On Sunday, we played host to the choir from the local Jesuit boys’ high school. This was fun, because they are a good choir, and it really amuses me to hear people from outside the Anglican tradition sing Anglican choral music. (It’s like hearing British actors turn their American accents on and off. “Ha! Yes, we do love to pronounce the letter ‘r’!” “Yes! We do enjoy 4-part harmonies modelled on the peregrinus tone! Aren’t you clever for trying!”)
I mention this, because I got the impression, from feedback on my sermon, that the congregation felt the rector and I had concocted some brilliant, crafty plan, to have me preach, and preach specifically on the Blessed Virgin Mary, the better to convince the unsuspecting choir kids that the Episcopal Church was awesome. Lots of pats on the back, and “I’m so glad they got to hear that from you!”-type responses.
While I find this touching (also hilarious.) , I also think this is giving us way too much credit. My aspirations do not extend to converting an entire choir in one fell swoop, and in any case, only about 3 of the kids were willing to receive communion, so clearly, my “secret plan to enlarge the church” needs much work.
But in any case, here’s what I said.
And now, some kids who hadn’t ever heard a woman preach before, have heard one. So I’ll take that.
December 14/15, 2013
Advent 3, Year A
Canticle 15/ Magnificat
In the cathedral in Santa Fe, there are two statutes of Mary. One statue is called La Conquistadora in Spanish, titled “Our Lady of Peace” in English, which is NOT what that Spanish means. It’s the statue brought by the Spanish Jesuit monks who came to convert the natives. Depicted in this statue, Mary is tiny, about 2 feet tall, paler than me, she’s dressed in gorgeous robes, and a real golden crown, ruler of all she surveys.
That statute was brought over by the Jesuits when they came to the New World, and they believed the Blessed Virgin Mary lent her protection to their mission to colonize the natives, and when the local Pueblo Indians rose up in revolt, they believed that it was this version of Mary that allowed them to return, and re-conquer the territory.
The statute is definitely what you might call the traditional school of Mary-stuff. She’s really calm. She stands there
and looks slightly downward, eyes downcast meekly. She’s wearing white. And she looks childlike, other-worldly, removed from time and space and context.
But then, there’s the other statue, on the other side of the cathedral–Our Lady of Guadalupe stands over the other altar. She looks nothing like the first statue, the earlier one. This Mary looks like an Aztec teenage girl. She looks fiesty–she’s staring you in the face, making direct eye contact, she’s painted in bright colors, and she’s got her foot defiantly on a snake. Sun and moon beams coming out from behind her head, No gold jewelry anywhere near this lady. She’s wearing the clothing of a peasant, of a native woman, from the time the Spanish first had contact in what is no Mexico. Very different depictions, both of–apparently! the same person.
And granted, I’m reading some things into these statues, but I’d argue that they play into some definite traditions around the Virgin Mary. Because think of how Mary is usually described, how Mary is usually depicted in our Western world– think of Christmas cards, Christmas carols, for starters. Mary, as we usually see her depicted, is all white and blue and meek and mild. As she generally is, in our Western Christian American world. That seems to be the prevailing pop-culture take on the Virgin Mary. She was meek! She was quiet! She did not make a fuss! She’s all white and blue and more than likely blonde!! (Which was definitely it’s own little miracle for a Palestinian Jewish girl, but hey.)
And on its own, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. I’m an introvert myself, and on one notable occasion, the Commission on Ministry described me as ‘meek’. (It was a mistake, and they took it back.)
So there is nothing wrong with any of that! Those things are good, they are fine attributes–if you actually have them, if you come by them naturally.
But we get into trouble when that’s all that Mary is–when we restrict her to that one, white and gold La Conquistadora statue. Because Mary is so important, because she gets an important role in the gospel narrative, she’s practically the first person we meet, because she gets touted as the ideal faithful person, when all Mary is is that quiet, meek, pale-ish girl in the corner who doesn’t say much, then that can become a problem. Because that does some weird things to faith.
Because that is a pretty narrow category to fit into. Those are some pretty rigid expectations. And while we need people like that around, holding all people of faith up to that single way of being, especially up to that single way of being faithful, ends up excluding a lot of people. Because it turns out, not all people are good at sitting still and benig quiet. And what, pray tell, are they all supposed to do? All those of us who have never been quite so good at sitting still, or quietly assenting to things.
It matters how we depict things. It matters how we depict people we hold important in our faith, especially very important figures like Mary and Jesus, because in depicting them, we’re implicitly saying what we think our faith ought to look like. We look up to Mary because Mary had faith, Mary had faith that she demonstrated when she agreed with this outlandish story Gabriel was telling her. So it matters how we depict that faith. It matters how we depict people–and it matters if badly informed news anchors decide that Jesus is white, JUST WHITE, all of a sudden. That matters, and that is a problem, because it affects what faith looks like.
It matters, and IT IS A PROBLEM, if the only depictions out there, or if the dominant depictions out there are of Mary all meek and mild and passive.
So hooray, then, the Song of Mary, which we read today, comes as a great relief. Because here is Mary saying quite a lot of things actually, all at once, and not sounding the least bit meek or mild.
In fact, most of the Magnificat comes out like fighting words. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, the rich he has sent empty, away.
That’s pretty brave talk. And that’s AFTER this unwed pregnant teenage girl declares herself to be the most blessed among all generations. (This is some Beyoncé level swagger, y’all.)
This isn’t meek or mild talk, this isn’t the talk of someone who’s primary role in life is to be passive and to obey when told. This song of Mary is the talk of a prophet. And in fact, when Mary has her conversation with Gabriel, she doesn’t just say Yes, whatever you say. What she says is Here I am–the same thing that every prophet in the Jewish tradition says when God calls them. That’s a very specific word in Hebrew, and it’s what Isaiah and Amos and every other prophet says when God calls them to prophesy, and it’s what Mary says to Gabriel: Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord. Mary’s accepting her call.
Mary’s got backbone. This Mary, the one we meet in the Magnificat, and the one we meet arguing with her Son to conjure up some more wine at a wedding, and the one who knows what’s going on when no one else does–this Mary is her own person, she has strength, and she has courage.
She doesn’t just get moved around on the chessboard of God’s larger plan.
And that’s important. Because for an icon of faith, to have real faith that makes a difference, you have to have strength. Faith takes courage. Faith doesn’t go anywhere, faith doesn’t get off the ground without courage.
Think of those proclamations in the song of Mary–the hungry fed, the rich sent away empty, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up. To believe in a world like that, to believe a world like that is possible, while standing in the middle of this world, takes courage. It takes courage to believe that the world could be different. It takes real strength to see how the world is unjust and to believe that God is working out a better way.
Otherwise, you’d just give up, throw in the towel, and move to a beach somewhere.
But Mary’s kind of faith, this brave kind of in-your-face-faith, proclaims that even though the world is broken, and unjust now, God is working out a better way, even as we speak. And God is calling the most unexpected people to work with him, God is lining up volunteers right now.
And so, to take on that call, to join in the work of God, to join in the remaking of the world into that just, good place that God wants it to be, requires bravery. Requires a brave faith, because faith asks us to step out into the world as it is, and do something to make the world into what it should be. Faith requires us to be like Mary and do our part to help incarnate Christ in the world.
And so that’s what we’re called to do. To be brave. To be fearless. To proclaim boldly that God has blessed us mightily and has lifted up the lowly and cast down the haughty and has fed the hungry and sent away the rich. To be brave enough to go out into the world and give God our hands and our feet, our bodies and our flesh for his use.
That’s the faith we need. And thankfully, that’s the example we have.