So, admittedly, I stretched the lectionary a bit here. But in my opinion, right now we could all do with two weeks together of contemplating the Magnificat. For it is awesome. As a summary of the gospel, you cannot do much better than that.
(Also, there be pictures in this sermon!).
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 11, 2011
John 1, Magnificat
All religious figures eventually develop schizophrenia. It’s quite unfortunate, but it’s a common side effect of being venerated by humans for any length of time whatsoever. Jesus Christ becomes simultaneously the figure of meek and passively love for the world, and the avenging Judge of the World, Complete WITH flaming Sword action. God becomes the all-merciful, all-compassionate, all-loving source of Endless Creativity in the Universe, and also the Gigantic Wrathful Parental Figure in the Sky who is about to send you straight to hell without supper or $200. It’s rough.
And then there’s Mary. Ah, Mary, full of projections.
If you listen to most (western, old-school) depictions of Mary, she is pretty straight-forward. Mary is meek! Quiet! Passive! Excellent at taking directions! Her claim to fame is saying ‘yes’ when an angel appeared out of the literal blue and said, “Excellent news, unwed teenage girl! You are pregnant! Sound good?” (Reading between the lines, here, Mary is also none too bright.).
She is depicted in lovely (non-threatening, very flattering) shades of blue, and pink. And she’s always paler than me. Which, to put it in perspective, makes it look usually like she’s about to die tragically in the final stages of some medieval opera of consumption– not raise a healthy Galilean kid. Extra points if she’s got blonde hair, or hair paler than mine. Double points if her eyes are blue.
Turns out, I have some problems with this Mary.
Hyperdulia (great word! Look it up!) or the elevation of the mother of Christ above other saints is something I came late to. And it was because of this version of Mary. I couldn’t understand her. She wasn’t compelling. I’ve never been able to pull off meek and mild– how am i supposed to relate to her? Yet I sat in church, and saw popular piety instruct me that I really should be like her.
Then,bored, in college, as you do, I reread the Gospel of Luke. And realized that Mary in the story of the Annunciation, was almost unrecognizable to me. The Mary who emerged wasn’t the meek and assenting milquetoast of old sermons– she was that girl from the Tanner painting– she who stares at the column of light as if God is playing a really uncomfortable trick on her, and had best be explaining himself, because what the heck, YHWH?
behold, the painting!
Her response to the angel isn’t “Of course!” Her response is “how can this be?”. In other words, “check your facts, you angelic loon.”. She’s not blindly assenting, she questions the crap out of that guy. THEN and only Then, does she agree, but when she does, she doesn’t just say Yeah, ok. It’s a conditional assent– let it be to me according to your word. This is not an “anything goes, you’re the boss,” sort of assent. The deal has been explained satisfactorily, and Mary is agreeing to its terms. (How are you, first century agency?)
And THEN. Then, Mary launches into the most kick-ass, non-meek section of scripture that there freaking is. She goes to visit Elizabeth, and in greeting, sings the Magnificat.
And spoiler alert, in so doing, she pretty much sums up the entirety of the gospel message. What Jesus will get tossed out of the synagogue for saying in his first sermon, Mary lets loose with right here.
He has looked with favor on his lowly handmaid, from this day forth all generations shall call me blessed. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts– He has shown strength with his arm, he has cast down the mighty from their seat, and has exalted the humble and weak, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
This is not meek language, this isn’t a submissive speech. This Mary isn’t sitting quietly in a corner, waiting for God to tell her what’s going to happen next– she’s boldly proclaiming her experience of a world flipped upside down, and her central role in it.
Right here, this is where this version of Mary takes form. Not so much the cardboard figure of purity, but the complex icon of what it means to be a human, interacting with God.
Mary is us, complexity and all. Being confused by God, being delighted by God, being frustrated by God, wishing God would stop already with the annoying little parables and just say something straight out like a normal person…Mary is the human caught up in the dance of divinity, with all the emotions, joys, and struggles that come along with it.
And as we watch Mary’s journey through the gospel, God is ok with full range emotions, Jesus is ok with normal humans. God chose the lowly, the normal, the talkative teenage girls– not the precious moments figurines. (why make her into what she isn’t, what we can’t be?). God used her as she was. God needs us as we are. Not as what someone else tells us we should be. But just as we are, in all our human complexity.
And the intriguing thing about Mary is that despite our constant tendency to shrink her down to size, when she appears in visions, it’s in the terms of those she appears to. To Bernadette at Lourdes, Mary appeared as a French teenager. To Juan Diego at Guadalupe, she appeared as an Aztec princess.
Because really? The example of Mary remains true– God doesn’t need Precious Moments figurines, or marionettes. God needs us. The angel informs Mary “With God, all things are possible”. In other words, you’re in this too, kid. Just as you are.
So hail Mary, full of grace and spunk. And teach us to sing along with you, as best we can. Amen.
This sermon was partly inspired by a series of icons by Br. Robert Lentz OFM, like this one. In Latin American liberation theology, oddly, Mary is often overlooked, despite the widespread devotion to her there. If I ever write a PhD dissertation, it will be on this. Anyway! This icon! Mary as the Mother of the Disappeared–Those taken by the death squads in the 1970s..