Archives For Musing on Mary

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ – Acts 1, 2

I was surprised the first time I realized that Mary, after only Peter and Paul, receives the most mention in the New Testament- 217 mentions in the New Testament. I was shocked the first time I read the beginning of Acts and noticed Mary’s name dropped in there among the list of those who comprised the first church.

A Christian legend holds that, following the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple took Mary with him to Ephesus where they lived quietly and while he cared for her. It’s a legend that, perhaps unwittingly, portrays Mary as rendered helpless by her grief.

The legend abides and you’re likely to hear it repeated upon a visit to Ephesus today.

Luke, in Acts, gives us a much different take on Mary. There Mary is quietly mentioned as a leader in the Acts church, devoting herself along with everyone else to Jesus’ teaching, to the fellowship of the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts? How is it we never think of Mary as one of the disciples who receive the gift of tongues at Pentecost? Yet surely, since she’s mentioned here along with the others, she also participated with them in the Pentecost miracle.

If Pentecost is a story of God unwinding the effects of Babel and creating a new community, a new family of God, then Mary is there at this new family’s birth, as one of its leaders.

I like to think that in the birth of this new community Mary finally sees the promise of Messiah coming true, that in the life of this new community the Jubilee she’d sang about in her magnificat was finally being fulfilled. After all, here was a community ruled by love rather than thrones, a community where the lowly are indeed lifted up and the hungry filled because ‘everyone held everything in common.’ Just as she’d sang about before his birth, all of this is made possible by her Son.

What Mary must realize in Acts, little more than month after her Son’s death, is what she must have started to guess at the Annunciation: that God was bringing together a new People, a people distinguished not by the usual lines of blood or family but a people called together by the particular life which claimed them, a people brought forth not through simple biology but through practicing the life of Jesus.

We return today from the Highlands having discovered that we’re a part of a community which transcends all the world’s definitions of family.

Because of what God does in a manger at Christmas, you have family in parts of the world you hadn’t even looked until now.

 

 

Musing on Mary in Guatemala:6

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2012 — 1 Comment

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you…‘ – Matthew 2

Though it’s not the stuff of Christmas cards, Jesus is born with monsters at his manger. Because the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and Herod’s bloody reprisals typically gets read the Sunday after Christmas, few Christians are even aware of the story.

Biblical scholars will tell you how Matthew depicts the flight to Egypt in order to buttress the similarities between Moses and Jesus. Just as Moses leads his people from Egypt to deliverance so too does Jesus go down to Egypt and later deliver his people. Just as Moses threatened and incurred the wrath of Pharaoh, Jesus also ignites the fears of Herod the Great.

The parallel with Israel is instructive.

When God delivered Israel from Egypt and instituted the covenant with them, God included the stipulation that Israel was to care for the stranger and the alien among them for they too once were strangers and aliens in another land. In other words, because of their saving story they were called to identify with others. Whatever else Matthew may want us to know about the flight to Egypt, I think he also wants us to identify with refugees for Jesus himself was once a refugee in anther land. It’s not enough to say, tritely, that Jesus is born ‘into poverty.’ It’s better to say that Jesus was born into the sort of family we see so much of in our community- poor families who’ve fled their homeland and live, legally or not, among us. Of course, these are the same ‘refugees’ who are missed by many of the families in Guatemala you serve this week. Too often Christians treat such strangers as a political problem or a social cause but fail to, firstly, see them as Jesus.

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.‘
– Matthew 2

When my wife and I brought our first son home, we received more gifts than we could have possibly used: three baby swing sets, bottles of every kind and color, clothes and enough toys for a classroom.

But frankincense, gold and myrrh?
What kind of gifts are those for a baby?
Frankincense was something you used in worship, in the temple. Myrrh was what you used to anoint a dead body for burial.

I wonder what Mary made of the strangers who came to greet her new baby? I wonder what she thought when they bowed down before someone wearing diapers? I wonder where her mind went when they presented him with those auspicious gifts?

And every year I wonder how the scene must have looked through the magi’s eyes. Their gifts, their audience with the King in Jerusalem, their ability to take a long journey to Israel all suggest they were men of wealth, power and sophistication.

Surely Bethlehem was not the sort of royal birthplace they would have expected.

Mary and Joseph and whatever humble home they’d made wouldn’t have looked anything like a throne.

The holy day when the magi meet Jesus is known as Epiphany and it usually centers on how Christ’s coming opens salvation to the gentile world as well as the Jewish world.

Read more simply and less theologically, I think the magi remind us how, in scripture, strangers almost always represent an unexpected blessing from God.

