Who is Mary?

Fr David’s Sermon, 4th Sunday of Advent 2016

“Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah)

I imagine that you have received a large number of Christmas cards by now. It struck me, looking around at the cards we have received, that there were two cards right next to each other each depicting Mary and Jesus, but in totally different ways.

The first card shows a soft, pale-skinned, blonde Mary, with her hair wound around her head in an elaborate plait – she was gazing lovingly into the eyes of a chubby-cheeked, blue-eyed pale boy. She is elegantly draped in white and blue.

The second card shows Mary as a sharp featured dark-skinned woman, whose eyes looked out beyond the viewer of the picture in an intense gaze: half anxious, half resolved. The Christ child in this picture is also dark-skinned, looking up at his mother with perplexed eyes: “Do you not know I must be about my father’s business?” they seem to say. This Mary wears a coarse dark robe with matching headdress.

If we think how Mary is usually described in our Western world – on most of our Christmas cards, and in our Christmas carols, we see her in blue and white all meek and mild. And that seems to be how we see Mary. She is quiet. She does not make a fuss. She is all gentle smiles and loving and white and blue and blonde (which would have been its own little miracle for a Palestinian Jewish peasant girl of that era!).

There is nothing wrong with meekness and mildness, they are wonderful attributes to have. But we get into trouble if we restrict Mary to the blonde, pale Christmas card image. Because Mary is so important to our faith, because she gets a crucial role in the Gospel narrative; in fact the gospel cannot happen without Mary’s “yes” to God, because Mary is so important, if we restrict her to a quiet – in the corner, pale-ish girl, then that does dangerous things to our faith. Because that is a fairly narrow category to fit into with fairly rigid expectations. While we need people around us who are quiet, who sit in the corner meek and mild, holding up all people of faith to that narrow way of being, ends up excluding a lot of people. It makes Mary seem remote and perhaps unreal.

Most of us are not good at sitting in the corner and being quiet and assenting to things – so what does the pale, blonde blue and white image of Mary tell us we should do? It can make us feel guilty or unworthy, because we are not like that – and yet Mary is held up as the pattern of faithfulness.

It matters how we depict people associated with our faith story. It matters how we depict Mary, and Jesus and Joseph. Because in depicting them we are saying what we think our faith ought to look like. We look up to Mary, because Mary had faith. Mary had faith when she agreed with that outlandish story an angel was telling her. It matters how we see Joseph, who was prepared to go along with that story, because he believed in the importance of doing God’s work over saving his own reputation.

That is why the card depicting the dark-skinned Mary with a resolute, but anguished look in her eyes is, for me, a better depiction of the young woman of faith we call the Mother of God. In that image of Mary, I see the woman who, although she says nothing out loud, in our Gospel reading today – her determination and courage is reflected by Joseph’s response. A young Palestinian woman, of those times, could have been taken and stoned to death on suspicion of adultery. This is the Mary, who said “behold I am the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me as you have said.” These are the words of Mary the prophet. Mary has backbone; Mary has courage; Mary has faith! This is the Mary we meet in the Magnificat, the one whose faith speaks of a world where the hungry are fed, the rich sent empty away, the proud scattered, the lowly lifted up. This is the Mary who tells those who don’t believe in miracles to “do as he tells you!” This is the Mary, who stands at the foot of the Cross watching her son die in silence, who said “yes” to God, even though she knew a sword would pierce her heart.

Mary has strength, Mary has courage. And that is important. Mary is an icon of our faith and for real faith to make a difference – there has to be strength.

Such faith proclaims that even though the world is broken and unjust now, God is working out a better way. In Mary, we see God calling the unexpected to work with him. And that work is still going on. To answer that call, to be part of God’s plan, to remake the world in a way that is just and reveals God’s love in action – we have to be like Mary. Whether meek and mild; determined and resilient – we have to be brave, we have to be fearless – we have to be prepared to go out into this broken and dangerous world and give God our hands and our feet, our flesh for his use. That is the faith we need; in Mary, that is the example of faith we have. ​Amen.