Some of you know that last week, Gregg and I were away. We just returned from a week's vacation in Mexico. We were in a beautiful place in Mexico called San Miguel de Allende. It is an ancient colonial town, high up in the mountains of central Mexico. And we were there for my birthday, which was December 13. But the day before my birthday, was the day of great celebration in Mexico, and it is every year on December 12, because December 12, is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
If you've ever been to Mexico, you know that Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. You see her image in restaurants and in shops and along the sides of buildings, and pretty much in every Mexican household I've ever been in. Mexicans love Our Lady of Guadalupe. They share a great devotion to her.
And Gregg and I were so thrilled to be there this past Monday to witness the fireworks and the parades and the celebrations in honor of Our Lady. Now, many of you know, just as Mexicans have a great devotion to Our Lady, so do I.
And that is why I love the fourth Sunday of Advent. Because it's the only time, the only Sunday in the entire year that I get to talk to you about Mary. Mary doesn't appear a lot in our lectionary readings does she? And the reason for that is that Mary only appears in the Bible four times. That's it.
Do you know, Mary appears more in the Koran, the holy book of Islam, than she does in the Bible? Our Muslim friends, like the Afghan family are sponsoring, revere Mary, more than most Christians do. Most Christians, even progressive ones, only think about Mary once a year at Christmas, when we put up our nativity sets. We tend to forget about her the rest of the year.
And I told you last year, I think I know why. Because I think most Christians think Mary is just for Catholics. And I think that makes them a little bit wary of Mary. That was going to be my title today – Wary of Mary. Actually, what I think they're wary of is the Catholics’ devotion to Mary, which many Christians, I think, see as a form of idolatry. Or they think somehow she's overshadowing Jesus.
For those of us who are devoted to Mary, we see Mary as our way to Jesus. Now, many of you know that when I was a young man in my 20s, I was a religious brother in the Catholic Church. And the order of brothers that I belong to is called the Marist brothers. They're a group of religious men who are devoted to Mary. And the motto of the Marist brothers in Latin is Ad Jesum per Mariam, which means “To Jesus, through Marry.”
During my years as a brother, every morning in the monastery, we got up, and before we began our work, we would join together in the chapel, and we would say prayers and sing songs to Mary, who was our way to Jesus. For me, she represents the divine feminine, the birther of the cosmos, the one who gave birth to the light of the world, that feminine face of God.
The Christian Church for centuries has been so male dominated, that the female voice has been repressed and stifled. We need it now, more than ever, that voice. Many of you are familiar with Rob Bell. Rob Bell is a best-selling Christian author. And he got his start right here in West Michigan. He was the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grandville. And now of course, he is a speaker all over the world.
Rob Bell has written many wonderful books, and one is called What We Talk About When We Talk About God. And in that book, Rob Bell says this: “When the female voice is repressed and stifled, the entire community can easily find themselves cut off from the sacred feminine, depriving themselves of the full image of God.”
The full image of God, my friends, is both masculine and feminine. God is both father and mother. And that's who Mary represents, for me, that mother aspect of God. But who was the real Mary – that teenager? Who was she? What was she really like?
Well, as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, most of us grew up with the image of her as a subservient handmaiden, the meek and mild virgin. Well all of that is a myth. The real Mary, as we heard this morning, was a very courageous and bold young woman. During the time in which she was living, she was at the lowest rung of society. She was a woman. She was poor. She was pregnant out of wedlock, making her an outcast. And yet how amazing that God chose her of all the people to give birth to the light of the world!
And that's why her Magnificat, that song we heard part of in our call to worship, that song that she gives to God, isn't really a pretty little love song. Rather, what she's proclaiming is that change is coming through her – through a lowly person. She says God has looked with favor upon me, a lowly person, an outcast, and from now on generations are going to call people like me blessed. Because God is going to pull down the mighty and powerful from their thrones and lift up us, the lowly. God is going to send the rich away empty, he's going to fill people like us with good things. The poor, the poor, are going to be filled, the hungry are going to be fed. That's what she's proclaiming in the Magnificat.
And as recently as the 20th century, the Magnificat has been banned by many governments around the world. During the British occupation of India, it was forbidden to sing the Magnificat. The same was true in Argentina during the reign of Juan Perone. You could not read the Magnificat aloud in public. And it was also true in Guatemala in the 1980s. The reason was because the words of Mary's song would stir the impoverished masses.
