"Mary & Elizabeth” by Lauren Wright Pittman| A Sanctified Art LLC
Artwork used with permission.
When I served as Chaplain over at the Seminary, every Advent, I got to curate the Seminary’s daily devotions – reflections on Scripture for each day Advent. I would invite a community of writers – students, professors, staff, alumni – to write a daily devotion – each of us considering a central theme for that Advent season, each for a particular day. The writers would write; I would edit; and then we’d send them out by email, each morning in Advent, to a couple thousand folks. I loved that project – seeing gifted writers write beautiful, challenging words – together, collaboratively sending the Good News of Jesus Christ out into the world, every day.
But it wasn’t just words – before each season started, we had to work on the design of the email – the visuals that would express the Advent theme. I had the blessing of collaborating on that with a graphic designer in Novato, Dennis Bolt. Over the years, Dennis and I developed a rhythm to our work. I would come up with the theme for Advent – usually bouncing ideas off Jana Childers. I would then tell Dennis our vision – in my words. And Dennis would go off and come back with several images to reflect the theme. Our rhythm almost always worked like this: He’d come back with a first round of images, I’d go – “Eh, that’s close, but....” I’d say more words, and Dennis would go off and then come back with the perfect image. The second time was always the charm. We were a good team.
One year our theme centered on Mary – the mother of Christ – and I was clear: “Dennis, I want a strong Mary – not Mary meek and mild, but Mary strong and fierce. Please find an image like that.” My friends, that is not so easy to do. Across history, images of Mary have tended to be soft, sweet, passive – seen through a gauzy lens of gender stereotypes. So Dennis looked for images; I looked for images – and our first batch – well, I said it wasn’t easy. So we talked and then both went back to our computers, looking for images. As my eyes blurred with so many Google images – I found one – it was this man, who was shirtless, and on his back, he had tattooed, a larger than life – literally larger than life – Mary.
I forwarded it to Dennis, with a message of only three words:
Not. This. Strong.
Over the centuries, Mary the Mother of Jesus has captivated the imagination of the faithful. From the very first days, as the early church was figuring out who this Jesus was whom they had experienced, they also had to figure out who this Mary was too. Early on, they came to say that Jesus was “fully human, and fully God” – and, they began to call Mary – theotokos – Greek for “God-bearer” – which I quite like. In the gospel accounts, Mary is the first to bear God – to bear Christ – in her flesh. Theotokos.
Early Christians connected the Mary of the New Testament to female figures in the Hebrew Scriptures – to Woman Wisdom, to Eve, to Hannah (who sings a song very much like Mary’s Magnificat).
Over the centuries, into the Middle Ages, the figure of Mary started to become an important image for personal devotion. One image that particularly connected was that of Mary grieving for her crucified son – an image captured in the artists’ pietas – Mary experiencing the fullness of a mother’s suffering – entering into and feeling our suffering. And Mary came to be known, not only as the Mother of God, but also as
“the Mother of Sorrows.”
Mary devotion intensified, with some seeing Mary as an intercessor between us and God – someone who would pray for us, on our behalf. That remains in Roman Catholic traditions. That’s not what Protestants tend to believe. We didn’t follow that path – as we believe that everyone has direct access to God, without a mediator needed. In what may be an over-reaction, Protestant traditions didn’t focus much at all on Mary for a number of centuries.
Interestingly, feminist thinkers are split or ambivalent when it comes to Mary. Some critique how images of Mary have been used to keep women in traditional roles and “to define and control female lives.” Others see Mary as “a potential source for inspiration and empowerment” of women – a subversive power that can help free us all from patriarchy. Others note how Mary traditions in Christianity may hold our feminine images of the divine for us.
Over the centuries, Mary the Mother of Jesus has captivated the imagination of the faithful. This Advent, we’ll be travelling with Mary toward the coming of Christ, so I thought we’d start, by considering the Mary that we find in Scripture. And a first thing to note is that, relatively, there’s not a whole lot about Mary in Scripture. The texts from the Gospel of Luke -- that we’ll look at today and next week – are the main narratives that we have of Mary – she’ll appear once more in Luke, and with a couple more important stories in the Gospel of John. But, the texts that we will look at this week and next are primary texts.
