Sunday, December 23, 2012

(Advent 4) What to Make of Mother Mary as Modern Mennonites

Advent 4
Luke 1:39-55; Micah 5:2-5a

(With special guest Patty Huffman, local Catholic leader)

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Today I want to talk about Mary.
I don’t think we talk about Mary enough, as Mennonites.

Last year AMBS, our seminary in Indiana,
held a conference on Mary, called,
“My Spirit Rejoices in God, My Savior”
and sub-titled, “Mary in Anabaptist Dress.”
I don’t think it meant Mary in a big covering and a cape dress.
It meant taking a new look at Mary, through Anabaptist eyes.

That’s what I’m doing today.
Part of this, right after my sermon,
will be to listen also to pictures of Mary, through Catholic eyes.
Sometimes we see ourselves and our own tradition more clearly,
when we respectfully interact with other traditions.

So at the end of my sermon
I will invite Patty Huffman, a dear Catholic friend of mine
that I have known and worked with for over 20 years—
and whom many of you also know—
to give a testimony of her own pilgrimage
as a Catholic woman in relation to Mary.
And then our choir will sing a beautiful rendition
of a traditional Catholic prayer, the Ave Maria.

But first, I invite us to look again at Mary with our own eyes,
and the eyes of scripture.

At the AMBS conference someone said that in Mennonite worship,
Mary shows up on Christmas Eve and Good Friday
but never says anything.
“And yet she sings the most powerful, prophetic words
in the New Testament.”

I think I know why we haven’t made a big deal about Mary.
We are Anabaptists, after all.
We began, 500 years ago, by defining ourselves
over against Catholics and other Protestants.
We are not like them, we said then, and we still say.
We are uncomfortable with the Catholic notion
of venerating Mary and other saints, and praying to them.
Jesus Christ alone is worthy of our worship,
and we reject anything that might distract us from that worship.

Beautiful painted icons of Mary and baby Jesus,
and icons of other saints,
and any other church art,
were literally ripped from the walls
of the church in Zurich, Switzerland,
one of the birthplaces of Anabaptism,
and those images were burned in a bonfire.
They also got rid of musical instruments,
and chopped up the organ,
causing the organist to weep aloud.
We would all say now, and John Fast would heartily agree,
that was going too far,
but that is part of our history.

We still have problems with some Catholics’
almost magical view of Mary.
We can’t make sense of reported appearances
of the Blessed Virgin Mary around the world,
where Mary appears in a vision,
or in some physical artifact,
and throngs of people rush to that place or that artifact,
and experience miraculous healings.

And as we look closer
at some prayers and theological statements about Mary,
coming from Catholic or Orthodox sources,
we have to wince a bit.
Sounds . . . a little bit like worship.
That would be idolatry, right?

So . . . we give Mary the silent treatment,
so as not be associated with these things we see
as excesses, at best,
or heresies, at worst.

But I believe, if we take a fresh and honest look at the scriptures,
at our salvation story recorded there,
and the role of Mary in that story, I think we can’t help but say,
“Wait a minute. Have we been missing something?”
Did we over-react?
Is Mary more important to our spiritual life than we allow?
We might also wonder whether . . . maybe . . .
our Catholic and Orthodox friends
could mean something different than we think they mean,
when they use icons or rosaries or name Mary in their prayers.
Could it be, that they have a way of looking at these things
that are reverential and respectful,
without actually crossing the line to worship,
as we sometimes fear.
Might these icons and prayer be worship aids, that are, in fact,
leading them to the worship of God in Jesus Christ?

We will only find out,
by honestly searching the scriptures,
and honestly engaging in conversation with these other traditions.

Having said all that,
as Anabaptists, I think here’s a place we start, theologically:
The story of God in the scriptures,
is the story of God reaching out to humanity
to save and redeem and restore and reconcile us
back into the identity and relationships
that God intended for us since creation.
God repeatedly tried—
always within God’s own self-imposed boundary
of not violating our free-will—
to draw us back to the created state of shalom.
God tried
by choosing the people of Israel as a light to the nations,
by establishing the law and its covenant,
by sending prophets to call people back to the covenant
when they strayed.
But humanity kept falling, kept rebelling.

So God decided to do more than send messengers.
God sent Godself.
What we have in the story of Christmas—
the Incarnation of God—
is without doubt the single most important
theological affirmation of our faith—
that “God is with us.”
This is more than a nice idea
and a pretty song to sing at Christmas.
It is the ground of our faith.
That in the fully human person of Jesus of Nazareth,
was embodied full divinity.
That God was more than
a distant, uninvolved and untouchable deity.
That God was with us—really.

