Horizons — What My Grandmothers Taught Me — Mary in the faith tradition

Lesson 8: Mary in the Faith Tradition (Matthew 1:18–2:23)

Pictures of Mary often show little emotion. She seems passive. Whether in school clothes or fancy dress, there is no fear, tears or laughter, no temper tantrums or terrible grief. Her gaze is often down.

Though hardly exhaustive, I scanned the internet for paintings and sculptures of Mary the mother of Jesus from the fourth century to the present time. Mary looks gentle, unmoved, or pious with her head turned up towards heaven and her hands folded in prayer. I don’t warm up to Mary as she is depicted in most of the art, but for millions of people Mary is important to their faith because she is someone like them.

In my upbringing, Mary was not emphasized; actually, she wasn’t talked about at all. Over the years, reading Mary as the model of discipleship for women and men has been liberating for me. Only male ministers and officers led the church through my childhood and until my college years. As a young pastor, meditating on Mary as the first disciple opened new doors for me.

Mary’s discipleship can be a guide to us as Christians. Though she is perplexed and questioning, she accepts God’s will for her life, bearing Jesus in her body and offering him to the world. We as disciples are also called to embody Jesus, to let Christ form our characters so that others can see Christ through how we live. We also offer Jesus to the world when we share what is meaningful about our faith with others.

It is comforting to realize that Mary, like us, does not really know what the future will hold for her and for her child. Mary and Joseph hear strange things from the shepherds, the prophet Anna and from Simeon, who is a perfect stranger. Simeon says to them, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:25-35). No doubt, Jesus’ parents wonder what in the world Simeon means. Mary may also have been shocked when Jesus begins his ministry and people say Jesus is insane. She goes with family members to call Jesus back, but he will not come (Mark 3:19b-35). As we also do, Mary will gradually grow in her understanding of Jesus.

We may wonder why in the world Mary goes along with God’s plan in the first place. The consequences of being pregnant out of wedlock were serious and potentially deadly. However, something moves Mary to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In Luke 1:26-35, the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will be pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that the child will be great and will sit on the throne of David and have a permanent kingdom. Perhaps Mary’s openness to God’s will assumes that her child will lead a revolt against the oppressive brutality of Roman rule; Gabriel’s words imply it. Her motivation could equally be that her parents were devout, and her life has been steeped in prayer and Scripture. The stories of Tamar, Rahab and Ruth certainly tell her that God has used unlikely women to further the divine plan.

Mary is like many people in our world — poor, without power or importance. Mary lacks shelter and becomes a refugee, fleeing imminent danger. Here is a mother who knows the joy and the sorrows of raising a child. Here is a woman who knows the devastating pain of her son’s death at the hands of a cruel government.

Poor people around the world powerfully identify with Mary. Her words in Luke 1:46-55,
known as the Magnificat, reveal a God who scatters the arrogant, pulls down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. These are dangerous words. The government of Argentina in the 1970s prohibited all public readings of this Scripture when the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo published it as their manifesto of nonviolent resistant against a brutal military. Guatemala followed suit in the 1980s. For those living under dreadful governments and for us living in safety, Mary’s words remind us that God not only cares deeply for the marginalized and the oppressed, but that God will bring justice and equity to the poor.

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