I’m in Ohio this week for my grandfather’s funeral.
Six years ago I attended the funeral of my other grandfather. His death occurred in the winter, just before Advent.
This is the Advent sermon I preached shortly after his burial. Though the sermon is about Mary’s ‘Let it be…’ I think it’s still appropriate for Holy Week, for this is the week we confront the full measure of Mary’s words.
November 30, 2008
This past weekend I helped Father Stephen Bloom bury my father’s father.
It was the first time I’ve participated with the funeral of someone in my own family. The service was held at St. Charles Catholic Church in Northern Ohio. In the sanctuary, stained glass scenes wrapped around the pentagonal spire. In the center was a picture of creation. To its left, the disciples were fishing in what looked like the Ohio River. Next to it, Jesus was feeding loaves and fishes to a multitude of hungry factory workers.
Carved, wooden reliefs of the Stations of the Cross lined the circumference of the cross-shaped sanctuary, and in front of the front pew where I sat with my sister was a copper drum filled with baptismal water.
I watched numbly as Father Bloom draped a pall over my grandpa’s oak casket- the casket’s pewter crucifix bulging through the pall’s gray cloth. I watched as the Father took what looked like twiney bristles from a broom and flicked baptismal water over my grandpa.
Try as I might I didn’t really hear any of the scripture readings read by my cousins and I sang along to the 23rd Psalm without really thinking- but then, maybe that’s the point of such familiar words.
I spoke and when I was done I watched Father Bloom celebrate Mass for the Catholic members of my family. I knelt in the front pew and watched while others received the sacrament.
Now, there was a statue of Mary with her hands folded together on the wall in the front end of the sanctuary. While I was on my knees- because of the architecture and lines of the room- I noticed that it looked like Mother Mary was standing directly above my grandfather, praying for him. A sight my Protestant eyes are unused to seeing.
In fact, Mary was more of a fixture in my grandpa’s funeral service than I was prepared for.
During the intercessory prayer when the priest intoned over and again: ‘Blessed Mary, pray for us…’ I wasn’t sure whether or not I should join in and echo back.
And during the committal, when Father Bloom placed his hands on my grandpa’s casket and prayed: ‘May angels guide you and may Holy Mother Mary come forth to welcome you and lead you into the Holy City’ I didn’t know whether to say ‘Amen’ or ‘Hold on just a minute!’
When it comes to Mary, it’s my experience that most Protestant Christians know more about what they do not believe than they actually know about her.
For example, as a Protestant I know I don’t believe that Mary, after Jesus’ birth, was forever, perpetually a virgin. Nor do I believe that Mary herself was immaculately, miraculously conceived in her mother’s womb.
As a Protestant Christian I know I’m supposed to shake my head ‘no’ at the notion that- rather than suffering death- Mary, like Elijah, was lifted up into heaven. And I know that Mary is not the one whom I worship. Mary is not the one who decides my salvation and praying to her seems to walk a suspicious line.
When it comes to Mary, I know what I don’t believe.
I know too that we could rename this church St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s or St. Stephens. We change the sign out front to read Faith or Wesley or Collingwood Community United Methodist Church. No one would ever let us get away with St. Mary’s United Methodist Church.
As a Protestant Christian, I know Mary’s name would be off limits but, to be honest, I don’t know why.
After all, Mary’s name comes up 217 times in the New Testament, nearly as many times as Peter or Paul. When almost everyone else has given up and fled, it’s Mary who’s at the foot of Jesus’ cross. And if she was in Jerusalem for Jesus’ arrest and trial then chances are she was by his side throughout his entire ministry.
As a Protestant Christian I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but why is it I forget that when Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit descends like fire on the faithful, Mary is among those set loose to prophesy and proclaim?
Or that when Luke describes the early church breaking bread, praying and sharing their possessions with one another, Mary is one of the few leaders he identifies by name.
Most commentaries on today’s passage go out of their way to stress how the Annunciation is a story of God’s initiative and power. When Gabriel climbs in through Mary’s bedroom window, it’s God’s grace at work. You don’t see Him but God is the main character here.
The Annunciation, these commentators stress, is a display that God can work through the unlikely and unable- just like with Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth. What God can do through Mary’s womb is just a foretaste of what God can accomplish on a Cross.
Nothing, after all, is impossible with God.
It’s a story of God’s initiative. It’s not a story set in motion by Mary’s goodness- that’s all you need to remember in order to be a good Protestant. But once you’ve gotten that bit of doctrine nailed down, what else do we say about Mary?
Because there’s got to be more to say.
For most of us, Mary disappears from Jesus’ story as soon as the Christmas crèche is put away, but it’s ridiculous to think that once he’s born Mary simply disappears from Jesus’ life.
If Jesus is fully human, if the paradox is true and he’s as much flesh and blood as you or me, then someone taught Jesus his aleph, bet and gimmels.
Someone taught him to pray. Jesus sat on someone’s lap and learned the meaning of his name: God saves.
