Feast of St. Mary the Virgin
Isaiah 7:10-15; Ps 132:6-10, 13-14
Gal 4:4-7; Luke 1:46-55
If you travel on the Western coast of Turkey, about halfway down, you come to the ruins of Ephesus, a significant port in the ancient world where the apostle Paul founded one of the first Christian communities. Ancient Ephesus was huge — about 250,000 people gathered around a central marble colonnade lined with monuments. Outside the city, on a dusty hillside, there is a small blue sign pointing you toward Meryem Ana Evi, Mother Mary’s House, which legend says was the last home of the Virgin Mary, whom we commemorate today. No one knows, of course, whether it really was her home, although the foundations of the building are of the right age. It is located near the Basilica of St. John, holding the grave of St. John the Evangelist, to whom Jesus entrusted his mother from the Cross. It’s an appealing legend: that the young disciple took Mary as his mother and brought her to a place of safety where their bruised and resurrected hearts could have some time to heal.
I could use that space myself, in this bruising time; I suspect you could as well. A place of peace and the soft sound of wind in olive trees. And so today, as we consider Mary, I want to start at the end of her life. The part where she is not a beautiful young virgin, but a wizened crone, living far from her homeland among strangers — and with one stranger who had become kin. We do not know how she spent her days, although we can guess. Scripture depicts her as a woman of prayer — a woman who, when angels and shepherds and kings turned up for the birth of her child, “pondered these things in her heart.” A woman of faith, who, when the wedding they were attending ran out of wine, commanded her son to make more. A woman of endurance who stood at the foot of the Cross, watching her son die.
That’s where I first met her: standing beside a hospital bed with a woman who was watching her son die. The woman had asked me to pray. Until that time, I had had little patience with Mary: the statues were too sentimental, the legends too over-the-top, the devotion a bit too much like the reverence we should pay only to God. But standing by that hospital bed, I realized that she was the only person in the Gospels who could touch that mother’s pain — could touch it because she had kept the same sad vigil. And so I asked her to intercede for that mother and for her son, to add some grace to what could not be mended.
Grace, of course, is always given to what cannot be mended — things which can be mended on human terms do not need the healing of God. That’s what we say when we invoke Mary’s name: Hail, Mary, full of grace — we claim that she is filled with the love which stitches the torn world back together. Both in herself, and in the child she bore, who was Love made flesh. In the Middle Ages, they would make aumbrys in the shape of the Virgin, with the Eucharist in her womb where the Baby would been. Filled with grace, indeed.
The prophet Jeremiah writes, in one of the readings used at Evening Prayer on this feast, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from afar. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jer 31: 2-3.) I have loved you with an everlasting love — but not with a love which precluded the sword. The Lord is speaking to a remnant, to what is left after all other reason to hope had died. The image here is refuge from the wreckage — refuge and hope, for he continues, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built….Sing aloud with gladness…for the Lord has ransomed Jacob and rescued him with hands too strong for him….and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil…their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.” (Jer 31: 7,12) The promise here is not that the people of God will lead safe lives, peaceful lives; it’s that grief will not have the final word, that they will be brought home even when what they loved has been swept away. That they are loved with an everlasting love (even when it might seem that they are not.)
The Mary who stood at the foot of the cross was no less the beloved of God than the slender girl to whom the angel knelt. That is the mystery at the heart of our lives, the one we need to learn again in this lean time. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by what we are facing: climate change, Covid, isolation, hard decisions about how to work, how to worship, how to educate children. But the love of God has been given to us, and it is rugged enough to withstand anything. Often, I think, it does not feel that way. We cradle our faith like a newborn child, try to protect it from the harsh realities and scalding questions which (we fear) might cause it to fall apart, might cause us to lose it. But the Gospels make it clear that Jesus was not only a tender infant; he was also nailed to the Cross. And that means that we, like Mary, can seek him there — not only in pink and white gentleness, but amid all that is most terrible in our lives. He has been there. He has worn our pain. He knows.
The writer Nora Gallagher tells of a time when she agreed to serve as medical proxy for her friend Ben, who was dying. She imagined that she could do this work with grace, that she could consult thoughtfully with medical authorities, make calm, reasoned decisions. She writes, “I did not imagine what came to pass. Instead of that antiseptic corridor, I sat in Ben’s living room, jet-lagged, shovelling Chinese food into my mouth, my own house strewn with dirty laundry and used cat-litter boxes….I had not imagined being so tired I wanted Ben to hurry up and die. In short, I had imagined a better version of myself. Instead, I was the same old [messed]-up woman. In that time, I learned that everything is God’s: my [messed]-up self, my dirty laundry, my harrowing inability to be perfect for Ben. Everything is God’s: shame, suicide, assisted death, AIDS. Because God is in everything, findable in everything, because — I became convinced — I would not have made it through…without God. God is not too good to hang out with jet-lagged women with cat-litter boxes in their dining rooms, or men dying of AIDS, or, for that matter, someone nailed in humiliation to a cross. God is not too good for anything.”1
Perhaps it is blasphemy to attach those words to Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God. But I have a feeling she’d be right at home in them. Not because she was a perfect woman who has compassion on our weakness, but because, based on what we know of her, she’s been pushed to her limit, too. To conceive a child without a father, to flee to a safe house while the child was growing in her womb, to give birth in conditions of poverty and dirt, to flee from a corrupt government into a strange land, any which way you can; to marry the only guy who’ll have you, to raise a child, love a child, watch that child sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit — these are not unusual things. We see them all around us — in the refugee, the teen-aged mother, the racialized woman trying to protect her son from harm. Mary must have been frayed, like they are; desperate, like they are; filthy, frightened, hungry like they are. And, yes, resilient, just like they are. She sang those things into Jesus when he was a boy, songs which promised that evil would not have the final word. She sang about the hungry being fed; about the poor being raised from the garbage-heap; about a God who loves us with an everlasting love. That’s the power of Mary’s story: she takes our worn, frightened, battered humanity and our resilience right up into the heart of God.
I do not believe that Mary made perfect choices, any more than we do. I believe that, confronted with the complexities of a world grown strange, she trembled, just like we do. I believe that, at times, she must have felt empty of hope, that she must have looked to the horizon for an end which did not seem likely to come. But I also know that she was filled with grace, upheld by grace, able to impart it even, ragged as she was. Mary was loved with an everlasting love — and so are we, my friends. So are we.
1. Nora Gallagher, Things Seen and Unseen.