I don’t much like Mary. There. I’ve said it. I know she is Jesus’ mother. I know she is meek and mild, an innocent child, Notre Dame, Queen of Heaven, Theokotos (a heavy sounding Greek word with theological meaning-- it means God bearer) and so on and on. But, I don’t like her. I don’t like her mainly because she betrays me, and all women, by holding herself up as the perfect woman. As a virgin and a mother, she is an impossible aspiration for us. Of course, it is not Mary’s fault, and I realize that, too. She never meant to betray us. She never imagined she would be that whom people have made her out to be. So maybe I should say that it’s not Mary, the flesh and blood person, I don’t like, but Mary’s image. I don’t appreciate the mythology Christians have created about Mary. She’s a siren, a female masthead; a mermaid, Super Woman— in other words, Mary is more than flesh and blood; she is a figment of peoples’ imaginations sometimes run amok, at least as far as I am concerned.
But there is another reason I don’t like Mary or the image of Mary. She convicts me of my lack of faith. I don’t believe the part about her virginity. I don’t believe in the virgin birth and the virgin birth is one of the things that we are told as Christians we MUST believe. It’s in the Apostle’s Creed.
Now right here you are thinking through the Apostle’s Creed, in your head, right? Does it really say that?! I will help you out here, “I believe in Jesus Christ God’s only son, our Lord who was conceived by the holy ghost, born of the VIRGIN Mary.” If and when we say that line, we are either saying that we believe in Mary’s virginity or we are hypocrites. I try not to be a hypocrite, but in this matter, I am, mostly. I engage in some creative mental gymnastics—“Well, I believe that Jesus was more than human—that Jesus was sent from God--which isn’t exactly the same thing as believing in the virgin birth, I know, but maybe close enough? What do you think? An Episcopal priest acquaintance actually confessed to me that he hides his hand in the folds of his robe when he recites the Apostles’ Creed. That way his congregation can’t see him crossing his fingers when he says, “born of the Virgin Mary.”
My problem, and my priest acquaintance’s problem, is that we are rational. God made us that way. Especially in our Scottsville Presbyterian Church, when we come to worship, we are not expected to leave our rational brains at the door. Can you imagine that? Just below the coat rack, a shelf for brains? We could even put a line at the bottom of our bulletins: “Don’t forget to retrieve your brain when you leave worship today!” No. Please no! But it IS difficult to square our rationality with belief in the Mary that has come down to us in scripture and in our traditions.
Rational. That’s a word for you. My oldest daughter, Emily, was maybe six months old when she got really sick. Couldn’t keep any food down. You read in childcare books, ‘Projectile vomiting is extremely serious. “So, my baby is vomiting. As a new mother, I think “Oh my goodness! This MUST be projectile.” I fear the worst. A blockage in little Emily’s gut, some kind of cancer, no doubt.
The pediatrician’s diagnosis (take breath)? A stomach bug. That’s it! A stomach bug.
“Keep her hydrated. She’ll be fine.” That diagnosis should have had me doing cartwheels. Instead, the flood gates opened. I sobbed. We’re talking shoulders heaving, runny nose and all the rest. All new mothers do that, right? I admitted to the pediatrician by way of apology, “I am having trouble thinking about Emily rationally.” That’s what I said. Note the word, rationally. His reply has stayed with me through the years. He said simply, but with compassion, “Love is not rational.”
Love is certainly NOT rational. Neither is faith. Often faith, like love, is irrational. And yet we cling to it. We Christians would even say that faith, irrational as it may be, is necessary for our well-being. Again, like love.
Unfortunately for me since I am so conflicted, Mary is in the lectionary every daggone Christmas! I started dreading working on this sermon about six weeks ago. But, as I contemplated, stressed, and all the rest, I began to develop what may be a more rational way of understanding Mary. This is a work in progress, but I share what I have with you. My understanding has to do with Mary’s place in our Biblical story.
Our Biblical story—it stretches over several thousand years. Imagine for a minute that the whole Biblical story has been written on one humongous scroll and we have that scroll here today. Ruth is holding one end of the scroll—Genesis—“In the beginning God created, and so on—And Kai there, is holding Revelations. Kai, you’ve got your fingers on the last line in the last book of the Bible—Revelations. That last line of Revelations reads, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. So again, Genesis and Revelations.
