Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent 4, 19th December 2021
Today we focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who has become a bit of a controversial figure. On one hand, she is praised for her extreme humility, while on the other hand, she is celebrated with the title of ‘Coredemptrix’ which means Co-redeemer. If they’re not enough to get you stirred up, then there’s also the belief (which is an official Roman Catholic teaching) that Mary was assumed into heaven when she died. As far as women go then, Mary has the highest status in the church, but for those who see her status as the glorification of female submissiveness, she is not so appealing. Many Christians (especially non-Catholics) are therefore ambivalent about Mary.
The low number of references to Mary in the Bible show that she wasn’t as significant for the early Christians as she has come to be, but that can also be said about core doctrines, such as the Trinity. The reason for this is that the Christian faith is so rich that it can take centuries for the full significance of its spiritual wealth to unfold, e.g. Paul’s assertion that in Christ all are equal, was such a radical idea that even he didn’t fully realise what it meant. Its impact on the position of women and slavery only evolved later on.
An important contribution Mary makes to our faith is that her role of giving birth to Jesus brings a feminine dimension to God’s relationship with the world. That’s very necessary, because there is such a strong bias towards the male dimension in the Christian view of the relationship between God and the world. The roots for that began as ancient Hebrew religion formed against a backdrop of the Canaanite fertility worship, involving gods and goddesses. Rather than providing a feminine balance to Canaanite religion, the goddesses made women into sex objects. The determination to not allow anything of Canaanite religion to creep into Hebrew religion, resulted in an emphasis upon masculine images of God almost exclusively and that influence carried into the New Testament. Despite this, we have in the first book of the Bible, a clear statement that both male and female human beings bear the image of God.
The story of Mary begins with God proposing that Mary become the mother of the Saviour-child, and she says yes. Exactly what that involves is of great importance in the Christian faith. Does Mary play an active or a passive role? Some argue she plays a passive role, on the grounds that medical knowledge at the time held that the woman was nothing more than a container in which a could baby grow, but that’s a simplistic and purely biological view of what is involved in bearing a child. Those who wrote the stories of Mary’s pregnancy clearly believed she played an active role in the process, and that makes all the difference when it comes to what salvation entails.
Throughout the history of Christianity, debate has raged between whether salvation is purely something God brings about, we bring about, or a combination of both. It’s such a hot topic that it was at the core of the Reformation, but is still debated today. By salvation I mean transcending the imperfections which diminish us. There have been Christians who argued that human beings can save ourselves. They used to be called heretics. Now we tend to call them humanists. Mainstream Christianity however, has always held that however hard we try, human beings cannot transcend our imperfections by ourselves. That’s why the Christian faith has never been about trying to be good. We can’t do it on our own. We need God. Salvation then, is primarily the work of God, but Mary shows us that we play a part.
Mary’s role is an active one, indicating that human beings, in fact the whole creation, plays a part in God’s saving work. Mary said yes to God. And her yes was much more than passive, because she had to give birth to Jesus through her body, but also her heart. Her role didn’t end the moment Jesus popped out of her womb. Mary nurtured him to maturity too. And through Mary’s love for him, Jesus would have experienced and become conscious of God’s love for him.
Mary’s active role stands for the role that every one of us is invited to play, contributing to God’s project of a beautiful world of love and justice.
Salvation isn’t an objective action of God, which takes place irrespective of human life. It relies upon human participation. It relies on the personal element. It requires people to relate mutually with one another, giving and receiving. Mary shows us that we each have our unique way of experiencing God’s love for us and our unique way of expressing God’s love through our lives. It reflects the reality that God works with our co-operation. The chief role model for that is a woman.
Despite Mary being honoured in this way, how much honour is there in being a ‘perpetual virgin’ as she is known in some traditions, and in her seemingly submissive role as handmaiden? Of course, we would convey these things in other ways today, but one thing that Mary’s virginity stood for is that being a virgin mother showed God’s preference to work through unconventional means. Mary’s status therefore does not flow from what was socially acceptable in her day. She was valued by God, regardless of her social standing. This makes Mary into a strong figure, whose strength and influence flowed from a Source that is beyond manipulation and control by others. She therefore also models for us how to live in freedom.
Another way in which Mary’s virginity was significant is theological, and that is that it reflects the way that God creates the new humanity, which is through means that we cannot see and touch. It’s not by creating a new batch of superhuman babies, clones of Jesus perhaps, but is a spiritual process. Just as Jesus tells Peter that coming to awareness of God is a process that cannot be seen or measured. It’s creation out of nothing, and as a virgin, Mary represents that emptiness out of which God brings new life.
What about Mary’s humility? When her cousin Elizabeth congratulates her on being chosen to be God’s mother, Mary bursts into song: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. While it is unlikely that an uneducated teenager could craft such a song, which coincidentally is very similar to a song found in the Old Testament, it is a perfect expression of Mary’s state. But what sort of a hero is she? A lowly servant. Some may feel there is justification for the submission of women in that. The most significant woman in Christianity is worthy because she is a lowly servant! Yet, it’s actually a powerful state. The term used for servant here is the same one that Paul uses for Jesus! And the humility of Mary is nothing other than what all followers of Jesus are called to. Remember that humility is nothing to do with being a doormat, but is exercising power in a loving way, and it’s godly, because God only ever exercises power in a loving way. To be a humble servant then, is to allow one’s life to be a pouring forth of love, being the image of God.
As well as all that, there is one more claim about Mary: that after she died, she was assumed into
heaven. This belief is relatively recent, in fact it was only last century that one of the popes decided all Roman Catholics should believe it. Until then it was just a popular idea. The first thing is that being assumed into heaven is different to ascending to heaven. Jesus ascended to heaven. Mary was assumed into heaven. The belief that Jesus ascended to heaven doesn’t really mean that there was a heaven which Jesus rose into. A better way of putting it would be to say that Jesus created a heaven, and heaven is not a place but a relationship. In other words, Jesus created a relationship which connects God and the world together. To be in heaven is to be in full relation with God and the rest of the world.
To say that Mary was assumed into heaven then, is to say that God drew her whole being into God’s life and therefore into unity with the rest of the world. It means that all she was and all that she did, is never lost and becomes eternally influential in the world. It is not just Mary that this happens to though. The claim that Mary was assumed into heaven represents a belief that all of us are, and even the whole universe. Nothing is ever lost.
So, all the big claims about Mary are really just filling out other beliefs which are central to Christianity. Viewing those beliefs through the life of a woman reminds us that as Genesis tells us, both male and female are made in the image of God, so God’s relationship with the world has both masculine and feminine aspects. And as we can come to know God through the masculine aspects of life, so too Mary helps us to remember that we can come to know God through feminine aspects of life too.