Pastoral ponderings . . .
Mary's encounter with the Archangel Gabriel is called "The Annunciation" in our tradition. The Annunciation is the "announcement" by heaven's messenger, that Mary has been chosen to be the "God-bearer" - the one through whom God the Creator will become human, and start Love's Revolution. Without Mary's consent, this would not have been possible. Only Mary's openness to God's plan, allowed the birth of Jesus to take place. The Archangel and Mary engage in conversation. We hear Mary's doubt: "How can this be?" How reassuring to me are these words of doubt! I believe that faith without doubt is not faith at all, but certainty. And certainty is the root of fanaticism. Doubt is part and parcel of the birth story of Jesus.
Mary, the one who is chosen of all women of faith, is a woman who is willing to embrace her skepticism, give voice to it, and even challenge heaven's messenger to give her more information. To me, Mary is anything but an empty vessel, waiting for a man (or an angel for that matter), to tell her what to do. She takes information announced to her, even that she is "favored by God", and questions it. She reflects upon what she hears, and asks herself what this means to her.
I think if we read the Annunciation deliberately enough, we can just see the wheels turning in Mary's sharp young mind. Is she already considering the ramifications for herself, during her conversation with Gabriel? Is she weighing the real physical danger to her well-being that this messenger represents? Giving consent means that she instantly becomes marginalized. She will become an outcast: an unmarried pregnant young mother who will be the subject of gossip, cautionary tales to peers her own age, and even ridicule. What would Joseph say? What would her family say? Would they disown her? In parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan even today, the males of families attack the females whom they believe have dishonored them. They throw acid on the faces of sisters, daughters, and cousins who act outside of the norms of paternalism. In the extreme, these attacks are known as "honor killings."
We must remember that the cultural context of the conversation between the Archangel Gabriel and Mary was just as perilous. Who would believe the story of a young, powerless woman in that time? Who believes them today, in 21st century America, when women share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace? The stakes were very, very high for Mary and she had every reason to say "No thank you. Find someone else."
And the miracle is that she did not. Given all that she stood to risk, she did not. What courage she represents, in the face of brutal oppressive patriarchy! What self-sacrifice. Mary is anything but a mindless, unthinking, birthing vessel. Is it any wonder God's wisdom chose her? As the penultimate woman of faith in the Christian tradition, Mary is self-reflective, doubtful, openly skeptical of authority, courageous, self-sacrificing, adventurous, assertive, and self-directed.
She has such a self-confident sense of who she is that she doesn't need to ask anyone else, (especially a man), what they think she should do. Don't we wish all our daughters had such a sense of Self? Isn't that the kind of women we hope our society would nurture, and even, especially, call into leadership? I do. I am blessed with three daughters. And I am pleased that our youngest seems well on her way!
The Annunciation not only is a scene of divine revelation, but it also reveals the character of Mary: the penultimate woman of faith in the Christian tradition. As Lutherans, our veneration of Mary has been abysmal. 500 years ago, the Reformers were whacking the heads off statues of the saints in every Catholic church and cathedral across Europe; reminiscent of modern religious fanatics in the Middle East, like ISIS, who were only recently, joyfully blowing up ancient religious sites and statues. Lutherans and Anabaptists demanded Christ be the only model of faith, and the only intercessor with God. The veneration of the saints, and especially the veneration of Mary the Mother of God, was strongly discouraged by the Protestant reformers. Only in recent times have Lutherans and Episcopalians begun to revisit the importance of Mary in our devotion, and worship of God. As women's leadership in the Protestant Church has increased, and as women's experiences of the divine are more widely heard, we are beginning to examine our over-emphasis in the tradition on the masculinity of language and imaging of God. In the ELCA's latest Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice, we hear a call to action and new commitments regarding the Church, including: "(u)se of inclusive language for humankind and inclusive and expansive language for God. Encourage the use of language for God that expands rather than limits our understanding of God's goodness and mystery. In particular, we support developing liturgies, hymns, prayers, and educational materials that broaden our language beyond primarily male images. This practice follows the Scripture's witness that God is wholly other and transcends human categories of sex and gender. Therefore, metaphors and images for God should be drawn from the lives of women and men, from nature, and from humanity in all its diversity to speak of the fullness and beauty of God" (lines 1444-1453).
I believe that the Holy Spirit is also at work in the #MeToo movement, where women are finding their voices, speaking their truth, and in so doing, sparking change in both corporate and government culture. What I am praying is that God is leading us into a long-overdue commitment to gender parity in our society: equal power and leadership-sharing at the highest levels for capable women and men. I think Mary could be a powerful example for women in leadership. And I think the presence of Mary in our devotion and worship, and the parity she brings in terms of masculine and feminine spirituality, could also be a prophetic sign for our larger society. Mary's presence as penultimate woman of faith in our tradition causes us to ponder not only the position of women in the corporate world and in government, but also what more we can learn about God's purpose for humanity. What could our own American society be like, if women like Mary shared real power with men: women who are self-reflective, doubtful, openly skeptical of authority, courageous, self-sacrificing, adventurous, assertive, and self-directed. I don't know about you, but I would be excited to find out.
The beloved Lutheran composer Marty Haugen set the Annunciation to music in his Holden Evening Prayer. The Annunciation is sung by a soloist, and then the gathered assembly responds to Mary's miraculous consent, singing the words of the Magnificat, Mary's own declaration of Love's Revolution:
"You have cast the mighty down from their thrones,
and uplifted the humble of heart,
You have filled the hungry with wondrous things,
and left the wealthy no part.
Great and mighty are you, O Faithful One,
strong is your justice, strong your love,
As you promised to Sarah and Abraham,
kindness forever more."
Through Marty Haugen's music, Lutherans are rediscovering the power of our own tradition's veneration of Mary the Mother of God: her faith, her doubt, her willing consent to be part of God's inexorable groundswell towards justice and social change. Mary, the Mother of God, is a hero of our tradition. And I believe now is the time to continue reclaiming her.
-- Pr. David