NRSV Luke 1:26-30 In the sixth month (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John) the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Last week we brought Mary to the front and center of our Advent meditations, a move encouraged by the December issue of The Mennonite magazine which featured different essays on the place of Mary in Anabaptist spirituality. We lifted one word from Mary’s Magnificat and allowed it to focus our thoughts. Magnify. My soul magnifies the Lord. Literally, my soul makes the Lord bigger. What does Advent look like? It looks like making space for the divine presence, which wants to become bigger through our lives.
This week the scriptures tell more of Mary’s story, a rather brief story actually, barely a snapshot. But it is one that is dense and rich and layered. A picture, that has produced thousands upon thousands of words over the two thousand year history of the church. It is a picture that has also produced, understandably, more pictures – depictions of Mary at different key moments in this story.
So what I’d like for us to do is to use three different pictures of Mary to guide our meditation. I have copied these onto papers and will hand them out. Color copies at Kinko’s aren’t cheap, so hopefully I’ve printed enough for there to be one for every two people.
There was another picture of Mary that I came across these last couple weeks that I decided not to include. It was an image of her holding baby Jesus and it said, “Abstinence: 99.99% effective.” You can actually go online and buy a T-shirt with this picture and text on it if you have some last minute Christmas shopping to do.
So hopefully everyone is close enough to a paper that you can see it pretty clearly. I’m going to talk about each of the three images and I’d invite you to look at them throughout the time. If you don’t want to make eye contact with me during the whole sermon, that’s fine. Let these pictures speak their own words to you. And feel free to follow the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, who said “church is a place where we daydream about God.” Let these images cause you to daydream about God.
“Young Madonna,” Juarez, Mexico. CAC archives
This first image is one that has been used this season by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in his daily meditation email. Clearly I don’t have the digital editorial skills to edit out the text “Richard’s daily meditations.” He didn’t specify this in his writing, but I have come to look at this as being a “before” picture. Before the angel swept in unannounced. Before the perplexing words, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” And, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Before Mary’s obvious question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Before Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Before her Yes to the unknown. And before she declared, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Here are some words and phrases that come to mind when I look at this picture.
Young. Smile brilliant and slightly mischievous. Covered. Innocent. Confident. Skin not white. Care free. She already knows something I don’t.
In one of his daily meditations, Richard Rohr wrote: “Mary is a woman who is profoundly self-possessed. She can hold her power comfortably because she knows it is from Beyond. She can also give it away. Power, dignity, and blessedness is hers to hold, offer back, and proudly acclaim in her great Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
This woman knows her boundaries, her ground, and her gift. Her dignity is not earned or attained. It is. (December 8, 2011)
This picture helps me imagine a soul that would say Yes to the invitation to bear Christ in her womb. To how many women did the angel appear before someone said Yes? She is wide eyed and open to the world, and the Spirit.
If only she knew. Maybe, in some small way, she did.
This is a picture of one who, without knowing what she’s prepared for, is prepared. Receptive to what comes her way, even an angel.
Fra Angelico, “Virgin of the Annunciation,” 15th century
This next piece is from the Early Italian Renaissance. I have to admit that I’d never seen it until a couple weeks ago when Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, posted it on his Facebook status. This was Isaac’s accompanying comment: “One of my favorite depictions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Stunned, tired, perhaps a little nauseous, overwhelmed: definitely pregnant.”
If the previous picture was “before,” this is definitely an “after.” After the initial Yes, at least. The facial expression is noticeably different. What is that expression? Isaac named some of the possibilities. Stunned, tired, overwhelmed. And some nausea that isn’t going to go away overnight. A word that Luke uses would fit here as well. “Perplexed.” I don’t see someone quite yet ready to declare the bold words of the Magnificat. “For the Holy One has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” How did that favor feel initially, Mary? It becomes a little more clear why the angel was compelled to say, “Do not be afraid.”
As complex and mysterious as this facial expression is, we can’t stay there for too long. Our eyes, quickly, go down to the place Mary also is focusing. Her gut. If this were a picture of a guy, you’d think someone had just punched him in his gut. If we didn’t know who this was – didn’t have a title or a context, or, maybe, the halo, it could even be a picture of any of the many Hebrew women who were barren, praying in their barrenness. Sara, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth. For those who long for children, but cannot have them, this pose, this physical gut prayer of hands on womb, is very real. Their cry joins those of others across the generations. They too shall be the mothers of many, even if the prayer for a biological child goes unanswered.
