~ Luke 1:26-38; 46-55 ~
I was introduced to a poignant poem this past week thanks to the musical inspiration of Bay Area composer, Frank La Rocca. The poem is written by Sister Columba Guare of the Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa. The poem, itself, was inspired by a crayon and pencil drawing made by another sister at the abbey. It depicts Eve, holding an apple, looking somewhat pensive, as pregnant Mary stands with her, placing Eve’s had on her swollen belly. The picture is entitled “The Virgin Mary Consoles Eve.” The poem is entitled “O Eve.”
My mother, my daughter, life-giving Eve,
Do not be ashamed, do not grieve.
The former things have passed away,
Our God has brought us to a New Day.
See, I am with Child,
Through whom all will be reconciled.
O Eve! My sister, my friend,
We will rejoice together
Life without end.
Two iconic women of biblical story, often represented by early church fathers as the antithesis of each other. Even though Adam and Eve both ate of the forbidden fruit, they focused on Eve’s doubt, disobedience and pride as the real cause of bringing sin into the world. Conversely, they emphasized Mary’s faith, obedience and humility as being instrumental in bringing salvation into the world
Two women, one vilified; one virtually deified. The ‘fathers’, it seems, just had to make them unreal. They couldn’t treat them as just women, for their own sakes. Christianity’s relationship with Mary over the centuries has been complicated. There is good evidence that early Christianity welcomed a significant role for women in the life and ministry of the church and regarded Mary as a prophetess. But as the church became patriarchically entrenched in the 4th century, Mary was more and more set apart. She became almost “deified.” In time the Catholic Church adopted the concept of the “immaculate conception” of Mary, believing that for her to bear the Son of God she, too, must have been sinless. This, it was believed that God declared her sinless at the moment of her conception. In time, it became practice to pray to Mary to get to Jesus to ultimately get to God. Indeed, the Mary songs we’ve heard this morning are beautiful prayers to Mary that echo such sentiments. But I wonder. In doing this was Mary’s humanity diminished so much that it made her spiritually separate from the rest of us humans?
Of course, the men of the reformation would have nothing to do with any of this. They rejected the “Mariology” of Catholic doctrine. But the Reformers were just as patriarchal as their Catholic brethren and, as a result, basically reduced Mary to a mere vessel – a virgin vessel, granted, but a mere vessel none the less. And so, through the centuries, Protestants haven’t really known what to do with Mary. She seems to have faded into the background. And, in many churches still today, women are not allowed to have a voice. For those churches, God only speaks in a male voice.
And yet, here in Luke’s gospel, at the very beginning of the Good News, God has chosen to speak through a woman, Mary, and then, later, Elizabeth, her cousin. Indeed, throughout Luke’s gospel story women play an important role. Here at the very beginning, in many encounters with Jesus, and at the end the women who remained faithful while the men retreated into hiding.
Did you catch one interesting word in the first reading? It says Mary “pondered.” She pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The word “pondered” means she turned things over in her mind. Hers was not a passive, do-with-me-what-you-will mindset. Hers was a let-me-carefully-consider-this mindset. Everything that follows is in light of her “pondering” what this all means.
And what follows is Gabriel’s offer. Mary asks some questions of clarification (it is a rather audacious situation, after all). But this is not a forced situation. It would appear that God (and I use the masculine voice here intentionally) does not force himself on Mary. He does not abuse his power. Rather, it is an offer; an invitation. It appears that Mary is free to refuse this audacious offer if, in her pondering, she decides it’s just not for her. The choice is hers. We don’t know how long it took for her to decide – maybe a few seconds? A couple hours? Later that day? Maybe a few days? However long it took to consider this offer it was hers to choose.
And, so, in her pondering, she decides. “Here am I…; Let it be with me…” Gabriel, maybe somewhat relieved, has done his job, and he leaves Mary to ponder some more about what has just happened. Evidently, she didn’t stay that way too long, for the story says she went “with haste” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. And, two remarkable women celebrated their conditions – their pregnant conditions.
Here, in Luke, a female voice begins the Jesus story. A woman decides all by herself whether the Jesus’ story will even happen. How subversive! Mary’s “let it be” gets everything started. A courageous, yet demure, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
That young female voice then sings one of the most stunning songs of God’s true agenda for the world, the Magnificat. A song of God’s inclusivity and impartiality. A song not about God’s judgmental holiness, but about God’s endless mercy. A song that turns the world upside down. Thank you, Mary, for your song. Yes, it should be sung by a woman! Thank you, for being you. Thank you for deciding to “let it be.” Maria quam pulchra es. O Mary, how lovely you are. Indeed! Amen.