Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “Mary

Mary of God

Annunciation Tryptich by Robert Moore

Let us pray:

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Our liturgical calendar is a spiral tracing the contours of the same story across time. At this moment we are celebrating the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary in the midst of the season we recall the Church’s first flush of growth. There is another layer to the spiral: in March we added a new liturgical season, Coronatide, and as a result, the Feast of the Annunciation passed almost unobserved. On that date, nine months before Christmas, we commemorate the whisper of God putting on flesh in the womb of Mary of Nazareth. And according to that turn of the spiral, the Blessed Virgin has been navigating the unfamiliar territory of a miraculous pregnancy for about five months now. We celebrate all of the layers of this spiral in the life, legacy and ministry of the mother of our faith, the mother of our Redeemer whom some would call the Matrix of Redemption and others the Theotokas, the God-Bearer, the Mother of God and, the Mother of Sorrows. Her story unfolds in nine chapters:

Chapter 1: A Holy Name

Miriam the mother of all prophets saves Israel’s savior while just a child herself (Exodus 2:5-10); it was she who led Israel through the sea while Moses held the waters open through the power of God (Exodus 15:20) and, she grows up to become a prophet so beloved that the fledgling nation sat down on God and went on strike, refusing to move without her (Numbers 12:15). Her name Miryam, would become the name so many Jewish families chose for their daughters that we can’t keep them straight in the gospels. Mary of Nazareth was Miriam of Nazareth.

Chapter 2: An Inconceivable Conception

Young Miriam of Nazareth, on the cusp of womanhood, innocent and wise, ordinary and extraordinary (Luke 1:27-56) and on her way to being the kind of woman, wife and mother the scriptures often overlook when heaven and earth collide in an angelic annunciation. She draws on the sacred songs of her people, Hannah’s hymn in 1 Samuel 2 and, on Psalm 113. She seeks the company of her cousin like so many young girls who find it easier to talk to a favorite aunt about sex and sexuality and unexpected pregnancies. And there she hears the words that will follow her through the ages as they had followed others: Blessed are you among women. We will return to those words. 

Chapter 3: A Marriage on the Rocks

            Young Mary’s matrimonial plans come to a screeching halt (Matthew 1:18-20). The truth is that there are not a lot of men who will raise someone else’s child and even fewer who will do so when their bride has supposedly been saving herself for him but turns up pregnant with a whale of a tale. But Joseph trusted God over his bruised ego.

Chapter 4: Blood of My Blood; Flesh of My Flesh

            The virgin bride has become the Virgin Mother and heaven and earth rejoice (Luke 2:15-51). Angels sing and shepherds and sages seek her son. She is an observant Jew and will raise him as one from the moment of his birth so they travel, even in her tender state, to honor God with their gifts, sacrifices and offerings and mark the baby as a son of Sarah and Abraham through his circumcision.

Chapter 5: A Life on the Run

            Happiness turns to horror as Herod puts out a hit on the baby and sends his goons to butcher any baby boys they find (Matthew 2:13-15). God sends the brown-skinned family into hiding someplace where they will blend in, pre-Arab North Africa when skin tones would have been even darker than they are now.

Chapter 6: Preacher and Prophet

In the story of the wedding of Cana (John 2:1-12) the Blessed Mother tells her God-born son that it is time for him to live into who he is publicly as only mothers can do. And for those around her who do not yet know who her Son is, she preaches a powerfully simple sermon that we would do well to heed ourselves, “Do what he tells you to do.” Do what he tells you to do. Is there any finer sermon that gets to the heart of what we are called to as Christians?

Chapter 7: His First Teacher and First Disciple

            She who was his first teacher was also his very first disciple. She was with him (Mark 3:31-35) when he taught that “Whoever does the will of God is my sister and brother and mother.” One day a woman was so taken by his teaching that she shouted out a blessing for her (Luke 11:27), “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”

Chapter 8: Heartbreak and Hope

There is line from Lamentations that we pray on Good Friday, casting our sanctified imaginations to imagine her praying it at the foot of the cross, “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?” We move quickly through those three holy days, too quickly and too easily, knowing the end of the story where she had only hope, fierce and fleeting, soaring and stumbling, and the memories of his life, birth, death and her pregnancy, all jumbled up with an unbelievable moment of tenderness at the moment of his death (John 19:23b-27). Jesus said to her and to one he loved and trusted, “He shall be your son and you shall be his mother.” She is silent on Saturday and on Sunday. Perhaps another trip to the tomb of her son was just too much, too soon. We rush her past her grief instead of sitting in silence with her like Job’s friends.

