Posts Tagged ‘Mary’

A wider vision (or, what Mary knew that changed the world)

December 20, 2015

The build up to Christmas offers us almost equal shares of delight and despair.  There are beautiful things – lights and songs and an altered mood in many people that means doors are held and attention is paid to the niceties; there are more smiles – more “please” and “Thank you” and “have a nice day”…add in the occasional “Merry Christmas” or “Happy holidays” (to which I have no objection, by the way) and the atmosphere can be downright pleasant.  There is the other side, of course.  the parking lot pandemonium, the angry jostling for the last item on the shelf; the defensive way some walk through the mall, or down the street – eyes downcast, shoulders hunched – the look of someone on the way to an uncomfortable appointment.  These moods are equally infectious.  I have seen an ugly mood turned on its head by the simplest of kind actions.  Unfortunately, the presence of a first class Christmas Crank can spoil the day for everyone just as easily.  In both cases, it is because we find it very difficult – especially at this time of year – to see beyond ourselves.  Our approach to this season – one we sometimes claim is all about giving and reaching out in love – is, in truth, not nearly so selfless.  It is all about us; our experience, our traditions, our plans and dreams.

I confess myself guilty – guilty of being that guy in the mall, intent on my list – wanting only to get in; get gift; get out – as fast as possible.  When the pressure’s on, I lose sight of the joy that is near me – determined to arrive at Christmas day in such a way that “all will call me blessed.”

That’s my problem, though – I have been playing a double game these last ten years or so.  My Christmas preparations leave me with a foot in both camps; there’s the husband/father/son/brother who wants to get things just right according to the list in my head and the plans for dinner (with time winding down and no chance of an extension…), and the minister/preacher/pastor who encounters dozens of different expectations and anxieties, all while considering seasonal Scriptures that draw different conclusions about the destination for this advent journey.

As this played itself out these last few weeks, I became drawn to the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth that comes to us from Luke’s gospel this morning.  Two women caught in struggles of their own – the struggle between family expectations and the call of God.  Not to take anything away from Elizabeth – the matriarch here; the woman to whom Mary goes for advice and comfort – not to diminish her importance, but I think she gets is wrong.  Sure, she recognizes that Mary has been blessed in a special way, but she can’t see any further than that.  She isn’t able to recognize the full extent of this gift.

Torn between personal/ family blessings and the wider will of God, Elizabeth sees only the former.  Her young cousin will open her eyes to the truth here.

Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching from Luther Seminary in Minnesota, writes about a relationship between Mary’s “song” (Luke 1: 46-55) and Jesus’ first sermon (Luke 4: 18-19 – Jesus’ quoting Isaiah) – Lewis says:

“Maybe it’s true that you can learn something from your mother. Jesus’ understanding of his purpose for his ministry restates his mother’s understanding of God’s working in her life. Jesus senses the essence of his ministry because he learned it from Mary. Jesus isn’t just making stuff up. He’s giving voice to how he grew up. He’s articulating what he’s been taught. He’s known this from the beginning. It’s what his mother preached. It’s what his mother lived. It’s what his mother taught him to be. It’s how his mother interpreted Scripture. It’s what his mother shared about who she knew God to be. It’s what his life of faith embodied. Jesus can witness to the God he knows because he heard his mother give witness to the God she knew.”


And what Mary knew was that while family and personal dreams and goals are important, this God of ours has much bigger plans than simply our personal salvation, or our individual happiness.

Mary’s song begins with an acknowledgment of the blessing God has given her (all generations will call me blessed) but she quickly moves on to the wider vision of God – mercy from generation to generation; toppling the powerful, lifting up the lowly – keeping promises across time, to the countless descendants of Abraham.

Mary can open our eyes to the truth – this season celebrates the act and art of giving, that’s for sure – but it is a gift of unbelievable scope; far beyond our tiny plans, or our selfish certainty that “one perfect gift / one perfect event” can salvage a year (or a lifetime) of disappointment.  This gift of God is nothing less than the liberation of all creation!  Power and wealth and justice and mercy – all things that we have defined for our benefit – will be revealed and reconfigured according to God’s definitions, and so the last will be first, and the weak shall be strong, and all people will see the salvation of our God.

