Mary of God
This is a sermon delivered at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, Texas, on 16 August 2020. Spelling has been Anglicized but in all other respects the text is as originally delivered. See also www.wilgafney.com
Let us pray: In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.
Our liturgical calendar is a spiral tracing the contours of the same story across time. At this moment we are celebrating the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary in the midst of the season we recall the Church’s first flush of growth. There is another layer to the spiral: in March we added a new liturgical season, Coronatide, and as a result, the Feast of the Annunciation passed almost unobserved. On that date, nine months before Christmas, we commemorate the whisper of God putting on flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth. And according to that turn of the spiral, the Blessed Virgin has been navigating the unfamiliar territory of a miraculous pregnancy for about five months now. We celebrate all of the layers of this spiral in the life, legacy and ministry of the mother of our faith, the mother of our Redeemer whom some would call the Matrix of Redemption and others the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God and, the Mother of Sorrows. Her story unfolds in nine chapters:
Chapter 1: A Holy Name
Miriam the mother of all prophets saves Israel’s saviour while just a child herself (Exodus 2:5-10); it was she who led Israel through the sea while Moses held the waters open through the power of God (Exodus 15:20) and, she grows up to become a prophet so beloved that the fledgling nation sat down on God and went on strike, refusing to move without her (Numbers 12:15). Her name Miryam, would become the name so many Jewish families chose for their daughters that we can’t keep them straight in the gospels. Mary of Nazareth was Miriam of Nazareth.
Chapter 2: An Inconceivable Conception
Young Miriam of Nazareth, on the cusp of womanhood, innocent and wise, ordinary and extraordinary (Luke 1:27-56) and on her way to being the kind of woman, wife and mother the scriptures often overlook when heaven and earth collide in an angelic annunciation. She draws on the sacred songs of her people, Hannah’s hymn in 1 Samuel 2 and, on Psalm 113. She seeks the company of her cousin like so many young girls who find it easier to talk to a favourite aunt about sex and sexuality and unexpected pregnancies. And there she hears the words that will follow her through the ages as they had followed others: Blessed are you among women. We will return to those words.
Chapter 3: A Marriage on the Rocks
Young Mary’s matrimonial plans come to a screeching halt (Matthew 1:18-20). The truth is that there are not a lot of men who will raise someone else’s child and even fewer who will do so when their bride has supposedly been saving herself for him but turns up pregnant with a whale of a tale. But Joseph trusted God over his bruised ego.
Chapter 4: Blood of My Blood; Flesh of My Flesh
The virgin bride has become the Virgin Mother and heaven and earth rejoice (Luke 2:15-51). Angels sing and shepherds and sages seek her son. She is an observant Jew and will raise him as one from the moment of his birth, so they travel, even in her tender state, to honour God with their gifts, sacrifices and offerings and mark the baby as a son of Sarah and Abraham through his circumcision.
Chapter 5: A Life on the Run
Happiness turns to horror as Herod puts out a hit on the baby and sends his goons to butcher any baby boys they find (Matthew 2:13-15). God sends the brown-skinned family into hiding someplace where they will blend in, pre-Arab North Africa when skin tones would have been even darker than they are now.
Chapter 6: Preacher and Prophet
In the story of the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12) the Blessed Mother tells her God-born son that it is time for him to live into who he is publicly as only mothers can do. And for those around her who do not yet know who her Son is, she preaches a powerfully simple sermon that we would do well to heed ourselves, ‘Do what he tells you to do.’ Do what he tells you to do. Is there any finer sermon that gets to the heart of what we are called to as Christians?
Chapter 7: His First Teacher and First Disciple
She who was his first teacher was also his very first disciple. She was with him (Mark 3:31-35) when he taught that ‘Whoever does the will of God is my sister and brother and mother.’ One day a woman was so taken by his teaching that she shouted out a blessing for her (Luke 11:27), ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’
Chapter 8: Heartbreak and Hope
There is line from Lamentations that we pray on Good Friday, casting our sanctified imaginations to imagine her praying it at the foot of the cross, ‘Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?’ We move quickly through those three holy days, too quickly and too easily, knowing the end of the story where she had only hope, fierce and fleeting, soaring and stumbling, and the memories of his life, birth, death and her pregnancy, all jumbled up with an unbelievable moment of tenderness at the moment of his death (John 19:23b-27). Jesus said to her and to one he loved and trusted, ‘He shall be your son and you shall be his mother’ She is silent on Saturday and on Sunday. Perhaps another trip to the tomb of her son was just too much, too soon. We rush her past her grief instead of sitting in silence with her like Job’s friends.
We cannot comfort her in her grief, but we can remember it. And in her name, we can comfort Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland (1) and, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd and, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown and, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin and, Allison Jean the mother of Botham Jean, and all of the mothers who have lost children to the violence of the state and its actors and would-be actors.
Chapter 9: Touched by God, Again
On the day of Pentecost, the Blessed Mother was in the house when the Holy Spirit she knew more intimately than anyone else fell on her and the other women, men, disciples and followers of Jesus in the upper room (Acts 1:14).
The text is silent on her after that. There are traditions that she and John retired to a little house in what is now Turkey. There is a church there you can visit. There is also the tradition that after her death, her body was taken up into heaven.
The life of her Son, his love – for her, for us, for God – all bear witness to her as do those resounding and redounding words, ‘Blessed are you among women.’ Elizabeth drew those words from the treasury of scripture. We heard those words in our First Lesson, spoken to the widow and warrior Judith by one of the town magistrates:
Judith 13:18-20 Uzziah said to Judith, “‘O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth, and blessed be the Holy God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. Praise of you will never depart from the hearts of women and men who remember the power of God. May God do these things for you as an eternal exaltation, and may God visit you with blessings, because you did not withhold your life when our nation was humiliated, rather you rallied against our demise, walking straight before our God.” And all the people said, “Amen. Amen.”’
The context of Judith’s blessing might make it seem a strange or even unwelcome blessing for the Virgin Mother. After all, Judith prayed for God to make her deceit believable and successful and, that deceit was that she was succumbing to the charms of the king blockading the city. She allowed him to think he was seducing her, got him drunk and sawed off his head with his own sword. That is a most unsettling blessing story.
And before Judith, there was Jael. When she killed the enemy of her people by hammering a tent peg into his skull, he was likely attempting to rape her which is why he fell between her legs or in biblical idiom at her feet. His mother, not knowing he is dead, thinks he is late because he is abusing women as spoils of war.
Perhaps you’re thinking this sermon has taken an ugly turn. I am convinced that this ugliness is exactly why Elizabeth drew on her knowledge of her scriptures and chose these words and these women to bless her cousin. Redemption is a bloody business because this crucifying world is a bloody place. While she was presenting her baby at the temple, blessed Simeon spoke over the Holy Child to the Blessed Mother (Luke 2:34-35):
‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
Today, we remember and commemorate and celebrate a woman who is more than a two-dimensional Christmas card. We remember a life of joy and sorrow, faith and discipleship, a woman who loved God enough to say yes to the unimaginable, a woman who speaks across the ages and bids us come and follow Jesus and do whatever he tells us to do knowing that we too may come to our death and in so doing, yet live.
In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.
1. Sandra Bland was an African American businesswoman who, after a traffic violation, was found hanged in a jail cell in July 2015; Matthew Shepherd a white gay student died after being beaten and tortured in October 1998; Mike Brown was an eighteen-year-old African American shot dead by a police officer in August 2014; Trayson Martin was a seventeen-year-old African American shot dead by a neighbourhood watch coordinator in February 2012; Botham Jean was an African American shot dead in his own home by an off-duty police officer in September 2018.
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