Indeed, at times strangers can be angels in disguise and, always, strangers are those who cause us to reorient our self-images, our assumptions about the other and the things we value.

 

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
– Luke 2

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific. In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced. But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back. By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary. While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”

By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and
a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace. And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted.

Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’ To a first century world grown numb to the headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”

It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joya SAVIOR has been born.” And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary. When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent. For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.

The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story. And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms. You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely. It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.

It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final. Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her. Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.

I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?

After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary. Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED. Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.

The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother. When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.

Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary is a figure of boldness and strength. Perhaps Mary herself can caution us against making assumptions about the women we serve this week. As much as we might tend to see them as simple or passive or powerless, Mary should remind us to look for the boldness that can face down empires.

 

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 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.’ – Luke 1

It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality. We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained. When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death. What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel? Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?

How odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for his coming when his mother Mary immediately speaks quite explicitly about what Gabriel’s news means.

Actually she sings.

In the Torah God had mandated that every seventh year would be a sabbath year in the life of Israel. Fields would lie fallow, witnessing to Israel’s faith that God would provide their sustenance. Every 50 years would be a Jubilee year. Not only would fields lie fallow, debts would be forgiven. Land seized or transferred by creditors would be returned. Captives (to debt, indentured servants) would be freed. Wealth and resources would be redistributed so that everyone would be filled and fed. Though Jubilee is given by God to Moses as part of the covenant there is little evidence Israel ever observed the law. Too much stood to be lost by the wealthy, the elite, the comfortable, the powerful for Jubilee to be taken seriously.

Towards the first century Israel’s longing for a Messiah eventually became joined to the longing for someone who would institute the Jubilee.

Mary’s song is a song of Jubilee.

As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring Jubilee to her people. Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger implications.

A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song of Jubilee:

That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged. No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.

That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak. We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.

That Mary sings this Jubilee song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith. Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that Jubilee would ever be accepted by the people- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them. Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.

That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue is also from a Jubilee text is suggestive. Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.

Interestingly, in the 1980‘s, the dictatorial regime of Rios Mott banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala. Mary was deemed politically subversive.

Maybe more than anything, this week I hope we will hear Mary’s song with Guatemala in mind and, in particular, I hope we will hear her words mindful of the people we serve this week. I hope this week will give us faces, names and places to picture the next time we hear Mary singing about God using her son to turn the tables on injustice and poverty.

 

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe“Let it be with me according to your word.”

Protestants have tended either to ignore Mary outright or to treat her exclusively as a Christmas character. While she gives birth to the object of our faith, Christians don’t often consider Mary herself as a woman of faith. Both Luke and Matthew agree in their nativity accounts that Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage with Joseph.

Both Gospels agree as well that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child. The darker side to the annunciation is that when Mary receives news she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she is almost certainly hearing news which no one else will believe. Wagging tongues and whispering gossip will almost certainly follow Mary from here on out, speculating as to the ‘true’ cause of Mary’s premature pregnancy.

According to custom, Mary would have been no older than sixteen when she became engaged. According to tradition, Joseph most likely was an older man, marrying for the second time. According to Torah, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any sexual activity prior to her wedding day would have been understood as adultery not fornication (Deut 22.23).

What if a woman in Mary’s position claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if she flatly denied any wrongdoing? For such murky, disputed circumstances, Numbers 5 prescribes the ‘law of bitter waters’ wherein a suspected adulteress would be brought before a priest, required to let down her hair, and under oath drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written indictment.

The woman’s oath: ‘May the Lord make you to become a curse among your people when he causes your womb to miscarry and swell.’ If guilty, according to Numbers 5, the woman would become sick. If she did not become sick (an unlikely happening) she was acquitted.

Whatever we may think today of such customs, this was the reality which governed Mary’s world. It was the reality in which she nonetheless, hearing Gabriel’s news, replies: ‘May it be…’

Mary would’ve known the likelihood she’d be accused of adultery. Just as surely she would have known the proscribed punishment she might receive. Mary would’ve known how Torah insisted Joseph divorce her, and she certainly would’ve known that whatever child she gave birth to before marriage, regardless of the angel’s promises, forever would be regarded as an illegitimate child and banned from the cultural and religious life of Israel.

Still, in the face of all those likelihoods, Mary summons the courage to say ‘May it be with me according to your word.’