We cannot comfort her in her grief but we can remember it. And in her name we can comfort Geneva Reed-Veal the mother of Sandra Bland and, Judy Shepherd the mother of Matthew Shepherd and, Lezley McSpadden the mother of Mike Brown and, Sybrina Fulton the mother of Trayvon Martin and, Allison Jean the mother of Bothan Jean, and all of the mothers who have lost children to the violence of the state and its actors and would-be actors.

Chapter 9: Touched by God, Again

On the day of Pentecost, the Blessed Mother was in the house when the Holy Spirit she knew more intimately than anyone else fell on her and the other women, men, disciples and followers of Jesus in the upper room. (Acts 1:14)

The text is silent on her after that. There are traditions that she and John retired to a little house in what is now Turkey. There is a church there you can visit. There is also the tradition that after her death, her body was taken up into heaven.

The life of her Son, his love – for her, for us, for God – all bear witness to her as do those resounding and redounding words, “Blessed are you among women.” Elizabeth drew those words from the treasury of scripture. We heard those words in our First Lesson, spoken to the widow and warrior Judith by one of the town magistrates:

Judith 13:18 Uzziah said to Judith, “O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth, and blessed be the Holy God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. 19 Praise of you will never depart from the hearts of women and men who remember the power of God. 20 May God do these things for you as an eternal exaltation, and may God visit you with blessings, because you did not withhold your life when our nation was humiliated, rather you rallied against our demise, walking straight before our God.” And all the people said, “Amen. Amen.”

The context of Judith’s blessing might make it seem a strange or even unwelcome blessing for the Virgin Mother. After all, Judith prayed for God to make her deceit believable and successful and, that deceit was that she was succumbing to the charms of the king blockading the city. She allowed him to think he was seducing her, got him drunk and sawed off his head with his own sword. That is a most unsettling blessing story.

And before Judith, there was Jael. When she killed the enemy of her people by hammering a tent peg into his skull, he was likely attempting to rape her which is why he fell between her legs or in biblical idiom at her feet. His mother, not knowing he is dead, thinks he is late because he is abusing women as spoils of war.

Perhaps you’re thinking this sermon has taken an ugly turn. I am convinced that this ugliness is exactly why Elizabeth drew on her knowledge of her scriptures and chose these words and these women to bless her cousin. Redemption is a bloody business because this crucifying world is a bloody place. While she was presenting her baby at the temple, blessed Simeon spoke over the Holy Child to the Blessed Mother (Luke 2:34-35):

This child is destined for the falling and the 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.

Today, we remember and commemorate and celebrate a woman who is more than a two-dimensional Christmas card. We remember a life of joy and sorrow, faith and discipleship, a woman who loved God enough to say yes to the unimaginable, a woman who speaks across the ages and bids us come and follow Jesus and do whatever he tells us to do knowing that we too may come to our death and in so doing, yet live.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.


Live Your Theology Out Loud in Public

National Black Catholic Magnificat

Today is a commissioning service of sorts. [Hooding, conferral of academic hoods at Brite Divinity School, December 2017.] We confer degrees and the regalia that pertains to them to send you forth, forth across town, across the state, across an ocean, across the world, sometimes just around the corner, sometimes back to us for another go ‘round. We are sending you forth to a world that needs a wisdom we may not have imagined this time last year. It seems to me that this world which we inhabit, serve and with which we wrestle calls for a particular kind of wisdom. It is my hope, and I believe that of my colleagues of the faculty, administration, and staff, that we have nurtured and refined the wisdom that was already in you, perhaps adding something of our own. I am mindful that all of us are already navigating this world together with what wisdom we have; too often it seems insufficient. Part of what I believe distinguishes us at Brite is that we are a community that is deeply invested in the world around us and that does not begin or end with hooding. Yet hooding marks a moment of transition to living out our calling in new ways, whether in new contexts, jobs, yet another degree, or in a space in which nothing else has changed outwardly. You may not all have jobs when you leave this place, but you have a job in this world.

