Believe it or not, today is the only Sunday in the entire church calendar, where the Christian church puts its focus on Mary, Jesus's mother. And I always find that so surprising, because I think Mary is so important, not just in the life of Jesus, but in our own spiritual lives as well.
And yet we very rarely hear stories about Mary in our lectionary readings on Sunday, do we? And the reason for that is that Mary is only mentioned in the Bible four times. That said, Mary is mentioned more in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, than she is in the Bible. Muslims have a great reverence for Mary, more so than most Christians do today.
Most Christians today only think about Mary at Christmas when they put out their nativity sets. The rest of the year they forget about her. And I've told you before, I think I know the reason why. I think many Christians today think Mary is just for Catholics.
I think many Christians today are wary of Mary.
Or at least they're wary of the Catholics’ devotion to Mary, which I think many Christians feel overshadows Jesus, or borders on idolatry.
Now, many of you know that I grew up Catholic. And as a young man, I entered a Catholic monastery. I was a Catholic monk. And the order that I joined is known as the Marist brothers. It's a group of religious men who are devoted to Mary. And the motto of the Maris brothers in Latin is “Ad Jesum per Mariam,” which means to Jesus through Mary.
And every morning and evening, in the monastery, we would gather in the chapel, and we would say prayers, and sing chants to Mary, who was our gateway to Jesus.
Although I'm no longer a Catholic monk, although I'm no longer a Catholic, I still have a very great devotion to Mary, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. To me, she symbolizes the face of the Divine Mother, the birther of the cosmos, the one that gave birth to the light of the world, and who continues to make all things new.
For centuries now, our Christian Church and our world has been dominated by the masculine voice, and we need the feminine voice, now more than ever. The contemporary Christian writer Rob Bell says in one of his books, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, that when the female voice is stifled and repressed, the entire community can easily find itself cut off from the divine 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 why I am so grateful for Mary in my life, because to me, she represents that Divine Mother that divine feminine aspect of God.
Now, who was the real Mary? Well, we tend to think of her as that meek and mild handmaid, that passive, perfect virgin. And that, of course, is all a myth. The real Mary was bold and brave and courageous, and radical. You know, in the time and place where Mary lived, she was at the lowest level of society. She was a woman, she was poor, she was Jewish, and she was an unwed pregnant teenager. So she was outcast. She was marginalized. She didn't have a voice.
But God purposely chose her of all the people in the world to give birth to the light. And in our reading this morning, we heard Mary’s famous prayer of praise to God which is known as the Magnificat.
Now we tend to think that the Magnificat is just this pretty little innocuous love song that Mary sings to God. But as we heard in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, which Kathleen read for us, from the Reverend Dawn Hutchings, that the Magnificat is actually a subversive song of resistance.
It's actually a manifesto of liberation and revolution. It's kind of Mary's protest song, if you will, announcing that a New World Order is on its way, that change is coming. In it Mary says, God has looked with favor upon me, a lowly person. From now on all generations are going to call people like us blessed because God has taken the mighty and pulled them down from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. God’s filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary is proclaiming a new world order where the last will be first and where the first will be last. And you can see why that would be so threatening to people in positions of power. That's why the Magnificat was banned for centuries, all the way up to the 20th century. You know, during the British rule of India, it was forbidden to sing the Magnificat at church. The same was true in Argentina during the reign of Juan Perón. It was forbidden to read the Magnificat aloud. And the same was true in the 1980s. In Guatemala, the Guatemalan government thought the Magnificat was stirring up the impoverished masses. Because really what Mary's saying here is change is coming. A revolution is coming.
That's why I see the spirit of Mary so alive today in young women leaders in our world, many of them teenagers like Mary was. I see it in the climate change activist Greta Thunberg. I see it in Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani activist for women's rights. I see it in Emma Gonzalez, the Parkland High School student who has become a gun control activist and advocate. I see the spirit of Mary alive in women in recent years, who have spoken out against men in power with the Me Too and the Time’s Up movements. And I see the spirit of Mary alive in those migrant mothers, those refugee mothers like Mary, herself a refugee, who have traveled great distances with their children, fleeing oppressive regimes in to find refuge. Now one of our friends, the Christian writer, Ryan Kuja, the author of the book “From the Inside Out,” he recently translated the Magnificat into more contemporary language. And I'd like to read to you what he came up with.
Mary says, “I can't contain my excitement about all this. And of all people, God chose me, a poor pregnant teenager. Everyone will call me blessed from now on. God's love is so much greater than I can even imagine. God shows love for everyone, even those whom society despises. God shows love for the LGBTQ community for immigrants, refugees, the addicted and shamed. God knows that black lives matter, that refugees and immigrants are God's beloved, all the people who are seen as less than human God knows and loves. God lifts up those who were preyed upon by corrupt politicians, the hungry, the ones brutalized by the police, and immigration and customs agents, the families without health care. God invites each of us to the table to speak, to tell our story to be heard and known, that 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's children close. Faithfully liberating us all. Just as God has promised.
I love that. It's so timely. And the Magnificat is so timeless. Because you see God is always calling us to do as Mary did, to say yes, to becoming pregnant with the light, and to give birth to that light, to transform this world of darkness.
The 13th Century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “All of us are called to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” All of us, regardless of our gender identity, we're all called to be mothers of God, for God's always needing to be born right here and now.
And it's why this time of year we say Christ is born. It's present tense, Christ is born now. When we lift up the lowly, Christ is born. When we empower women, Christ is born. When we speak truth to the powers that oppress Christ is born.
That's what the season of Advent is all about. I told you on the very first Sunday of Advent, we are not preparing a birthday party for a baby that was born 2,000 years ago, that baby was already born. We're preparing ourselves for the birth of the light within us. So that we can shine that light in this world of darkness and transform the world.
And so my friends in this week leading up to Christmas in these final days of Advent, I want to invite you to do as Mary did, to say yes to God, and to rejoice in the fact that God chose you to give birth to the light. And I want to encourage you to call upon Mary often, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. She's not just for Catholics. She's for all of us.
May all of us, like Mary, give birth to that light, and shine that light for all the world to see.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by 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”?
What did you think?