And the only way that God could possibly take on our humanity,
was through a fully human instrument.
And God chose Mary.
A teenage girl from a little village,
engaged to a peasant-class carpenter.
The great Creator God, Lord of the Universe,
needed . . . literally . . . needed . . . this frail human instrument
to pull off the greatest divine action in human history.

Mary was the instrument of the Incarnation.
God could not have become truly “incarnate”—
taken on flesh—
without a willing and faithful instrument of that flesh.
God needed Mary.

Mary became the “God-bearer.”
This has to be the strangest and most difficult
affirmation of our Christian faith.
It’s the part that most other religions have a hard time
grasping or appreciating.
That an all-powerful God would lay down power,
that the ruler of the universe would relinquish control.
That God—as the Incarnate One—
would even be willing to be carried around in a womb,
to be in a position of dependence, and vulnerability.
Much less to suffer the indignities of birth in a crude shelter,
—as Melodie and Nathan sang about—
and that God would be utterly dependent
on this young, inexperienced girl
for the very life God himself created.
For God to choose to have his human experience
formed and shaped so deeply
by these ordinary people—Mary and Joseph—
is just stunning.
I think any woman here who has been pregnant,
and given birth,
or who has raised any child—born or adopted—
must have a deep visceral sense
of this vulnerability and dependency
that lies behind our lofty theology of “Incarnation.”

That one of us humans could “bear God”
says as much about God as about us.
God was willing to “be borne,” to be carried, to be powerless.

The Eastern Orthodox call Mary “Theotokos.”
It means, literally, “the one who gives birth to God.”
It’s sometimes translated, “God bearer.”
Catholics translate the phrase a little more loosely,
and call Mary “Mother of God.”
You’ll hear that term in the Ave Maria—
“Mater Dei,” Mother of God.
It’s very clear that this is a reference to the physical act
of Mary carrying and giving birth to and mothering, a boy,
who, as it turned out, was fully human and fully God,
the Incarnate One.
It is not a claim that Mary gave birth to the eternal God,
or that Christ’s divinity was derived from Mary.

At the very least, as Mennonites,
we should embrace Mary wholeheartedly
as a key player in our salvation story.
Not only did God need her to carry out
God’s greatest action in human history,
Mary is a worthy model for faithful discipleship.
She said yes to God in the face of insurmountable obstacles,
even violent persecution.
She hoped in God’s salvation,
and boldly walked toward what God was doing in the world.

As Mennonites, we may not be able to connect with the notion
that Mary is now in communion with God in such a way
that Mary might be willing to be an advocate for us.
As Mennonites, we may not understand or appreciate
that Mary has a continuing role in our relationship with God.

And of course, we would insist,
as I think most Catholics and Orthodox would insist,
that Mary never become a substitute for Christ’s mediating work,
that the intercession of Jesus Christ on our behalf is unparalleled,
that the advocacy of the Holy Spirit is unequal to any other.
In other words, our reverence toward Mary is simply an aid
in our worship of God,
and that pondering Mary, devotionally,
is only a means of seeing the Incarnate Christ more clearly.

If our reverence for Mary, or any other saint, living or dead,
doesn’t point us to Christ,
if it keeps us from seeing Christ more clearly,
or becomes a shortcut or substitute,
then we have erred.
But up to that point, we are free, as Mennonites,
to warmly embrace Mary as a companion in our journey.

So now that you’ve heard my take, as a Mennonite, on Mary,
I think this would be a good time to listen
to two Catholic perspectives.

In a moment, I’ll invite Patty to come and share her story,
how Mary has played a role in her devotional life,
and walk with Christ,
as a life-long Catholic woman,
and leader in the Catholic church in Virginia.

After which, the choir will come and sing the Ave Maria.
Let me say just a couple things about this prayer.
You’ll note both the Latin and English translation in your bulletin.

Notice that the first part of the text is a direct quote from scripture,
from the angel’s greeting, and from Elizabeth’s greeting.
So Christians of every stripe, including Mennonite-Anabaptists,
should have no trouble using those same words.
The latter part was added by Catholics
about the same time as the Reformation, interestingly enough,
when Protestants and Anabaptists were emerging.

This prayer is what is used
as many Catholics pray the rosary.
It has even made it into football vocabulary.
When the quarterback throws a “Hail Mary” pass,
heaving the ball, and hoping it lands in the right hands,
it’s referring to this prayer.
Theologically, I certainly don’t think we want to go there,
even if the Redskins need all the help they can get.

Neither this prayer, nor any other prayer,
is a last-ditch magical incantation,
when things get desperate.
But can it be a legitimate tool in some Christians’ walk with Christ?
Can it lead some toward being formed as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
I think it can.
So, as the choir sings this historic prayer
to a beautiful musical setting,
let it minister to you as it will.
And what does not minister, let it be.

So, Patty, sister in Christ, please come and share with us.

—Phil Kniss, December 23, 2012

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