Not quite how you imagined Christmas, is it?  Never fear – gifts will continue to be exchanged, and turkeys carved.  smiles and good cheer will abound, because we are celebrating in good faith – trying to do justice to the gift of God that meets us in Jesus.

The day is fast approaching – and soon we will, for a brief season, see our plans come to life.  Joy will abound, and if we are paying attention, we will see something of the fulness of God’s plan in our celebrations.  May that be our prayer – and our delight – as the Christmas season begins.


“…for nothing is impossible with God.”

December 21, 2014

Everything we know about Mary come from a very little bit of information in the New Testament. There are legends about where she comes from, and a countless stories speculating where she might have gone after Jesus resurrection, but I am only interested in the portrait painted by the gospels. The authors of our sacred texts wanted us to know that Jesus was connected to a community; ‘God-with us’ needs to be truly with us, so in the midst of a human family – complete with a long list of famous (and infamous) relatives (early in Matthew’s gospel, and later in Luke’s) – that is how we are introduced to Jesus, and by extension, Mary. Each of the gospel writers ensure that we see Mary from time to time (and others from the family occasionally) as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. She watches Jesus carry his cross, and he speaks to her from the cross before he dies. But Mary’s shining moment is here, at Christmas.
She is young – her life is full of promise. Engaged to be married, her life is unfolding at it should, until suddenly, a strange visitor. Greetings, he says – the Lord is with you. Not many of us would be clever enough – or brave enough – to sit still for this kind of surprise; a strange man saying stranger things – claiming to represent God, for crying out loud – how long do you imagine that any of us would last in a conversation like this…?
Is she afraid? No doubt! (‘do not be afraid’, the angel says, as if his words might be less terrifying…). ‘God is with you… You have found favour with God…you will have a special child…’ ; this last statement is too much for Mary, and finally, she finds her voice. “How can this be?”, she asks…
How indeed! She is engaged – as good as married, according to the rules of her culture – but a baby right now, that would be trouble; babies that come at the wrong time, they make life difficult for their parents. It would be hard to explain to her husband – the community would ask questions; point fingers; tell stories – no one wants to be in that position. But the truth of the matter is that Mary is pregnant; and babies – even when they are unexpected – are a source of hope and joy, new life and new beginnings – and this baby will be all those things, not just for his careful, thoughtful mother, but for everyone who learns his story.
The Christian church has invested much in Mary’s story. Her favour is sought in prayer and devotion; she is revered as a role model for faithful obedience. Desperate for mystery and miracle, some have given Mary a status nearly equal to that of her son; not that we shouldn’t be impressed by the woman presented in the gospels. She shows incredible wisdom in her questions to the angel. Later, she will keep her own counsel when the shepherds dance and sing in the presence of her new-born son. She even has the nerve to declare that her son will change the world – how can she know that, if she is not some kind of super-woman (highly favoured by God, no less) – it is not hard to understand how she gained such high status in Christian worship from very early on – but what message is intended by presenting us with this lovely, puzzling and quite remarkable young woman?
Luke’s gospel reminds us that there is a promise – an ancient promise – being offered in the person of Jesus;. He offers us a faint echo of Isaiah’s hopeful words; an expectant people is offered an expectant mother, whose child will bring freedom – whose name shall be Emmanuel (Hebrew for God with us). Those words are evoked by the angel’s opening statement – ‘the Lord is with you’ – the suggestion of such close, personal contact by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would not go unnoticed by anyone who had been raised on the stories of promise in the Hebrew community. and in that, I believe we can find the purpose of Mary’s story, and the reason for our continuing fascination with her. For in this ‘new covenant’ – a fresh revelation of God meant to be real and personal and impossible to ignore – we need to be shown how to interact with this most Holy being.
For Mary, this is a life changing moment in every possible way. To give birth is to suddenly and intentionally share yourself with the world. Mary shows us the full extent of God’s intent; God will be among us – with us, flesh and blood; unbearably human – and Mary accepts that God had every right to step aside and do such a thing. “Let it be according to your word”, she says – and ‘just like that’, Mary has welcomed (and shown us how we might accept) the presence of God in our lives. That presence will ‘overshadow’ her – it will change her life – and yet, Mary remains the remarkable, curious, patient and willing child of God throughout. Her ‘lesson’ for us – her purpose for our faith – is to teach us how to be “with God”, and how to let God be “with us”.
May we, as the Christmas season dawns upon us, be as ready and willing as Mary to welcome the overshadowing presence of God-with-us. Let our celebrations tell the story of God’s loving intention, born to us in Jesus. Thanks be to God, for this marvelouos gift of grace. Amen.

