Smashing the Icons

Mary, Mother of our Lord-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mary, Mother of our Lord. The Queen of Heaven. Our Lady of Quadalupe. Theotokos, the God-bearer. So much is layered upon Mary. Medieval and Renaissance paintings depict her holding court, surrounded by admiring angel attendants while caring for Jesus in fine a European castle.  We must be ready to smash the icons we have of Mary if we are to reach her where we find her today in Luke chapter 1.

We must see her as she saw herself. By worldly standards, she is the most unlikely choice to become the mother of the Son of God.  No one could have been more surprised than Mary to receive the invitation of the angel Gabriel. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song about surprise, amazement, and wonder.  Mary’s song opens us all to imagine the unimaginable.  Even now, even now, when so much tragedy befalls us, and so much divides us, and so much evil threatens us, could the world be about to turn?

Last week, Kari, Mehari, Leah, Russell and I hiked to Muir’s grove, which covers 215 acres in a relatively remote location of Sequoia National Park. The sequoia is the largest tree on earth. It has a lifespan of about 4,000 years. There, in the grove named for the famous naturalist and father of the National Parks, John Muir, there is a stand of twelve sequoia trees in a tight rectangular formation surrounding an area roughly the size of this courtyard. Older than the Parthenon in Athens or the Coliseum in Rome and standing taller than each of them is a cathedral of light and air to rival any wrought by human hands.  Once upon a time, each tree began with this (a sequoia pinecone). It’s hard to believe something so small could produce something so large, isn’t it?

Yet, the news that Mary sings about is even more startling!  Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a Mustard seed.  Or, in other words, like this (a dandelion!) a weed, that grows into a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32). Preposterous you say?  Ridiculous. Unimaginable?  Mary’s song is an invitation to open our hearts to what God has done and has always done, to open our eyes to what God is now doing all around us. How might it change how we live if we understood the whole world was alive? How does it change our relationship to the stuff we use, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe if we received them as gifts rather than commodities?

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is so famous and familiar, we tend to think we already know all about it. Now, in the dogdays of summer, we have an opportunity to listen to what Mary has to say about the Christian message while our thoughts about Christmas are still a long way off.  Once we bring Mary out from behind the veil of Christmas and popular piety, the plain meaning of her message holds some surprises for us.

When there are so many people who would stand between you and the bible, Lord it over you, and say with bald confidence that it’s all about predicting the end times; or, this bible is all about preserving the American way of life by any means necessary; or, this bible is about becoming more affluent –it becomes even more important that Mary’s song break through again to pierce our hearts and open our eyes.  Here, the plain meaning of the gospel is hidden in plain sight.  Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, her song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds) Mary’s song, this familiar bible song—a song of joy and faith—is a danger to the status quo.  Like the slaves of the American South before them, poor people in Latin American base communities began to read the Bible themselves in the 1980’s and heard in the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their to be daughters lost in poverty.  Is it ironic, or simply tragic, that the governmental authorities of Guatemala paid more attention to the meaning of Mary’s song than do most of us as we sing our hymns or read the bible? (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

Sometimes, we must be willing to smash our beloved icons if we are to receive the life-giving gospel, for Mary’s song to reach our ears and inspire us again.  A pine corn must be opened by fire to become a seed. What might Mary’s song call forth in you? Notice, Mary’s revolutionary road is not characterized by conflict, polarization, or partisanship but by solidarity, accompaniment, and partnership with outsiders and the poor.  Mary answers God’s call with a boldness that is unbelievable to most of us.  But she is no ideologue.  She doesn’t pontificate.  She ponders.  She doesn’t count her blessings as evidence of her privilege, but as evidence of God’s grace.  She celebrates the mystery and glory of God by taking each step as God’s plan unfolds without knowing where it will lead but trusting in God to work grace and power through her.

Mary says Yes to God, and that entails many No’s.  Mary surrenders to God’s authority, not by becoming a tiresome, self-righteous, religious snob, but through receiving life as a gift.  Grace transforms Mary as each of us is called to be transformed.  Faith in God makes her a true friend.  She is filled with joy, not deadly seriousness. As Mother Teressa once said, “One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”  The gospel, according to Mary, is a song to be sung.  Faith is a dance that involves us completely—mind, body, and soul.

A Blessing Called Sanctuary -—by Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace

You hardly knew

how hungry you were

to be gathered in,

to receive the welcome

that invited you to enter


nothing of you

found foreign or strange,

nothing of your life

that you were asked

to leave behind

or to carry in silence

or in shame.


Tentative steps

became settling in,

leaning into the blessing

that enfolded you,

taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.


You began to breathe again,

to move without fear,

to speak with abandon

the words you carried

in your bones,

that echoed in your being.


You learned to sing.


But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.


The time will come

when this blessing

will ask you to leave,

not because it has tired of you

but because it desires for you

to become the sanctuary

that you have found—

to speak your word

into the world,

to tell what you have heard

with your own ears,

seen with your own eyes,

known in your own heart:


that you are beloved,

precious child of God,

beautiful to behold,*

and you are welcome

and more than welcome