Change is on its way! That's what Mary was proclaiming – a New World Order. And of course, governments don't like change. They want to keep control and power. But that's why I see Mary's spirit so alive today. And I see it in young women, like Mary was, I see that spirit of Mary in Greta Thunberg, the climate change activist. Change is Coming. I see her spirit alive in Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani activist for female education, I see Mary's spirit alive in Emma Gonzalez, the young American activist for for gun control. And I see Mary's spirit alive in recent years in all of the women who have been brave enough to speak up in the Me Too and Time’s Up movement, who are finally speaking the truth after years of being silenced by men. That's what Mary is proclaiming – Change is on its way. And I especially see Mary today in those young refugee mothers who are crossing the border. Mary herself was a refugee. And you see these brave, courageous young women trying to find a new life for their family.
Now one of our friends Ryan Kuja. He lives in Holland. He's the author of a wonderful book called From the Inside Out. Last year, Ryan wrote a modern-day version of the Magnificat. And I'd like to read it for you today:
I can't contain my excitement about all this. Out of all people, God noticed me, a poor pregnant teenager! Everyone will call people like me blessed from now on. God's love is so much greater than I can even imagine. God shows love for everyone. Even those society despises, for the LGBTQ community, immigrants, refugees, the addicted and the shamed. God knows Black Lives Matter, that refugees and immigrants are God's beloved. All the people who are seen as less than human, God knows and God loves. God lifts up those who are preyed upon by corrupt politicians, the hungry, the ones brutalized by the police, and immigration and customs agents and families without health care. God invites each of us to the table to speak and to tell our story, to be heard and to be known. The power-hungry perpetrators who care only about their agendas don't have the last word. I can sense God's presence holding me and all God's children close, faithfully liberating us all, just as God has promised.
I love that modern version, because it reminds us that The Magnificat is timeless. And that during our time here, we as Christians are called to continue to speak those words of truth as Mary did. We are called to continue to bring about that kingdom. That world of change that Mary was calling for. And that's what we're doing in Advent. We are saying Yes, as Mary said, Yes. We're saying yes,to being filled with the light and love of God, so that we can be those people of change.
Meister Eckhart, the 13th century, Christian mystic said, “All of us are called to be mothers of God. Because God is always needing to be born.” And that's why I love this time of year. We say Christ is born. We don't say Christ was born. It's not past tense. Christ is born – present tense. When we feed the hungry, Christ is born. When we lift up the lowly, Christ is born. When we speak truth to power, Christ is born. It's about us right now.
And so my friends in this week leading up to Christmas, may all of us have the courage of Mary, to say yes, to give birth to the light in this this world of darkness. And may I invite you to call upon Mary, not just at Christmas time, but throughout the year. She's not just for Catholics. She's for all of us. May we, like Mary, magnify God's love and light, and let us shine it for all the world to see.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Rev. Dawn Hutchings
The popular image of Mary paints her as the ideal woman that none of us could ever live up to, that of both virgin and mother, meek and mild, obedient and perfect. She is impossible as a role model and totally unreal. But, Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, reveals her to be very real and quite revolutionary. The Magnificat is a song Mary sings, but the radical nature of this song has been lost as successive generations have prettied it up as best they can. The Magnificat is a song of revolution which proclaims the downfall of the prevailing order. The Magnificat is a rallying cry to overturn the established order, a tune intended to rouse the troops. The church has told the story of Mary in its own particular way for centuries, holding up the image of the perfect woman, both virgin and mother. That image may have suited the purposes of an institution that had a vested interest in having women behave in a certain way, but the time has come to tell Mary’s story differently. For in a world where over half the population is still oppressed, isn’t it time to hear the story of God told in ways that liberate and empower? Isn’t it time to hear Mary’s story told in ways that proclaim God’s plan for justice? We can re-inscribe the image of Mary as the passive handmaiden of the Lord, or we can tell the story of Mary who with steely grit and courage struggles to raise her son as a child of God. The choice of how we read and tell Mary’s story will affect how we read the whole Christian story. We, like Mary, are part of God’s plan to bring down the powerful from their thrones and to lift up the lowly. Mary had the courage to say yes, to trust God. Mary had the courage to let something grow inside her. Do we have the courage to harbor Christ in our bodies? Do we have the courage to be bearers of God to the world? That’s the terrifying challenge that this story offers. This story challenges us to be at God’s disposal, to become filled with God’s life for the sake of the world. When God sends a messenger to you, will you have the courage, like Mary, to say “Here I am, Lord. Let it be done to me according to your will."
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