Now let us zero in on the first part of the scroll—that is, the Old Testament. When we do that, we soon discover just how violent the first part of our Bible story is. God creates Adam and Eve. God sets them in Paradise. But almost immediately, violence happens. Cain kills Abel. There is gross debauchery which climaxes in God’s sending the flood. There are wars, rapes, pillaging, destruction of all kinds. Violence follows still more violence.
You will also note, that the world of that violent Old Testament is dominated by men. It’s mostly HIS story. You get it? His Story, history?
So the predominantly male history of the OT is violent. Now here you might be thinking, “Well, men aren’t necessarily violent.” I get that, but you will admit, right, that there are differences, innate differences between men and women, between girls and boys. And I’m not just talking physical differences. So for example:
When I was living in McLean, Virginia, there was a couple on our block raising fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. From the time they were very small, the couple raised those twins pretty much the same. The children shared the same toys, and their clothes were non-gender specific—you know those Osh Kosh B Gosh overalls— in green and yellow and red. Not pinks and blues.
Even when they were very small, though, their mother told me that they exhibited male/female differences. One morning both of the twins were sitting side-by-side in their highchairs. Mom peeled a banana, cut it in two and gave each child a half. The little girl held her banana-half between her thumb and middle finger—her pinky raised daintily in the air. The boy wrapped his whole hand around his banana-half. He moved it around the perimeter of his high chair-tray, making the sound, “vrooooom.”
The daughter chose to play with dolls and stuffed animals. The parents did not buy toy weapons for their children, but their son was not deterred. Sticks served perfectly well for his toy knives swords and guns.
That leads me to conclude that our innate male/female differences are all part of God’s plan. Not always, but usually, women are nurturers, and men are protectors and defenders. Men, more than women certainly, choose violence as a way to protect and defend their loved ones—their wives, their children and in general, those with less physical strength. Sadly though, men sometimes choose to dominate, and to oppress rather than protect and defend. And they sometimes choose to dominate and oppress women. We’re learning more about that every day in the news. Men’s sometimes violent nature is used to claim power over.
Actually, that domination of women by men was predicted by God himself, or herself. After God discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, God tells Eve, “Ok from here on out, your husband Adam will rule over you.” “Ruling over” then, was NOT part of God’s original plan, but it is what God knew was bound to happen in a fallen world.
Back to the scroll. Remember the scroll? We move through those violent times--And then we get to the gospels. The gospels begin about where the Advent Wreath is., because the Old Testament is longer than the New Testament. Matthew is the first of our gospel narratives. It begins this way, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah.” That’s the English translation. In the original Greek, though, the word translated as genealogy is genesis. So you could read the line as, “An account of the GENESIS of Jesus the Messiah.”
So, let us review. We have the book of Genesis and the creation story, we have a lot of violence, oppression, domination. Then there is a pause. In Matthew the Biblical story begins afresh-- with a second Genesis. God enters the world through Mary. Gentle, quiet Mary. God puts the world on notice. God does not intend to sanction violence anymore, —“power over” anymore, Oppression anymore. If in fact, God ever did. God says this new story that is just about to unfold.
With Mary we get the first inkling that Jesus himself is going to bring in a new way of being in the world. He will choose gentleness over violence. Lots of passages in the New Testament affirm gentleness as a strength. Gentleness in the New Testament is not the absence of power, is not the absence of strength, but is a demonstration of power, a demonstration of strength. Ever been so mad you wanted to hit someone? When you didn’t do that, didn’t that take a lot of energy, a lot of strength?
In the New Testament, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul says of Jesus, “Being found in human form Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross.” He could have destroyed his opponents—could have rained fire and brimstone upon them, but he chose not to. Later in Philippians, Paul instructs Christians to, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
When the strong choose gentleness over violence, they are doing God’s work in the world. They, we are imitating Christ, and they are demonstrating profound strength.
Mary was a virgin, whether or not she had relations with a man. God impregnated her with a new world order. She ushers in a second Genesis.
That’s my new way of understanding Mary this Christmas Season. Amen