Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Isaiah 7:10-15; Ps 132:6-10, 13-14, Gal 4:4-7; Luke 1: 46-55
In the center of Stone Town, in Zanzibar, stands a magnificent cathedral. Built between 1873 and 1880, its construction dates hint at its history. 1873 was the year in which the slave trade was abolished in Zanzibar, thirty-nine years after it had been made illegal in British domains. After being captured, conquered, or abducted into slavery, the men, women, and children were marched to Stone Town, the largest slave market in East Africa. There, they had their last glimpse of their home continent before being loaded into ships for transport to the Middle East.
When slavery was finally abolished, the Anglican Church constructed its cathedral on the site of the former slave market, carefully positioning the altar on the location — the former location — of the whipping post. The presence of the huge building was a sign: never again will people made in the image of God be bought and sold on this place. More than that, the construction of the altar was a theological claim of breathtaking audacity: not only a claim about Christ’s capacity to redeem evil, but the claim that the suffering inflicted upon tormented black bodies could not be separated from the suffering inflicted on the body of Christ. That it should not be possible to gaze upon the salvation re-enacted each week in the Eucharist without a serious reckoning of just what it was that had to be redeemed.
Where do you plant your cross?
Today we honor the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, Adam’s Deliverance, Advocate of Eve, Comforter of the Afflicted, Gate of Heaven —these are just a few of the hundreds of titles which have accrued to her over time, this young woman from an obscure town whose life, without God, would have passed unremarked and unremembered. Today we remember that when God chose to plant his cross, he planted it first in her body, the vessel through which he gained mortality.
But Mary was more than a vessel: she was a woman in her own right, a person with her own convictions, a mother who taught and nurtured her son. There’s an odd tradition in Western art: painting after painting depicts Mary teaching Jesus to read. Now, literacy rates in ancient Israel have been estimated at about 3%, almost entirely male. So this artistic convention is more likely to be a metaphor for something else than an illustration of fact. Perhaps it’s the paradox of the Word of God needing to learn to read. But the fact that these images show Mary and not Joseph as the teacher point toward the power that a woman has to form the mind and spirit of her child.
We know almost nothing about Mary; the Magnificat, which we heard read today, is almost the only speech we have preserved. But those words, which faithful Anglicans pray each evening as part of Evening Prayer, suggest that Jesus heard from his earliest days about a God who was on the side of those who needed an advocate. Imagine with me for a moment: Mary is playing with the baby Jesus, holding him in her arms, bouncing him up and down the words:
He has showed strength with his arm
He has scattered the proud.
He has put down the mighty from their seats
And lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with goooood things
And the rich he has sent away empty.
And then the cradle-song, the last words Jesus would have heard as he was drifting to sleep: He has remembered his mercy. He has helped us, his people Israel. He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors, to protect and guide and lead us forever.
To me, those scenes of domesticity conjure up other scenes, scenes from the American South, when enslaved mothers would lean over their cradle and sing songs to implant their children with hope. They’d sing of escape, of following the North Star to freedom: “Follow the drinking gourd…” They’d sing of their deaths as the ultimate form of liberation: “Deep river, my home lies over Jordan.” With every word, they would instill in their children the belief that this world of bondage was not their true home, that there was another place to which they were headed, in this life or the next, a place of freedom where their dignity would never be taken away.
Jesus would have needed those promises, for his people, too were not free. The church talks a lot about Mary’s “lowliness,” and much of that talk makes it sound like a particularly rare form of humility — which it may have been. But we need also to remember that she was actually a person of low status: a woman from a subjected people, a woman tainted by early pregnancy and married to a carpenter — a landless artisan who, for all his claims to royal blood, would have been at the bottom of the social hierarchy, beneath even a peasant who farmed his own acre of land. Jesus would have been the subject of whispers and contempt from the other boys in the neighborhood; he would have known in his bones what it was to need to be set free. It’s easy to slip into seeing Jesus living as if he were poor, as if he were vulnerable: the superhero, the miracle-worker moving among ordinary men and women. But when we remember Mary, we remember that there was no as if about it. Christ’s incarnation was real. He was born in blood and sweat like any other human being; he hungered and thirsted like any other human being. And his act of divine descent began in Mary’s womb, in the body of a woman whose only gifts to give her son were life and faith and hope.
Life and faith and hope were what Jesus came to offer — and they could only have been offered from below, by one who knew them from within. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has written that “in his Passion and death, Jesus went so low that henceforth no one could ever fall without falling into Jesus. “(From Fire of Mercy, Vol IV, p.189) Let me repeat that: from that time, no one could ever fall with falling into Jesus. Into his grace. Into his mercy. Into his forgiveness. Into his abiding love. In that striking image, von Balthasar turns the Incarnation on its head. Just as Jesus fell into human flesh and blood by falling into the body of Mary, so we fall into God when all else fails us. When we are so deeply shattered that we can no longer sustain our pretenses and must accept that our illusions were, exactly, illusions.
There comes a time in many lives in which the darkness seems overwhelming, in which it feels as if the things we love are ending, as if we may never see much goodness again. The gifts of Mary — faith, hope, and love — are for those times. Austin Channing Brown writes, [Hope] “is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. ..This is the…place from where I demand a love that matters.” (I’m Still Here)
And Jesus’ love, Mary’s love, matters supremely. Today’s readings center on the birth of Christ, but of course, Mary was also there at his death, standing at the foot of the cross. She knew, more than any other human being, that the price of participating in God’s love is putting skin in the game: not only Christ’s, but her own. And that love gave her the strength to stand there, ensuring that the last face her Son would see was a face of love. She stood there as she stood before the angel, demanding a love that matters, a love which heals, which repairs, which forgives, which renews. She knew, somehow, in the passion of her heart, that the cross needed to be planted, not in the paths of comfort, but in the places of our deepest pain — because that is where God’s redemption was needed most of all.