In this morning’s Scripture, an angel visits Mary. The angel addresses Mary as God’s favored one, and tells Mary, “Be not afraid!” as Mary stands before this fiery messenger form heaven, wondering what kind of message this may be. The angel goes on: “Mary, you, will conceive a child, who will be great, who will be called the Son of God, who will restore the House of David (that means overthrowing empire), and whose kingdom will never end.” “How will this be?”, Mary asks. God will overshadow you – that is, God will protect you – shadow you under her wings in the heat of the scorching desert sun. “But I am still a virgin,” Mary replies. “Even your cousin Elizabeth, who is old, is in the 6th month of her pregnancy. Nothing will be impossible for God.”
And Mary takes all this in. She ponders this chaotic, world-shaking greeting. “Let it be so with me according to your word.” Mary says yes.
So, what can we know about Mary from what we find in the Gospel of Luke? Mary is a young woman – a girl – betrothed to be married, but not yet married. Mary is a peasant girl. She’s not the poorest of the poor, but close. She lives in the rural village of Nazareth – a backwater town. She is a Palestinian Jewish girl, living under Roman occupation. Mary lives in a world of empire – her people subject to Roman colonization and control. And, we know that Mary lives in a world of patriarchy, where women – especially unwed girls – have very little power. In almost every way, Mary is in the lower echelons of all the structures and systems of power. And the angel says, “You – young, not-yet-wed woman – you will conceive a child. You are about to transgress the order, the structures, and the rules of the powerful – and bear a child who will overthrow it all.”
With what we learn about Mary in these few verses, we can also note a few remarkable things about what happens here.
First, Mary – a young girl – communicates directly with a heavenly being – with an angel, a messenger from God. And what flows forth is a conversation of mutuality. In Mary’s world of hierarchy and power over – where she has no power – this angel brings a divine word – to a woman – and engages in a conversation of give and take with Mary – What kind of a greeting is this? How can this be? The angel takes time to answer Mary’s question, and waits for Mary’s response.
Second, notice that what is happening here is a call story. Mary is receiving a call – like Moses received from the burning bush, like Isaiah received with angels and a burning coal, like Jeremiah who resisted saying he was too young, like Samuel who heard God’s voice calling in the night. A messenger from heaven comes to Mary – with a call: You will bear a son who will overthrow empire and all the powers and whose kingdom will never end. And like those other men who were called – Mary considers the call, and replies: “Here am I.”
Notice that Mary has agency. As the Worship Team was planning our Advent season and working with this text, that was the thing that we couldn’t take our eyes off of: Mary’s choosing. In a world, where Mary doesn’t have much power, and probably not a whole lot of opportunities to choose: Here, Mary chooses – Mary gets to decide. She decides something on which her life and the well-being of her world depend. And Mary says, “Yes, let it be so with me according to your word.” One writer says that Mary has “outrageous authority” and she freely chooses to assent.
And with her yes, Mary becomes theotokos. She agrees to bear and to mother the child – to bear Christ into the world – to bear God into the world. Mary is the first – the first to bear Christ in her flesh – the heartbeat of God pulsing in her – and in Christ – and ultimately in us.
And then, notice one more thing. Notice the calm of this moment. The world of empire is everywhere around Mary with its armies of occupation, and its collaborating local authorities. Mary and her family live a bare subsistence living, with no guarantee of where the next meal will come. A fiery messenger of God appears and announces the upending of the current order, and a newborn who will rule forever – and suggests that Mary will bear all this into the world. Notice the calm of this moment. It all comes down to Mary – and a God for whom nothing will be impossible – and Mary ponders these things – and says: Yes. Mary decides. Let it be so with me according to your word. With the world whirling around her, in this moment of calm, Mary hears of the Christ to come, and embraces a love and tender mercy that will upend and change the world for good.
Here’s the image of Mary that Dennis talked me into.
The Annunciation, Fra Angelico. Public Domain.
It’s a classic image, and not at all the one that I had in mind. But Dennis convinced me. He said, notice how Mary sits a little higher than the angel. Notice how she looks the angel in the eye. Notice her strength and her resolve.
Here is an image that you’ll see during our Advent experience:
"Mary & Elizabeth” by Lauren Wright Pittman| A Sanctified Art LLC
Artwork used with permission.
This is by Lauren Wright Pittman. It’s Mary and Elizabeth – bearing and embodying Good News that will change the world.
Here is an image by Ben Wildflower:
The Magnificat, by Ben Wildflower
Used with permission.
This is more what I had in mind. This is Mary singing the Magnificat with fist raised: “Cast down the mighty. Send the rich away.” We’ll come back to this one next week.
And here’s an icon by Kelly Lattimore – imagining Mary – a refugee in her time – as a refugee in ours: