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A ‘Good Ol’ Gal’?

December 23, 2014

“‘A Good Ol’ Gal’?” Luke 1:26-56 Advent 4B © 12.21.14 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Several years ago, Susan and I were eating in a Mexican restaurant in Birmingham, where we overheard a rather interesting conversation. Sitting in the booth behind us was a party of four men, one of whom was some sort of Pentecostal missionary in Central America. The preacher recounted his negotiations with a Roman Catholic official, partly concerning theology. With great relish and quite loudly, the Pentecostal told how he had said to the priest: “Mary was a good ol’ gal, but I’m not going to pray to her.” I looked at Susan and mouthed the question: “‘A good ol’ gal’?”

Though we certainly wouldn’t state the matter so crudely as did that Pentecostal missionary, we might agree that Mary is just as insignificant for us as she was for him. And even failing that, we would probably nod assent to his reservations about praying to Mary, though we might understand the reason the practice arose. We might think of such supplication as unnecessary at best and blasphemous at worst. The kind of devotion that grew up over the centuries in the Roman church seems foreign to our viewpoints and not true to the Bible. Notions of immaculate conception or perpetual virginity, besides reflecting a strange view of sex as the conveyance of sin, seem to turn Mary into a goddess. As Protestants, we want none of it.

Yet if we claim that from time to time some Catholics have overdone their attention to Mary, we must also admit that by and large Protestants have erred on the other end of the spectrum. I mean we’ve ignored her. As one writer has observed, she becomes for us little more than a prop, a sort of sacred baby machine. Another observer speaks of the general Protestant apathy about the witness and person of the mother of Christ. Mary has little function in Protestant theology, though the Bible speaks of her as “highly favored” and “blessed among women.”

Is there a way we can appreciate, value, and learn from Mary without succumbing to the excesses of either popular Catholic devotion or Protestant indifference? I think the place to begin to answer that is to look at what the Bible actually says about her. Luke gives her a good bit of attention in his opening chapters. There we find that Mary is first of all a woman who is receptive to the purposes of God. She’s willing to be an agent in the plan of the Creator to take back his lost creation from sin and degradation. Yet Mary is not a passive vessel with no choice. We must wonder: what if she had said “no”? But of course she didn’t. In Mary, divine willing and human choice met for the good of all humankind. She opened herself to the creation of new life within her, despite her confusion, doubt, and perhaps fear.

Mary demonstrates the joy and burden of being blessed. Rather than join the character Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof in complaining “Couldn’t you choose someone else once in a while?” Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Under ordinary circumstances, this is the response we would expect from a Jewish woman of that day. Each one hoped she would give birth to a son and be changed from “unproven young girl to honored woman,” as one writer has it. But she also prayed her son would be the Messiah. Mary was no different. The commentator Pamela Allen reflects on what Mary’s thoughts must have been: “It was a blessing to be carrying any child at all, but particularly this one who would be Savior of the world…The life, unfelt, as yet unseen, that grew within Mary’s body, was cause for tremendous thanksgiving….”

But we know, as Mary knew, that hers were not ordinary circumstances. Added to the usual discomfort of pregnancy were the social problems that went with an out-of-wedlock conception in that day. She was engaged to Joseph, who would know he was not the father. How would she explain all this? Would he believe her story of an angel and a divine presence? What would the neighbors think? More importantly, what would they do? Mary was in a very vulnerable position. At the very least she could find herself without a husband. At worst, she and her unborn child would be dead under a pile of rocks hurled at her by pious people who believed they were ridding the world of an adulteress. J. Barrie Shepherd has described Mary’s blessing as “a two-edged sword that has to cut in order to set free, that can bring forth the sheerest joy, but only when the price of deadly pain has all been paid.” Is that what our blessing, our calling, is like as well? Is it a deep joy and privilege that summons us to carry out the purposes of God even at great cost to ourselves, at the risk of vulnerability and pain?

