue to pour into him – was for the sake of his accomplishing his “Father’s business,” the destiny that she embraced for him as well?
Nowadays when a son or daughter only leaves home at thirty, we consider it a “failure to launch.” Not so in first-century Galilee. As the eldest son – and, in all likelihood, after Joseph’s death, since Joseph has completely disappeared from the scene – Jesus would have been the pillar of the family business and the acting head of the household. All things being equal, he would have become and remained the gravitational center of the bar-Joseph family for his and the next generation – and, quite importantly, the staff of Mary’s old age. But Mary had to give up her dreams for a “normal” and secure life with her firstborn son at the center of a normal household for the sake of Jesus’ mission to secure God’s good for many households.
It was Mary who, according to John’s Gospel, prompted Jesus’ first miracle. Mary and Jesus went as guests to a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee, with Jesus’ first disciples tagging along. These wedding banquets were multiple-day affairs and, at some point, the wine ran out. Mary came to Jesus and said, “They have no wine.” Jesus’ reply was essentially, “How is that our problem?” He understood what was implicit in his mother’s bringing the problem to his attention – Mary’s conviction that her son could do something about it on the spot. He added, “It’s not my time yet,” as if he understood that she were saying to him, “This is as good a time as any, Jesus, to start doing what you were born to do.” Jewish mothers apparently don’t hear their sons when they say “no,” so Mary says to the servants standing nearby, “Do whatever he tells you.” This is, of course, the best advice one can ever give to another in regard to Jesus.
Notice what Mary has done here: she has put her Son in a position to act by publicly raising expectations that he would, and she has disposed those around him to cooperate with him in whatever way he says. While it’s not our practice, one can hardly read this and blame Catholics for praying to Mary to intercede for them, because she does appear to have known how to get her Son to intervene even when he might have been reluctant to do so. At the end of the episode, we read: “Jesus performed this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee and he showed forth his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Within the story of John’s Gospel, it is Mary who launches Jesus into the active revelation of his glory that would culminate in his crucifixion, the hour of his glorification.
Joseph and Mary raised four sons and several daughters alongside Jesus. Scripture hasn’t left us any testimony to their growing-up years, but can you imagine what it was like for James or the other siblings in that household? “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” “Give me a break, Mom; I’m sick and tired of being compared to Mr. Perfect over there!” According to John’s Gospel, there were indeed some hard feelings between Jesus and his half-brothers in the early period of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Mark tell of an episode in which Jesus radically redefined his family – a word that has given comfort and encouragement to millions of disciples but that was no doubt difficult for Jesus’ blood relations to hear:
While Jesus was still speaking to the crowds, … someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But … Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:46-50 NRSV)
I can only imagine that it was painful for Mary to hear about Jesus’ response; it was probably disappointing that, by all accounts, he stayed inside the house teaching and did not break away to talk to his blood relations. This was another occasion for Mary to die a little more to herself and to her own expectations for what her life would be like. She, like all of us, especially those who have close relationships within their natural families, was challenged to accept Jesus’ vision of a much larger family – a larger family whose claims on one superseded even the claims of one’s natural family. It is important for us to recognize both this challenge and the fact that Mary and her other children, insofar as we know, did come to embrace Jesus’ vision of family – the family that would be formed by faith, by his blood – and thus remained part of Jesus’ family and a vitally important part of that larger family that Jesus was calling together.
Of course, we all know where we will find Mary just a few years later at the end of Jesus’ ministry, for the sake of which he left the construction business and a rooted life in Nazareth.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (Jn. 19:25-27 NRSV)
This scene is deeply etched in Catholic piety, immortalized in a poem quite unfamiliar to most of us but well known to any Catholic, the “Stabat mater.”
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Through her soul, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.
You can hear the echo there of old Simeon’s prediction some thirty years before.
There were many things not to like about Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, but one thing I very much did like was the attention given to Mary during those terrible twenty-four hours – how, despite the fact that her own heart was breaking, she remained present, giving all her strength to her son, showing him a loving face in the midst of a mocking mob, reminding him that he was not alone. However many liberties Gibson might have taken with this, that had to be the message, at least, that Jesus received when he saw his mother close by him from his cross. From the cross, Jesus gives his mother over to the care of the “beloved disciple.” Mary would have to live the rest of her natural life without enjoying a natural relationship with her eldest son. It would be henceforth the spiritual relationship with the risen and ascended Christ that we all have the possibility of enjoying.
On the other side of the resurrection and ascension of her son, we see Mary – for the last time in Scripture – there in the upper room with Jesus’ eleven disciples plus the newly chosen twelfth, with the women who had accompanied and helped to support Jesus and his disciples’ ministry, with Jesus’ half-brothers, and about a hundred other devoted followers. She is surrounded by, and part of, that larger family that Jesus embraced – those committed to doing the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon those hundred-and-twenty disciples in the upper room, the event we celebrate on the Day of Pentecost, is counted as the birth of the Church. But just as Jesus was born of divine and human parentage, it might also be fair to think of Mary, in that upper room, in the midst of the family that she, too, helped birth by virtue of her humble submission to God’s will, her willingness to endure reproach to accomplish God’s purposes, her giving up of her own dreams and expectations to embrace and support Jesus’ mission, and her steadfastness in standing by Jesus in love even when the sword was piercing her own heart. She proved herself a fitting mother for God’s Son and, in so doing, shows us much about being fitting disciples of God’s Son.