Sermon from December 23, 2018
If you were raised in the Roman Catholic Church, you, like me, might wonder why Mary, the mother of Jesus, isn’t talked about more in the Lutheran tradition. Mary is big in the Catholic tradition.
My earliest memory of Mary, was in a statue I had of her on my nightstand as a child. She had her arms outstretched, with a blue that draped over her head and down her shoulders and arms. Her feet were bare, and underneath them, she was crushing a snake. I remember dusting the folds of her blue gown with a Q-tip. And on nights when I could not sleep, pressing my finger onto the alabaster snake’s eye and saying: Die, devil!
Technically, that statue was the Mary known as Our Lady of Fatima.
On May 13th, 1917, three shepherd children of Fátima, Portugal were tending sheep when they saw a vision of a woman surrounded by light who they believed was the Virgin Mary. Lucia dos Santos (aged 9) and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta (aged 8 and 6, respectively) She said that the woman had urged the children to pray the rosary for world peace. Over the course of her six apparitions that followed, she gave the children three “secrets.” One was that she promised a miracle in October, and on the 13th of October a crowd of perhaps 70,000 people witnessed a “miraculous solar phenomenon,” in which the Sun appeared to fall toward Earth. After initially questioning the authenticity of the children’s visions, the Vatican accepted them as appearances of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of Fátima), and Fátima became the location of one of the greatest Marian shrines in the world. It is still visited by thousands of pilgrims each year.
One of the children, Lucia dos Santos lived to the age of 97 and became a Carmelite nun. Francisco and Jacinta however, died as children as a result of the flu pandemic of 1918–19. The children had prophesied their own deaths repeatedly before the pandemic hit, saying that too was revealed to them by Our Lady of Fatima. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II, beatified the children, making them the youngest non-martyred children to be officially declared saints, in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. They were canonized as saints by Pope Francis in 2017 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of their visions.
Mary, is a saint of many names. She is also known as:
Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic title of Mary associated with a venerated image enshrined within the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The basilica is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and the world’s third most-visited sacred site.
The Virgin Mary
The Blessed Virgin
Mother of Mercy
Star of the Sea (a personal favorite)
Our Lady of Loreto
Our Lady of Sorrows
Our Lady of the Dawn of Vilnius
Our Lady of Guidance
It’s a good bet if you hear an orthodox Roman Catholic mention Our Lady of Anything, they are talking about the woman we know as the Mother of Jesus.
In fact, there are nearly as many names for Mary as there are for Jesus…though neither has a last name of course because last names didn’t become common until the 16th century. Up until then, a person quite often was known by their first name, followed by a reference to their occupation [Simon Peter, the fisherman],
Family [James the brother of John],
Hometown [Jesus of Nazareth],
Or most well-known scandal [Judas, the one who would betray him].
Biblically speaking, women were fortunate to be named at all. Often women in the bible are not named though they are often described to differentiate them from other women in the bible: the woman with the alabaster jar, the woman caught in adultery, [the woman at the well with the many husbands].
Mary is always named though and is indeed a big deal in Christianity and especially in the Roman Catholic church. Protestants historically have tended to diminish Mary’s significance and certainly would not be caught praying to her…at least not publicly. This is interesting … because the various dogmas that the Roman Catholic church hold about Mary, including the “ever virgin” part, have become one of the biggest obstacles to unity between Catholics and Protestants, though recently representatives of both church bodies have been working to lessen that divide and uphold those things about Mary we can agree upon.
In addition to Mary being known by many names, art depictions of her are too numerous to count, some historians believing she has been depicted even more so than Jesus.
From Michelangelo and Rafael to the statue from my childhood, the one in your neighbor’s garden, and the one that is part of the nativity your child made in preschool out of clothespins – whose Mary, all these years later, may well have only one googly eye left, there are at least two things about her that we ALL, even young believers, seem to agree upon. 1) Mary is the mother of Jesus, God’s only Son and 2) When it comes to nativities, there is a hierarchy, and Mary is 2nd only to Jesus.
I was once unpacking nativities with a 6 and 7-year-old helper, when we had this conversation:
Me: “It seems we have lost Joseph…”
Children: Are you sure? Here’s Jesus…Mary….a sheep, a cow…well…[children run to another extensive nativity, bringing back a shepherd blowing a horn and a wise man bearing a gift]
Children: Use one of these … no one will really know.
