The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Mary said, 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.
Surely indeed, for ever since singing the Magnificat all generations have called Mary blessed, so far reaching are its words. But apart from the Magnificat, we hear Mary’s voice on only three other occasions in the whole of the New Testament, and only in the gospels of Luke and John. Yet her presence among the crowd and with the disciples, which is noted a number of times, speaks volumes as she is the only one to have accompanied Jesus from the crib to the cross. As the mother of Jesus, Mary has inspired the faithful throughout the ages and she has been venerated in the Church from its earliest days. As tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin, this morning we are honoring her with special Marion prayers, readings, and music along with some of our regular Sunday readings.
You may have noticed the use of seemingly contradictory terms—Mary the virgin and Mary the mother. To my mind, there is but mystery; and if God created this astounding world, and everything and everyone in it, whom am I to say what miracle is not possible? That said, the “virginity” of Mary has been suspect, even among believers, for how can this be? as Mary herself asked the angel Gabriel after he proposed that she carry and bear a son named Jesus, for I have known no man and husband.
Let us take a moment to consider Mary’s virginity apart from her chastity. She is “virgin” because she was a young girl, uneducated, unmarried and poor, who as a female in her day would have been deemed unworthy of power and authority, and certainly of bearing great things. She is virgin territory if you will, and fertile ground for the Great Reversal of God’s kingdom that confounds and overturns our experiences and expectations.
Mary is virgin because she is empty as in free within herself; for interior freedom safeguards our inner knowing and life-giving power, her “yes” to the angel’s proposal given without any outside counsel. She embodies the interior sovereignty, or purity that is necessary for deep receptivity or vulnerability to God. This says something about who she is, and about who she will become: Mary, Miriam, the Blessed Virgin and Holy Mother, Our Lady, Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, Theotokos or God-bearer, and simply “eamma” “ama” or “mom.”
Mary’s openness to being known intimately by the Holy Spirit opened the way for God to accomplish the salvation of the world. We call upon her that we too may be so “virgin”. We prayed in the collect of the day for the grace to to follow daily in the blessed steps of Jesus’ most holy life, and so we call upon her to help us do so as she herself did as a disciple of her son.
For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve held a special love for Mother Mary, partly due to my Roman Catholic father’s devotion to her, though Mary is as likely the reason herself. I’ve found that she often makes her presence known in advance of impending change and even arduous journey, as the words of the Beatle’s classic acknowledge:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be.
Many a “Hail Mary’s” have been said in my own life, and in the countless hearts of humanity. The oldest known Marian prayer, from the year 250, is the Sub Tuum Praesidium, Beneath Thy Protection:
Beneath your compassion,
We take refuge, O Mother of God:
do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure, only blessed one.
Our gospel from Luke, the Magnificat, or Mary’s song, is a bold and prophetic witness of a person, a young peasant girl, speaking the truth of troubled and dangerous world, and bearing the great love of God who cherishes the smallest lowliest least powerful things of the world. Mary’s spirit rejoices in God her savior, the liberator of those without power and voice.
Because Mary’s song proclaims the power of the Lord over that of military might and political rule, it has at times been banned from public recitation. When the British ruled India, it was prohibited from being sung in churches, and during the “Dirty War” in Argentina, after the mothers of disappeared children plastered the capital plaza with the words of the Magnificat, the military junta banned all public displays of it. I think it can be difficult for us to grasp the radical message of the Magnificat, as it is the radical “good news” of Jesus Christ, and yet this does not change the truth of God’s great reversals and magnificent Love.
Why Mary was singled out to bear the Son of God we cannot definitively know. But what we do know, in God choosing the person of Mary, is that the power of love to transform and call itself into being requires our unique selves and circumstances, and our unique yes. Mary embodies this possibility for all of us as our psalm for the day exclaims:
Great are the deeds of the Lord! . . .
. . . He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.
He sent redemption to his people;
he commanded his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
those who act accordingly have a good understanding . . .
. . .as Mary surely did. As virgin and mother, Mary is a sign unto herself that Jesus is both man and God, human and divine. And as virgin and mother, Mary was also a flesh and blood woman of the first-century who gave birth, raised a child, kept a home, washed the dishes, baked bread (perhaps even the bread at the last supper!), whose son caused her to worry—a lot—and who struggled with the same everyday and momentous life changes as we do. Mary is indeed “woman” as Jesus pronounced her on the cross.
She personifies most iconically the modesty of feminine love. In art, her body is ever robed, its womanly shape concealed, and her face gentle, even forlorn. Yet her foot is often seen crushing a serpent beneath it in a gesture of humility empowered. She is at once reticent of her humanity and demonstrative of her power, a second Eve, redeemer of the first woman who fell to the serpent’s temptation.
One of my most cherished possessions is a small picture of Mary depicted as the Madonna of the Streets. It’s a classic but simple picture of a young Mary in peasant clothes cradling her baby, Jesus. My mother gave it to me when I was five, and I have carried it with me ever since. I have clutched it to my heart so often, not to mention dropped it and even lost it more than a few times, that its image is worn with age, and its small frame nicked and chipped, not unlike myself. And yet it is a treasure, as are we, children of God and heirs of the Light, made in the image and likeness of the Holy One, held in God’s strong arm, and cradled in the embrace of our Mother Mary.
As the Lord said to St. Paul, and surely to Mary, and each of us: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.
Mary, blessed Virgin and Mother, ever prays us towards her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, that we too are full of grace and may bear in our “slender vase of being” the glory of God:
From our Old Testament and in the words of Isaiah:
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.