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

The preaching lectionary of the Episcopal Church turns to the vocational declaration in Isaiah 61 and to the Magnificat tomorrow to tell anew the story of Jesus. In that telling, the church tells its own story. It is a particular and particularly denominational Christian framing of these texts. And if we have taught and learned anything together then we have learned there is more than one way to tell the story of the text.

            Hearing Isaiah through Jesus makes it easy to say to Jesus of the text, “That’s your job, your calling.” But Isaiah wasn’t written by, or even particularly for, Jesus. (We did teach that, right?) The speaker, a poet-prophet,[1] from the community or school of Isaiah who continued the great work begun earlier in his name, this very human prophet receives a vocational call that in fact does not require a god, god-man, or the offspring of a god to fulfill. It is a very human vocation, albeit a daunting one. It is a particularly fit job description for someone who has completed her theological education, [though it does not require one].

            It is also a contextual job description. The poet-prophet is called to serve in world in which there are deeply impoverished people,[2] a world in which the hearts and hopes of people have been shattered. She is called to serve in a world in which some people’s bodies are treated like they were property—that’s what it meant to be “taken captive” in the world of the text, to be used—usually sexually—as someone else saw fit. She is called to serve in a world in which some folk were imprisoned and foreclosed from the possibility of flourishing, locked away, rightly or wrongly, literally and metaphorically. She is called to serve in a world in which there was deep grief and aching losses leaving deficits that could only partially be addressed through reparations, even if paid by God. And she is called to serve in a world in which the vaunted institutions of her ancestors had failed, in which walls had failed to keep her people safe, in which the man who governed was the puppet of a foreign master. She is called to serve in a world in which the things she held dear had been set on fire, and perhaps, one in which there were other things which she wished to see set on fire.

            Maybe this job calls for a god-woman or god-man after all. But the poet-prophet is not on her own. She has the power of the Mother of Creation, She Who Was—flexing her winged embrace over the chaotic currents from which she birthed the world, and She who would pour herself into a virgin’s womb and create a life that would shake the heavens and the earth in another story, from another time, in another testament. The Matrix of Life anointed our poet-prophet, not with the oil of priests or kings, oil that would fade as those offices passed away or morphed into entirely different institutions—sometimes retaining the same names. Rather, Mama God anointed her prophet, infusing her and her words with an anointing that lingered through the first century when a holy child born of her Holy Spirit recited these words to articulate his contextual calling, and down through every age in which these words have been received as holy writ, including our own.

            A student of scripture in its earliest form, the poet-prophet looked to the words of the poet-prophet Isaiah, and found, received and accepted her metaphorical hood and the calling that goes with it, and wrote herself (or perhaps himself) into the text that would become the double or triple book of Isaiah. Her holy boldness was not as transgressive as it may sound for she was one of the many (or few) who picked up the pen of Isaiah and continued his work. She did not come to this work on her own. God called her. So she penned the story of her calling, her commissioning, her hooding, to explain what God was up to in the world. She wrote: The spirit of God whose name is holy is upon me

The poet-prophet goes out into the world with more than the words on the page, the ink on the degree, or the books on the shelves. She goes with a clear sense of mission having been prepared for the world that is hers. Its needs are many and great but she is ready. She has all she needs to do the work at hand. She has her voice, her words, her pen, her poetry, her preaching. She has her congregation beyond the walls of any sanctuary or sanctum for study; her people are the broken and dispossessed, the disenfranchised, convicts, felons, and those on death row. She is called to preach wholeness and liberation and she is called to preach God’s favor and God’s recompense. She is called to preach life and love. She is called to take a stand, to acknowledge that everything isn’t all relative in the sight of God. There are things that her provoke to action because there are things that provoke God to action on behalf of her people.

