“Something About Mary”
December 18, 2011
Was she scared?
Was she excited?
Was she worried or dubious or bewildered?
Was she resentful, maybe even a little angry?
Was she scared?
Every year when we come to this particular Sunday, the Sunday in Advent most often referred to as Mary Sunday, I ask these questions. I can’t help myself. I just do. Because I can’t help but put myself into her shoes and wonder about what she wondered. And the first thing I wonder is, “was she scared?”
As good Protestants, Mary is not someone that historically we’ve given much thought to. It’s not that we disregard Mary so much as we have striven to not be Catholic about her. Please understand I am not slamming all things Catholic. Nor am I trying to dis Catholicism. But I think that in the Protestant tradition, while Mary is understood for her importance in the story of Jesus – how can she not be? She’s his mother! – we have not gone so far as to revere her. Mary is not to be revered. No human being is to be revered. Only God in Christ may be revered. Mary is lovely and important and obviously necessary to the story. But there’s no supposed Mary worship going on here, people! That’s not the Protestant way.
I’m not advocating Mary worship either. But I can’t help but wonder if religious history, whether Catholic or Protestant, has done her a disservice.
The pictures and images of Mary that I grew up with were probably similar to the ones many of you had growing up. Mary in blue robes, blonde hair and blue eyes. She always looks peaceful, serene, beatific. She is staring blissfully at her baby in the manger, completely at peace with her role in God’s unfolding drama.
And for a large chunk of my early life, I accepted that image of Mary. Until I began to wonder if she was scared. That and I studied world civilizations, as well as traveled to the Middle East and realized that the blonde, blue-eyed image just doesn’t fit. My wondering is not something new either. More and more I read commentators and scholars and other preachers who also ponder about her fear.
It stands to reason that she was scared. She was just a teenager after all. From an unremarkable little village called Galilee. She was going about her daily life, engaged to a nice young carpenter named Joseph, when she received a visit from an angel. Angelic visits were not common occurrences, even in those times, and they often produced dramatic effects on the person who was visited.
Consider Elizabeth’s story. It is the parentheses around the annunciation story. And Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, was literally left dumbstruck by his questioning of his angelic visitor. So I’m assuming that being visited by an angel is a pretty powerful thing to have happen in your life. It would figure then that Mary was probably scared.
The Greek word that the New Revised Standard Version translates as pondered here is not the same word used in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Here Mary questions the angel’s greeting. She reflects on it and debates it. Why would an angel come to her? Why would an angel come to her and greet her in this way? As the favored one?
Mary was this lowly teenage girl from a backwater town in Nazareth. Why would God favor her? Why would she be regarded? Why would she be singled out in this way?
Thinking about Mary in these terms gives rise to the next question I ask when I wonder about Mary. Could she have said no? Did she have a choice? If she was debating why the angel would greet her like this, could she have also thought, “I don’t want this?” “Thanks God, but no thanks.”
Again, I think that’s where both sides of the Christian tradition have done a disservice to Mary by making her look so peaceful, so blissfully happy about the whole thing. Maybe she wasn’t.
I’m a good Protestant and as a good Protestant I believe wholeheartedly in free will. I don’t think I’m alone in that. But free will seems to fly out the window when it comes to our understanding of Mary. We don’t like to think about the possibility of Mary saying, “no.” But if she had free will, she had a choice. Otherwise she was just a pawn. Yet God’s regarding her, just as God regards all of us, makes Mary much more than a pawn.
So this week I went on a search, trying to learn something about Mary. I first hoped to find liturgy that included her and I didn’t come up with a lot. But what I did find was art. Some of it was the art I was all too familiar with. Blue robes, blonde hair, blue eyes, blissful smile. But some of it was art I hadn’t encountered or experienced before.
I watched one video of an artist painting Mary’s face at the time of the Annunciation. She looks astonished and scared and awed at what she is hearing. As I watched the painting unfold I thought at first that the artist was putting wings on either side of her head, but when the painting was completed, the wings were actually her hands. They framed her face and added to her look of shock and amazement. It was the Mary I imagine, especially the ones I see when I ask these questions about her.
I was moved by this picture, but I was completely undone by the next one I found.
The Announciation by the artist Daniel Bonnell shows us only Mary’s back. She is facing the angel Gabriel. Mary has black hair and it hangs in a braid down her back. Her dress is nondescript and simple, heightening the fact that she was a young girl from nowhere special. To me she looks both vulnerable and brave all at the same time. It must have been terrifying to stand there, facing that glory, wondering what was happening. It had to have been terrifyingly wonderful to be regarded in that way. It must have been lonely to stand there. Gabriel’s hands are on either side of his face. His head is tilted to one side. Is he protecting himself or is this a posture of blessing?
The painting is done in deep tones, with swirling, brushstrokes. The colors feel dark except for the light that seems to shine around Mary and the ray of light that extends behind her. It looks as though the angel is not just an angel, but a doorway or a window; a gateway between this world and someplace else. Gazing at it makes you feel as though in the moment that Gabriel gives Mary this news the lines between heaven and earth were blurred completely.
Mary is facing that gateway, and I realized as I looked at it that Mary wasn’t being asked to step through into someplace else. Mary was being asked to let God in. Mary wasn’t going to walk through that opening into perfection and bliss and eternal happiness. God was going to come through, come in to imperfection and pain and sorrow and heartbreak and even just the everyday banalities of life.
Mary was told that through her God was coming in, as one of us, for us, because of us. So if Mary had a choice, if Mary could have said either no or yes, think about what she said yes to. Think about that, really ponder that!
She said yes to God entering in to our world, our lives, our pain, our hopes, our fears. She said yes to that, yes to God. Maybe she didn’t fully grasp the reality of what would happen, who of us could, but she said yes to God coming into our world as us. Isn’t that what the incarnation means? Isn’t that what we wait for and hope for and celebrate? Isn’t that what we most desperately need? God coming into our reality, our pain. God understanding us more completely than we can understand ourselves because God is, in fact, one of us.
Some may believe that in the terrible pain of life, God is absent, and understandably so. When terrible, incomprehensible things happen, God feels gone. But what I understand more and more is that Mary’s yes opened the door for God with us, God truly with us. And that is God with us in our heartbreak as much as God is with us in our joy.
Mary said “yes.” And God was ushered in.
I think it’s important for us to remember that saying yes to God did not make Mary’s life easier. Just giving birth was an ordeal. Anyone who has given birth knows that ordeal is built into the process. But Mary’s was particularly difficult. She had to travel. No one would take her in. She had her baby in the midst of farm animals. I lived in Iowa for 11 years, surrounded by farms and farming communities. They are vital, necessary places, but let’s face it, they smell. And that’s where Jesus was born.
Mary was told that the sword that pierced the side of her son would also pierce her own heart. She watched her boy live and she watched her boy die. Mary’s heart was pierced. But God was with her, incarnate in her life, in her joys and hopes and pain, just as God is incarnate in all our lives.
As one scholar succinctly wrote, it is “God’s impossible possibility.”
Mary’s “yes” ushered God in.
God incarnate changes everything. The world is reordered and turned upside down and reversed. What we think of as reasonable and true to the natural course of things no longer fits reality. God’s incarnation changed everything. It changes everything. Again and again and again.
Mary’s “yes” ushered God in.
She must have been scared.
She must have been.