HAPPY FEAST OF SAINT MARY!
A Time magazine survey once asked “who is the most influential woman in history?” Those named included Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and others—all women who had tremendous influence.
But the woman ranked the most influential in history was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Mary is the 5th most—often mentioned person in the New Testament [51 times], after Jesus himself [1276 times], Paul , Peter , and John . This demonstrates that Mary was a central character to the evangelists and the early Church.
For the first 1500 years of Christianity, Mary of Nazareth played an important role in Christian faith. For example, in the year 431, the Council of Ephesus declared that Mary is the Theotókos [Θεοτόκος] or “God—bearer”—the one who gave birth to the One who is God.
The Council’s intention was to state clearly that Jesus is God. In doing so, then the natural outcome of that statement is that Mary is the “Mother of God”—not mother of God the eternal Creator and Father, but of God the Incarnate, human Son—Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
After the Protestant Reformation, saints in general were downplayed, and as a result, the mother of Jesus plays almost no role at all today in the faith of many Episcopalians.
So I’d like us to think about that this morning.
THE MOTHER OF JESUS IN SCRIPTURE
We are very familiar with the scenes in the New Testament where Mary appears.
It all begins with the visit of an angel to an innocent young girl living in a backwater village in Galilee. We do not believe that Mary was different from any other young girl. She was not predestined from the beginning of time to be the mother of Jesus. She was not kept free from sin from the moment of her conception. She even, most likely, had other children.
In fact, it is her humanity as a completely ordinary young woman that makes her response to God through the angel so important. Mary had a choice. She asked questions. She wanted to understand what God was asking of her, but she could easily have said, “No, thanks. This is just too hard for me to do.” In this, Mary was just like you and me. In fact, she was a lot like her own Son, who prayed in Gethsemane that “this cup might be taken away from me,” but who concluded his prayer, as his mother did, with “thy will be done.”
When we look at Mary, the mother of Jesus, we see a loving child of her heavenly Father, willing to do God’s will, even if it meant great personal danger, even if she would become an outcast as an unwed mother.
After this, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, where Mary “proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”
The Christmas story says a lot about Mary, she and Joseph encounter two prophets when Jesus is taken to be circumcised on the eighth day, and the flight into Egypt tells how the Holy Family escaped Herod’s jealous wrath.
There is a period of quiet for several years, and then we find Jesus’ parents in a panic, wondering what happened to their twelve year-old son when the family went to Jerusalem for a festival.
As Jesus becomes an adult, there is a wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus and his mother are guests. Jesus was standing right there, but no one approached him to tell him about the problem with the wine and the potential humiliation of the host of the celebration. Instead, his mother interceded quietly, with faith that he would take care of it.
Mary did not work any miracles—indeed, she could not—but she took very seriously her role of seeing a need and doing whatever she could to help. Mary’s role then, and today, is that she is very sensitive to the needs, hopes, fears, and dreams of God’s people.
She intercedes, a word from Latin that means “to go between”—to step in between two people and bring them together. Mary got involved in the everyday problems of ordinary people, and she still does that today, for you and me and everyone.
In spite of her importance to him, Jesus did not always honor Mary as he might have been expected to do. Once, he was teaching in a house full of people, and there was a great crowd outside. Someone told him “your mother and your brothers are outside,” but Jesus replied that everyone is his mother and his brothers. We are not told how Mary reacted to this statement, but perhaps, like most mothers, she let her love for her Son outweigh anything he might say or do.
The next time we see Mary, she is standing on the hill of Golgotha. From the cross, Jesus speaks only to John, the beloved disciple, when he says, “behold your mother,” [John 19:27] but, as in so many other places in the Bible, his words could easily be directed to all of us.
The last mention of Mary occurs in the Acts of the Apostles: she is with the disciples on Pentecost and she receives the gift of the Holy Spirit along with them. That’s a very clear demonstration of how central Mary was to the faith of the first Christians, and should be to ours today.
MARY’S ROLE IN OUR LIVES
I think that these scenes from the New Testament help to define Mary’s role in Christianity and in our lives.
She is an example of complete trust in God and surrender to God’s will.
She cares deeply about the needs of God’s children, and always eager to do what she can to help.
She is not God, but she can – and does – ask God to act in our lives.
She is a patient and loving mother, even when her Son does not seem to respect her as he should.
And she is devoted to her child, even when he is sentenced to a cruel death.
With all Christians, Mary receives the Holy Spirit and all its gifts, and this inspires her to pray for you, and me, and all people.
Michelangelo’s sculpture, the Pietà, is perhaps the most heart-wrenching image of Mary in existence. It represents the moment when Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross. His mother was present for his last words, and so presumably stayed with her dead son until his body was to be prepared for burial. Michelangelo imagined that, at that moment, someone placed the body of Jesus in his mother’s arms for one last time. In the sculpture, Mary is more than 12 feet tall, but it is her face that catches the eye. Mary’s expression of intense grief at the death of her beloved son, whom she believes is also her savior, cannot be described.
I have seen a small number of mothers’ faces soon after the deaths of their children, and their agony and grief is inexpressible. That is how Mary felt, holding the body of her son, and that is a sign to us of how much she loved him at the hour of his death.
It is also a sign to us of how much she loves us in his Name.
When we hear the words of the prayer-set-to-music, Ave Maria, we are hearing verses from Luke’s Gospel, concluding with a sincere and humble request:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners
And at the hour of our death.