            Now, because she went to a good, fully accredited divinity school, she has more than one skill set. Good thing because folk also need care for their souls. Her call is to the souls the diseased, the dis-eased, the dying, and the grieving. She is called to offer more than words and above all to avoid cheap theological platitudes and t-shirt slogans. She will need to draw on the wealth of pastoral theology she has learned, integrated, and embodies to do grief work with her community corporately and individually. She can’t do that work without knowledge of their history or an understanding of her own spirituality. She can be confident of her preparation because life in the Isaiah school was one long supervised ministry practicum.

            Above all she is called to do transformational work, facilitating the healing and recovery of her people. And then they, a people who have been transformed because one person translated her theological education into her own poetry, they reimagined and rebuilt their world, together. But it didn’t happen overnight. It took generations, centuries to rebuild Jerusalem and its institutions, and even its walls. But walls cannot stop change and they fall down. Curiously the text doesn’t call for rebuilding walls; perhaps the Holy Muse, or better Holy Nudge, was trying to nudge folk away from structures that divide.

            The walls would fall again and again and one collaborator would be replaced by another and no matter how much changed between our two texts or between us and them, the world still needs folk to live their theology out loud, in public, in partnership with the God who shakes up the world and its hierarchies and binaries, institutions, occupations, and oppressions. And so we turn to another prophetic poetic voice, and as is the case with so many women in scripture, we aren’t quite sure who she is because some manuscripts say Mariam or Maria, Mary, and others say Elisabet, Elisabel, and Elisabeth.[3]

She is another poet who wrote of what God was and is up to in the world, in her very intimate world, the intimate spaces of her body, and beyond, in the wider world. Her poetry proclaims an unparalleled intimate relationship with God but with none of the smug sanctimony of those who construct a personal salvation apart from the beloved community. She professes faith in a God whose mercy transcends time and is not limited to her and those who see the world exactly as she sees it. She proclaims a God who is partial to the plight of the poor and is a terror to the tyrant.

The Magnificat recalls an ancestral promise and she bears witness, in her very body, to a God of promise. Today I call you to proclaim the faithful promises of a faithful God to this world and its people. And when the originating context of the promise impinges on it so that it is too narrow for this world that is our context of ministry, take up the pen of the poet-prophet and extend the promise. Sometimes you will have to use your sanctified imagination to draw forth the words. Other times you will simply have to go back to the text for a close reading to remind yourself and those with whom you read that a promise made to Abraham and his descendants is a promise to the Muslim and Christian descendants of Hagar and Keturah as well as the Jewish and Christian descendants of Isaac.

The end of the Magnificat speaks of a memorial to God’s mercy in the text. That memorial was not a monument of stone, but the love of God poured into human flesh, woman-flesh, scandalously passing through scandalized flesh. Today I call you to be scandalous. Scandalously accept, love, serve, and nurture human beings in and not in spite of their bodies, their flesh, particularly those whose flesh the world disdains.

Above all the Magnificat is political. It speaks directly to and against those enthroned in power. I call you to be political. Speak to those who can and will hear you and speak against those who hoard power and resources while others hunger and hurt.

May God continue to write her story of promise in and through you for the hope and healing of the world. Amen.

Isaiah 61:1 The spirit of the Holy God is upon me,
because God has anointed me;
God has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberation to the captives,
and opening up, release, to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Holy One’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who grieve;
3 to pay reparations those who grieve in Zion—
to give to them a glorious garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of grieving,
the mantle of praise instead of a diminished spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of God, for God to display God’s own glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
the former devastations they shall raise up;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of untold generations.

Luke 1:46 Miriam, Mary, said,
“My soul magnifies the Holy One,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s name.
50 God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
from generation to generation.
51 God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped God’s own child, Israel,
a memorial to God’s mercy,
55 just as God said to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Translations by Wil Gafney, Ph.D.

[1] For the speaker as a prophet, see the Targum of Is 61:1, The prophet said… On the role of women prophets in Isaiah, see my Daughters of Miriam, 103-107.

[2] The “humble-poor,” ענוים.

[3] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, 365.