Posts

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. 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” (Luke 1:52b)  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, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.

Easter Darkness

Alleluia! Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Yet that first Easter morning, despite the fresh bloom of early spring, everything looked dead. Mary Magdalene and the women made their way to the tomb at early dawn.  As they did, the ribbons of color spreading through the eastern sky were not beautiful. The budding garden was not fragrant. The singing birds could not be heard. As the women went to the tomb their minds were shrouded in the grey colors of grief, their voices were hushed by the crushing weight of despair.

While the natural world throughout the Northern hemisphere testified to the promise of new life, neither these women, nor anyone else, expected anything but death. Bodies go into the ground and stay there. Springtime comes to grass, trees, and living things, not to bodies lying in the grave.

Regardless of what Jesus had told them—that he would die, and on the third day, rise again—Mary Magdalene, the women who accompanied her, and the rest of Jesus’ followers, still lived in a Good Friday world.

While we greeted Easter last night and this morning with jubilation and trumpets, we are confronted here with something quieter, more mysterious, and perhaps more resonant with our own daily lives.  It is what pastor and author Frederick Buechner has called “the darkness of the resurrection itself, that morning when it was hard to be sure what you were seeing.” While the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight have informed our Easter acclamations, what we read from the Gospels is that the first disciples stumbled in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Where was the stone? Were those angels standing beside them in that unlit tomb? And where was Jesus? Are they sure the tomb is really empty?

It was “…the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). That’s when Easter really begins. “It begins in darkness. It begins amidst fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.” The creeds and clarifications we cherish today would come much later. What came first were variations on a theme that sound a lot as if they come from our own lives—like a woman I heard sing about Jesus last Tuesday at the Synod Chrism Mass who struggles with cancer and must carry her own oxygen—or like another woman I visit who testifies to the power of God from her sagging nursing home bed. Easter is what happens when ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.  Easter looks like people of a  broken, hungry humanity encounter a bizarre and inexplicable Love in the half-light of dawn. (Debie Thomas, I Have Seen the Lord, April 14, 2019)

Theologian and writer Chris Barnes reminds us what actually matters during Holy Week: “The question that Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ Frankly, that is not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, ‘Do you believe?’ but ‘Have you encountered the risen Christ?’”

Our gospels tell the stories of individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. These encounters are not identical. Last night we read when Peter saw the empty tomb, he ran away and returned to his home. When the beloved disciple saw it, he believed but did not understand When Mary saw it, she ran to tell the disciples who dismissed her words as an idle tail. In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for better or worse. The question is not, and never was, “Why should people in general believe?” but rather, “Why doyou believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

Easter comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense. Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; white makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tales again.  Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says hope never dies.  Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness.  Here comes Easter singing a simple song about God’s grace.

Easter isn’t about one man’s death and one man’s rising.  It is a claim about the undying life we all share because of the unconditional reality and claim of God’s grace to embrace our lives and not let go.  The test of the Christian message of resurrection, therefore, is not what happened in the tomb, but is the capacity of grace to break through our Good Friday’s and with the fresh springtime of Easter.

Easter does not a return to the past but moves toward the future. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day”, because on it Christ restored the image of God in humankind and in so doing also brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which we can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. The cross is a Tree of Life offering healing for the nations.  “Now all the vault of heaven resounds in praise of love that still abounds. Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia” (ELW #367).