So as little as we know about Mary, the consensus in even the youngest believers is that she definitely outranks Joseph.
We are now officially in the season of Christmas. A season of waiting when the world says rush; a season of hope when the world says worry; a season that anticipates the story in which God Almighty chose to make the womb of a pre-teen unmarried, betrothed peasant girl his first home on earth.
It is a story which the world marks with both reverent, holy traditions, and life-sized plastic baby Jesus’s that adorn church lawns for one month a year. And so, as I wandered about this season, thinking of Mary, I wondered: what specifically about Mary, the mother of God, can help us reflect on God’s presence in our lives as we maneuver days of preparation, balancing worldly concerns against the whisper of God’s spirit calling us to be still.
Christmas is a time for the calm, steady, hope of candlelight, which even the darkness will not overcome. It is a time to hold onto the hope of that light, even as we swallow tears that arise unexpectedly as we witness the beauty and tragedy all around us.
Recently, as I was having my evening candle time, as I gazed at the flickering flame I imagined time-travelling back 2000 years to interview Mary. And in my mind, I developed an ongoing list of questions I would ask her, including:
Mary…did you know…
That your moment of new baby bliss would end abruptly with you and Jesus and Joseph fleeing to Egypt as refugees?
Did you know that your unique angel birth announcement would not be the last time angels would guide you and your family through the chaos and violence of this world?
Did you know your cousin Elizabeth’s son, John would leap in her womb when you and Jesus-in-your-womb first visited her?
Mary…did you know that as you carried Jesus, and a donkey carried you both, that the donkey would remain by your side, offering his soft muzzle to your shaking hand, after your son had been crucified?
I would ask:
Mary did you know that because donkeys have such keen memories, that same one would guide you back to the temple when you lost Jesus as a pre-teen because he decided to begin his career as a teacher before he finished middle school?
Did you know that the baby that Elizabeth carried, John, Jesus’s cousin, would be murdered at the whim of royal evil and that you would be her source of comfort…and a short time later…she would be yours?
Mary…did you know that your Yes! In response to the angel’s news that you would bear God’s son into this world, also meant that you would not only carry, deliver, nurse, and raise Jesus but that a sword would pierce your heart as well? As it is written in Luke 2:
34 Then Simeon[a] blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:34-36
Mary, had you known this, would you still have said yes?
I’d have to ask her these questions because Mary was the only one in the history of the world who was ever drafted to do these things. Yet as amazing as her story is, it is interesting that when we hear her story, we often hear parts of our own.
Sure, it’s a different world today. Compared to Mary’s options, the choices we have are limitless. Yet often it seems, no matter how elaborate our plans, the things we bear into and through this life seem to choose us. Our best laid plans are interrupted by life’s own:
- An unexpected diagnosis
- A delivery of twins when only one child was expected
- A call to become a caregiver to an aging parent or disabled child
- A need to use retirement funds for anything but retirement.
A life-giving friendship that blooms between two people who began as rivals.
- An unlikely reconciliation that takes place in a surgery waiting room, unconcerned about the strangers present who witness this outpouring of broken dreams being stitched together.
Terrible things happen and wonderful things happen but seldom do we know ahead of time exactly what will happen to us. like Mary, our choices often boil down to yes or no: yes, I will explore this unexpected turn of events or no, I will not. We are given this choice every day, and sometimes, our response becomes the first domino in a long that falls, especially when our response is Yes.
If you decide to say no, you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room and you are alone again. Then you smooth your hair and go back to baking cookies for the cookie walk, driving to your grandchild’s Christmas concert; or studying for finals. If you hold the line, refusing to reconsider your No, you can rest assured your life will likely not be an easy one, but at least no angels will ever bother you again.
Or you can say yes. You can decide to be a daredevil, a test pilot, a gambler. You can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can believe that God will bring you through the latest unexpected event just as God has done many times before.
Deciding to say yes does not mean that you are not afraid. It just means that you are not willing to let your fear keep you locked in your room, alive, but not living.
This is what it means to be person of faith. We listen for the guidance of God and we work for change not knowing exactly where our efforts will lead. Sometimes, we find that we witness brokenness in ways we cannot forget. Sometimes, entering directly into that brokenness gives way to glimpses of people being led into the way of peace. And always, the angel’s greeting to Mary, and Zechariah’s word to the unborn John, are for us as well…
Greetings, favored one!
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.