But Mary is pregnant before she ever anticipated. Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit? She has caught the Spirit in her gut and it is starting to take on a life of its own.
I wonder if Mary felt like a leaf feels when it catches the sun. Billions of photons bombard our planet, reflected, refracted, transmitted, diffused. But leaves have learned to catch the sun. To receive something traveling at them at the speed of light in such a way that it is a creative act. They photosynthesize their way into a leading role in Mother Earth’s mothering of its creatures – giving of themselves, even as they nurture and fully provide for themselves with rich food produced with the sun in their gut.
The Spirit bombards the human race, but Mary, receptive, perceptive, leaf woman, has caught the Spirit, and it is beginning to do its work within her. And she looks like she might throw up!
Or, this is a glimpse of Mary the ponderer. “But she was perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” And a little later in Luke, “Mary pondered all these things in her heart” (2:51).
Pondering how her life has changed forever with one Yes. Pondering blessing. Pondering the salvation of her people. Pondering, in a pre-sonogram world, the shape and face of this child. Pondering the law code of Moses and what it had to say about unwed pregnant girls and stoning. Pondering who, if anyone, to tell. Pondering, in the solitude of that room, that she had to leave, had to, in the words of Luke, “set out and go with haste,” to pay a long visit and confide with elder relative Elizabeth, herself also unexpectedly pregnant.
Mary ponders. Then she runs, keeping one hand on her gut the whole way.
Betsy Shank, “Magnificat,” http://www.artbybetsy.com
And then let’s look at this final image. Mary, the ponderer, has gone to a whole new level.
This is another piece discovered just in the last couple of weeks. It accompanied a short article on Mary on the web and the link went to the site for an artist named Betsy Shank who lives in Georgia. I had a couple email exchanges with her and she was gracious enough to give us permission to print this for free, as long as we cited her and included the website. So if you have some extra Christmas money and like Betsy’s work and don’t want the Abstinence T-shirt, I’m sure she’d be glad to do some business with you and ship an original piece your way. She calls this “Magnificat.”
As central as Mary has been to spirituality, we actually don’t have that much material on her. We are given just little snap shots. She was called favored. She was perplexed. She pondered. “How can this be?” “Here I am. Let it be to me according to your word.” “My soul magnifies the Lord.” How much can really be made of one gesture, of one expression? As this final picture suggests, there are whole worlds behind single words. There are whole realms of possibility behind one “Yes.” The divine initiative is accepted, and a new world begins. And, for a while, Mary carries that world within her body, barely-containable life force that it is. God is kicking at her rib cage.
It spills out of her in the words of the Magnificat. She has become larger and she declares that her soul has also made the Lord larger. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
This past week we had our monthly pastor peer meeting up on Pandora at Grace Mennonite Church and we opened the time with reflecting on the Magnificat. One pastor wondered what an elder, wise Mennonite would think about these words that Mary declares. What do you think?
Mary’s Mennonite grandfather overhears her declaring the words of the Magnificat and he comes up behind her, gently places his hands on her shoulder, and asks, “Is this really what we want, Mary?” Sending the rich away empty? With nothing? Are you vengeful Mary? Are you able to forgive?
Mary wheels around, fire in her eyes. Grandfather smiles. They both put their hands on her belly and feel the squirm of a life beyond the edges of their ability to comprehend. Mystery.
In another place outside of these Advent daily meditations, Richard Rohr describes mystery as “that which is endlessly knowable.” It’s different than mystery as the unknowable. It’s unknowable in the sense that it can never be fully known, but it is endlessly knowable in that there is always more that we are coming to know. If we sit with it long enough. If we follow after this life of the Galilean peasant girl and her uncontainable child, there is always more to know.
Greet it with an innocent, mischievous smile, and it will pay you a visit. Sit there with it, stunned, perplexed and sick to your stomach, and it will send you out to a place where you are greeted with words of blessing. Treasure it, ponder it, bask in its glow, and it could very well overturn the social order of the world, and also overturn the carefully arranged order of your soul.
Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord, but it’s about to get messy. Contractions and labor pains, labored breathing, pushing, blood and more blood, cries, sleepless nights, exhaustion, post pardum depression, and fleeing like a refugee to Egypt from Herod’s megalomaniac impulses to destroy this life.
May the mystery come to inhabit your life and never let you go.