Mary was receptive to the will and way of God despite the cost. But note also that she believed God’s word. Elizabeth says to her: “Blessed is she who believed… what was spoken….” The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther saw three miracles in Christ’s nativity: God became human, a virgin conceived, and Mary believed. And for Luther, the last mentioned was the greatest of all. We should not think, though, that Mary believed without doubt. She questioned how conception could take place other than in the normal fashion. But doubt did not win out. And later, even in her perplexity over some of the things her grown-up son Jesus said and did, she remained faithful. Even when the teeming crowds shut her off from her son, she was steadfast. Even at the foot of the cross, watching her firstborn suffer and suffocate and bleed and die, she did not give up. She kept identifying with him, even though he was crucified as an enemy of the Roman state. With the disciples gathered in the upper room, she found the veil of mystery pulled back a bit, but she believed even when she could not understand. She was our Lord’s mother, but in another sense she was of his family because she heard the word of God and kept it. The respect we owe Mary is not for some imagined quasi-divinity or her intercession with a stern and judgmental Christ in heaven. Instead, we revere her for her marvelous example of faith that remains through thick and thin. Isn’t that the sort of belief that saves us, the same sort of perseverance to which we are called?

So Mary was receptive to God’s will and believed God’s word. But finally, she trusted in the broader vision of God’s reordering of human society. The Magnificat is her song of reversal. It’s likely that Mary did not write the poem, that Luke has placed it in her mouth, but the source doesn’t really matter. What is significant is that the mother of Jesus sings a song in which the rich are brought down and sent away hungry, while the poor are lifted up and satisfied, all by the action of God. Luke reminds us with Mary’s praise that God takes sides. He works for the reversal of fortunes of those who are left out and despised and for the thwarting of the schemes of the empire builders, the greedy, and the self-important.

If we take the Magnificat seriously as a statement of what’s wrong in the world and a plan for changing the way things are, it becomes clear that the standard paintings of Mary are way off base. She is no sweet young thing seated with head bowed, clad in pale blue. Luke typically empowers and lifts up women. So I suspect for him she’s more likely to be standing up, speaking vigorously, getting noticed—the sort of person you have to deal with and can’t ignore. She is the model of the fierce mother in an oppressed community calling for justice. She is the spokesperson for all who are deprived of power and influence. She raises her voice on behalf of those who must depend solely on God for their needs because they are shut out of the world of buying, selling, producing, and consuming. Mary insists that God will defeat those whose plans do not include him, who refuse to reverence their Sovereign, who unite to thwart what he wants to do. She sings against the bullying boss in the workplace who regards employees as little more than slaves to do his or her bidding, but works little and refuses to be held accountable, all while pulling down a six-figure salary. She speaks against the power-hungry big giver or the matriarch or patriarch in the church who is given or insists on veto power over every decision, even though she or he doesn’t serve on the session and rarely comes to worship. She questions the celebration of and the preference of society for the big and the rich and the beautiful and the educated, the well-placed and influential, while anyone who doesn’t fit those categories or possess other so-called desirable qualities is robbed of voice and treated as second-class or not even human. Her song has the same theme as the later saying of her Son that the last will be first and the first, last.

So this is also the Mary of the Bible: the woman who knows whose side God is on. As one author has it: “When we falter and want to settle for [band-aid solutions to society’s problems] or [urge] moderation and balance, Mary, through the Magnificat, challenges us and re-inspires us with a cockeyed vision of a brand-new world God wants to achieve through all of us” (Robert McAfee Brown). I wonder: does Mary’s vision make us squirm in our seats or jump for joy?

Who is Mary? She is a challenging and inspiring figure. We are right to reject the mythology that has grown up around Mary and the bad theology that prompted it. But that is not to reject or ignore Mary herself. The Pentecostal missionary was wrong. She is not merely “a good ol’ gal.” The Mary portrayed in the Bible knows doubt and perplexity, but also finds faith and follows the way of God as an obedient disciple. She experiences rejection and fear, but through it all displays courage and hope in the God who called her. Surely her life stands as an example to women and men today, and her hope in God’s dream is a guide for the work of the church.

We say then: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus!”

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