The obvious conclusion we can draw from this scene is that Mary had a faith sufficient to say yes to the vocation God had for her. We can assume Mary had faith that the God of Israel is merciful and would protect her. We can assume Mary knew from her scripture stories of women- suspect women- who nonetheless played a part in God’s plan and were safeguarded and ultimately rewarded by God. Mary must have known, we can imagine, that God’s call is very often a summons to serve and to suffer for love’s sake.

When Mary assents to the annunciation, she does so knowing her life will never be the same. Her Nazareth, she had to have known, would never look at her the same way again. It’s in Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God here in Luke 1 that we can spot for the first time the shadow of her Son’s cross. If we allow Christmas to be merely about sentimentality, we miss how Mary suffers for the Messiah before the Messiah himself suffers. Indeed one could speculate that Jesus learns suffering love and the demands of faithfulness on his mother’s knee.

Many of the women we meet here in Guatemala are no older than Mary would have been before the first Christmas Eve.

Though their circumstances are different, many will know what it is to love amidst suffering and what it’s like to bear a burden for another’s sake. No doubt many of them, like Mary, rely on the faith that God protects those who have no else to protect them.

Perhaps this season when you see Mary in a Christmas creche back home you will think of some of the women here with brightly woven dresses and boldness in their eyes.

 

Our-Lady-of-Guadalupe‘All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

– Matthew 1

Seldom during Advent do Christians take the time to bother themselves with the lengthy genealogy of Jesus which Matthew provides at the beginning of the Gospels. The matter-of-fact list of names strikes the average reader as needless prologomena to the Gospel story proper. Readers anxious to get on with the meat of the story miss what Matthew might want us to know by telling us Jesus’ lineage in groups of fourteen.

Fourteen, in the Old Testament, is a perfect number- a number which represents completion. Readers in a hurry during the Christmas season risk failing to notice how in all of Matthew’s begats there are some names which shouldn’t be there if a traditional, legitimate genealogy is what Matthew has in mind: women’s names, for instance, and women of disreputable character and even Gentile women. So what is Matthew getting at by beginning things with Jesus’ family tree?

The question can’t be answered in isolation from what immediately precedes and proceeds the genealogy. Before the family tree, Matthew introduces the begats with the word ‘genesis’ which we translate as: ‘in the beginning.’ Sound familiar? It’s how the Hebrew Bible begins the creation story.

And then after the family tree, Matthew tells us how ‘Yeshua’ will be born of from a virgin; in other words, God will bring forth the Messiah ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) from a virgin’s womb. God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

We affirm the virgin birth every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, yet often I wonder if its really more like lip service with which we treat the ancient doctrine. Regrettably, for many Christians the virgin birth is little more than a museum piece of Christian belief- an artifact that belonged to those who came before us.

The doctrine today strikes many as curious and weighted with superstitious suppositions, others as a ‘miracle story’ with little immediate relevance to the incarnation and still others as an embarrassing fragment of the faith that should be hidden away to make the faith more palatable to enlightened, modern minds.

For those who have no trouble affirming the virgin birth, the doctrine instead becomes a sort of litmus test upon which all of Christian belief rests. Regrettably, few ever give attention to what Matthew may have intended by linking the word ‘genesis’ to a list of begats and then following it with news of a most unusual birth.

The bible is the story of salvation but it starts with the story of creation which we call Genesis. The gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with a story of creation which Matthew calls “genesis.”

What that word “genesis” means is that the conception of Jesus is the beginning of all things. Not chronologically, maybe, but the conception of Jesus names God’s decision never to be except to be for us in Christ – and that decision is the beginning of all creation, of all life, of all salvation, of everything that matters.

And so we see that creation itself is a kind of virgin birth, because it was creation from nothing, and it was brought about by the Holy Spirit. And the virgin birth is a new creation, or perhaps even the original creation, because it too is brought about in some ways out of nothing, by the action of the Holy Spirit, although this time, gloriously, with a woman at the center of God’s action.

We have been brought out of nothing to be made for relationship with God, and God has made a home among us to unite our hearts with his.

Creation is a virgin birth. A virgin birth is creation.

All of this is Matthew’s way of telling us that Christmas, incarnation, is the beginning of God re-making creation, that what will unfold in Jesus’ life and be revealed by his teaching is God’s work to unwind Sin.

As you begin our week here, serving and welcoming strangers in to our hearts, I think holding on to what Christians profess about Jesus in the Virgin Birth couldn’t be more important. That Jesus comes to die for us isn’t Gospel here. Well, it’s not as Gospel as the news that Jesus is the beginning of God remaking his creation. That new creation is what we’re participating in here. Both in what we do for them and what they do in us.