Hungry for Wonder

December 17, 2011

I am hungry for wonder –

my wife can attest- I am always on the lookout for fantastic things…

and my driving occasionally suffers as a result.

It is a very delicate rationalization from being “aware of your surroundings” as a driver,

to being constantly on the lookout for wildlife.

But I can’t help it. Birds of prey, deer, fox – whatever there is, I’m eager to see it.

The animal kingdom , when encountered free from fences and artificial enclosures,

constitutes something miraculous for me.

And when I find the object of my search – something strange happens.

My brain declares that particular stretch of road a wonderful place –

a place ‘most likely to produce a close encounter with nature.’

And then each time I pass the spot, my eyes are drawn to it,

hoping again to see something wonderful.

I am, you might imagine, quite often disappointed.

The wonder is never where I expect it to be.


You have (I hope) your own idea of what passes for wonder –

perhaps it is the ever present beauty of nature –

or the reliable faithfulness of a particular friend –

but fast approaching is the closest thing to “universal wonder” that we have

in this age of constant information and the resulting ‘de-mystification’ of all things.


Heavenly visitors, bringing tales of an infant redeemer.

Soon will the shepherds dance and the wise men bow.

Christmas is coming,

and a great many people, some without any particular religious conviction,

will mark this wonderful event with feasting, song, and a kind of self-serving generosity

that is encouraged (and enabled) by secular retailers and purveyors of pretty things.

It is wonderful – don’t get me wrong, I’m still a big fan of the fuss we make at Christmas –

And wonder being in such short supply these days, I’ll not destroy the joy for you –

especially if you are one of those

for whom Christmas is the pinnacle of all that is holy, happy and good.

But since we are meant to be the bringers of glad tidings in the form of Gospel,

I will put before you this interesting idea I have.


The wonder of the season is never where we expect it.


This is true, I think, throughout the whole of Scripture.

God’s promised help comes in unusual ways, to unlikely people,

and we, as God’s people, often see wonder in these encounters

where there was originally strangeness and horror and dread.

It is only over centuries – generations of hearing the story

and interpreting for our own time the ‘things God has done’

that we find wonder and peace and hope and joy.


It took a long time for the story of Jesus birth to take its familiar shape.

And for me, the wonder of the Christmas story comes under suspicion

when we remember that Mary was first of all an unwed teenage mother.

That God would appear in a vision to one such as her was (and is) preposterous.

That God would commission such as Mary to be a source of revelation to the world is ridiculous!

A woman who dis-honoured her potential husband

by arriving for the nuptial celebration carrying a child of unknown origin

(or any origin, for that matter) would not be tolerated under the statutes of the day.

And even in the most pious of homes,

to credit “the spirit of God” for the conception of said child

would be seen as the weakest of excuses.

The wonder here is first how did Mary survive to honour her contract with Joseph,

and ultimately honour God’s call to bear a son…


No, the wonder is not where we imagine it too be.


Our sacred images of blessed Mary, meek and mild, are constructed by what came after.

Angelic visitors, received without hesitation, are fitting heralds of the one

who endured the cross and rose victorious from the grave.

But for now, we have wonder in an unexpected place.

A quiet girl in a quiet room, dealing with an unexpected pregnancy,

and giving God glory for this most unexpected (and, perhaps unwelcome) event in her life.


It shouldn’t have been wonderful – it might have been tragic –

but our experience of her child, grown to manhood

has made his birth a source of wonder, joy and hope

that has endured throughout our time, and promises to endure beyond time.


Let us give God glory for all the ways

we experience the wonder that is the result of the birth of Jesus,

whom we call Christ and King. Amen