Take Virgin Mary Off The Pedestal

There is nothing worse than being put up on a pedestal. And there has perhaps been no one whose usefulness to humanity has been more misused than the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.

When we hear this Gospel of St. Luke passage read (1:26-38) on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the strains of countless beautiful “Ave Marias” run through our minds. “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

And coupled with our First Lesson for this same Sunday (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), in which the prophet Nathan does what genuine prophets always do, and keeps the powerful humble and in check, we can appreciate Mary even more. King David is full of himself and thinks it about time he built his God a fabulous home place–a temple. But Nathan’s word of the Lord for David is that God is the Home Builder–he the Giver of Sanctuary–he is the Powerful One in anyone’s story. Therefore David would be better off not formulating plans, but rather getting in with God’s.

Then we hear Mary’s “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

She passes the test David flunked.

Could today’s “#me too” movement signal a change in the way we heed and respect women and their wisdom in our world? Could there be a better hero for anyone of any gender aspiring to be “religious” or “righteous than this young maiden?”

But making of Mary simply a hero–singing “Ave Maria,” and putting her high up on a pedestal, could mark the end of her usefulness as a servant of the Lord. Does she not ride out of backwater and suspicious Galilee and into our lives and our stories to turn our lives upside down?

Hero worship, including the veneration of saints, including the singing of “Ave Maria,” is a key part of what Søren Kierkegaard called “crowd Christianity.” It can be done as we remain spectators–as we remain passive. “I’m just little old me. This world is messed up. People are being bombed out of their homes. Addicts are made by the millions, just incidental collateral damage as the stocks in Big Pharma keep rolling along–but what can I do about all this?”

No. This gospel reading is meant to inspire and transform and challenge us. The power of the Most High is casting its shadow not just over Mary, but over each and every one of us. We are being addressed by angels who are telling us that the Lord is with us, and we too are highly favored and blessed. But there is work to be done.

The “Prayer of the Day” in our service book, Evangelical Worship, contains this phrase: “free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy.” That’s what real sin is. It puts road blocks in the way of God’s unimaginable  love.

God’s love is a relentless power that washes all over the world and splashes over all of us. There are plenty of jobs available.  Sin, on the other hand,  feeds on our inertia–our resistance to God’s love. Sin is singular before it is plural. It is always first a bad belief–a faith that we are not part of God’s revolution. It is all colored by our secret conviction of our own weakness and fear. All the resentment that feeds tyrants and their followers, is born of this weakness and fear. And then it rises up to obstruct God’s mercy.

Mary’s “Her am I, Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” is not to be marveled at. It is to be echoed. Mary and her angel are challenging us, provoking us, daring us to rise above our fears and self doubt. They are calling us to obstruct no longer, but instead, to ride the oncoming wave of God’s ever expanding and revolutionary justice and mercy.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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