Someone taught him to treat others like he would want to be treated. When other children were mean to him, someone probably patted Jesus’ back and said ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’
And once a year someone sat Jesus around the family supper table and broke bread and poured out wine and taught Jesus to remember the violent night when God rescued them from bondage.
Someone kept faith and kept Gabriel’s promise alive during those growing up years when the angel’s promise was anything but obvious- and that someone was probably Mary.
Mary was most likely only 13- certainly no older than 16. She was poor, from a poor, obscure town.
Maybe she was dreaming or praying or planning her wedding day when the angel Gabriel erupts in her room and surprises her with the news that just like the opening day of creation God was about to bring a very big something from nothing.
But the biggest surprise has to be that Mary says ‘Yes.’
A surprise because Mary says ‘Let it be’ to Gabriel, many months before she says ‘I do’ to Joseph.
Mary and Joseph were not yet married but Mary’s betrothal to him was legally binding in 1st century Judaism. She couldn’t yet sleep with Joseph, but she could be charged with adultery should she sleep with another man.
Maybe Gabriel didn’t know that but you can bet Mary did.
Don’t forget. No one else is in the room when the angel breaks the news. What’s Mary supposed to tell people- that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she’s pregnant with the long-promised Messiah?
As far as public scrutiny went, God was asking Mary to become an unwed, teenage mother.
When Mary says ‘Yes’ to Gabriel, she’s saying ‘Yes’ to being labeled an adultress.
People would question the integrity of her marriage. People would gossip about her son’s real father. People would curse her, shun her, call her names not fit for church or temple and they would wish disaster on her pregnancy. Her husband’s reputation would be ruined and her son would be forever ostracized.
You see, Luke doesn’t spell it out in his Gospel because he assumes you know what treatment Mary can expect to receive for saying ‘Yes’ to God’s calling.
According to Old Testament law, for her untimely pregnancy, if accused Mary would have her clothes torn and her body exposed. She’d be forced to let her down. She’d be displayed at the town entrance where the public and passersby would be encouraged to stare at her and shame her.
If Mary protested or denied any wrongdoing, then, according to Numbers 5, Mary would be forced by a priest to drink a bitter concoction mixed of dust, ink from her written condemnation and holy water.
If the potion made her sick, then she was guilty and, according to Deuteronomy 22, she would be led to the town gate. There, she would be stoned.
Mary’s suffering begins 33 years and 9 months before her son’s suffering.
She carries her cross before Jesus even learns to walk.
That’s what Luke assumes you know when he tells us that Mary was “troubled” by the angel’s news.
What’s remarkable is that, in spite of the many risks, Mary says: ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’
Unlike Moses or Jonah or Jeremiah, Mary doesn’t protest: Isn’t there an easier way? Can’t you choose someone else? Can’t you wait until next spring when Joseph and I are married? Can’t you send out a press release so everyone will know who his real father really is? But I’m afraid.
Mary doesn’t protest. She just says: ‘Yes.’
As a Protestant Christian, I know what I don’t believe about Mary, but how is it that I so easily miss the fact that, in the middle of Galilee, was an ordinary girl whose faith had prepared her to make a risk-filled commitment to God?
My skepticism about her perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven doesn’t change the fact that Mary knew and trusted God in a way no one had since Abraham.
The only explanation for Mary’s unhesitating ‘Yes’ is that she knew God, in his mercy, would look after her.
She knew that following God doesn’t necessarily lead to comfort or safety or material blessing, but it does guarantee that God will use you to be a blessing to the world.
Mary must have known the stories of people like Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab- she must have known that more often than not God uses ordinary people with ordinary means and ordinary gifts to do redemption’s work.
Mary knew that faith in our God doesn’t exempt you from hardship or struggle, but it does mean you’ll never be alone. You’ll never be forgotten. You’ll never be abandoned.
If you were to tell the story of my grandfather’s life, you would find that it’s a simple story to tell. Still, in the telling of it, you would, from time to time, have to use words like: FEAR, WORRY, DESPAIR and DEPRESSION.
Depending on which part of my grandpa’s story you were telling, you would have to use other words like: ADDICTION, INFIDELITY, ANGER, ILLNESS, GRIEF, LONELINESS.
Because of my parent’s divorce and our having moved away, I hadn’t seen much of my grandpa since I was 12 or 13 so I don’t honestly know what role faith played in my grandpa’s story.
But I know enough of his story to know that faith could have made all the difference.
It was only 10 degrees at my grandfather’s burial- so cold that Father Bloom’s numb fingers couldn’t turn the pages of his prayer book when it came time for the final prayer and benediction.
Standing at the head of my grandpa’s casket, Father Bloom improvised. He looked at the living gathered around my grandpa and said: May the grace of Jesus Christ fill you, and may the faith and obedience of Mary guide you.
You could see my breath hit the cold air so loudly did I say: Amen.