Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Dec. 17, 2017
The Virgin Mary, meek and mild, submitted not only to the will of God, but also to Joseph, who was about to divorce her because of her embarrassing pregnancy. Shrouded by a blue veil, her head eternally bows demurely with eyes deferred. This is the Mary the church has created as a symbol of purity and female submission. This is the Mary described in the Gospel of Matthew, in which the angels announced the conception of Jesus not to Mary, but to Joseph.
But the Gospel of Luke paints quite a different picture of Mary. In Luke’s eyes, she was intelligent and studious, knowing her Hebrew scripture by heart. She was creative, able to compose a song based on the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. Mary’s song was prophetic and dangerous, which made Mary a courageous, bold, precocious prophet, who did not fear the oppressive Roman authorities but dared to sing a song of their demise. The Gospel of Luke destroys the myth of Matthew’s Mary that is meek, mild and mindless.
Not everyone throughout the course of history has preferred Matthew’s version of Mary. The poor, who have had access to the Bible, have taken great comfort in Luke’s description of Mary. They have seen her as their mother, guiding them in a revolutionary struggle for justice. There are stories that Mary’s song, known as the Magnificat, was so dangerously inspirational, that the Guatemalan police arrested anyone publically reciting it in the 1980s. There are other stories that when the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina began to gather in protest, the military forbid them from publically reciting the Magnificat. Even back under British rule in India, there are yet more stories of churches being forbidden to sing the Magnificat.
Listen to the words that made Mary’s song so threatening: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Note that Mary used the past tense in her song. Even though she and her people lived under severe Roman rule, she had such faith in God breaking through this oppression, that she celebrated what could be as what had already happened. As T. S. Eliot writes, “The end is where we start from…the end precedes the beginning.” In trying to help us understand this confusion of tenses and of ends and beginnings, a biblical exegete suggests, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God see it…as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone.”
Mary’s powerful, revolutionary words are not the only reason the common folk have found themselves drawn to her. They also see her as the Mother of God, who is full of grace and warmth. They see her as accessible, someone to whom they can relate; someone who can help them connect with Holy Mystery. In the eastern Orthodox church, Mary is called Theotokos, meaning God-bearing or God-birthing. Willingly, without being forced, Mary courageously said yes to God’s choice of her to bear God incarnate. There was a reason why God chose mighty Mary to birth God incarnate. Meister Eckart, a German mystic from the 13th century, believed that God is still choosing the faithful to bear God incarnate. He wrote, “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.”
If the Mary from the Gospel of Luke was to visit us today, I wonder what she would have to say?
Many people tell me that my son is a lot like me. Well—we do share a passion for justice and we share a deep love of our Jewish faith—a deep love of our God. Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu! (Blessed are you Lord our God). I actually think my son is more like his father—but that’s a whole other story.
Let me tell you a bit about me. You believe that the spirits of your loved ones who have passed on are living in peace with God; that they are watching over you, cheering for you along with that great cloud of witnesses described in the book of Hebrews. Well—I’m also one of those witnesses, which the Roman Catholics and Orthodox know very well but the Protestants sadly forget. I take delight in your moments of delight. When you are soaring with joy over a new birth, over the first snowflake softly falling, my heart sings with yours. I also grieve with you in your moments of grief. When your pain and your loss are overwhelming, my tears mingle with yours.
As well, I hear the cries of my other children—those whose backs are broken by the desperate weight of poverty and homelessness. I am grateful that you offer food and conversation every month for some of them. My son speaks highly of your gifts of charity. But, oy vey, if I’ve told him once I’ve told him a thousand times (I’m a typical Jewish mother!): charity is important, but we have to do more than that to break the cycle of poverty. All of you here are privileged to various degrees. My song challenges you to offer your power and privilege as a change agent to make this world a better place for all.
I want to tell you three stories of how your own social structures, that you have chosen through all of your various governments keep people locked in poverty and oppression. Until the structures are changed, poverty and violence will only grow, no matter how generously you give to charity.
The first two stories take place in your own city of Winnipeg. There is a young man living in the north end whose family is living off the proceeds of the drug culture. He wants to leave the gangs, but they keep finding him. He’s afraid to see his family, because they are part of the gangs. Every day he faces violence. He needs support and protection to find and keep a job. There is an organization that offers this, especially for those just coming out of jail, but the waiting list for the support group is over a year. The need is great but there is not enough funding. Eventually, he ends up back in jail, costing you even more.
There is a single Mom who gets by on welfare. She’d like a job, but she needs specialized childcare for her disabled son that is not available. She finds that welfare is a safety net that has caught her. What she needs is support for her son so that she can disentangle herself from the social safety net. But there is not enough support for disabilities and mental illness.
The third story takes place in San Salvador. As you drive down the hill into the city you pass a number of warehouses. One of these, undistinguished from the rest, is a sweatshop factory. The workers who receive very low wages and work in horrible conditions. They are only allowed bathroom breaks every few hours. But people in first world countries insist on buying goods from the cheapest store. They don’t realize that low prices keep their wages low with unsafe working conditions and environmental disregard. First world governments allow this unethical trade.
These are examples of why you still need to sing my song. I don’t want you to respond with guilt. Instead, take the power you do have and be willing to change the structures that may privilege you on the backs of others. Most importantly, you need to know that you cannot make this change alone. You, too, are Theotokos—a bearer of God, if you are willing. Draw on my courage and say yes when God asks to be birthed through you, through your choices and decisions, through your hands and feet, through your hearts and minds. With God another world is possible.
 T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943). The quotations are taken from “Little Gidding” stanza V and “Burnt Norton,” stanza V.
 Kathryn Matthews, Sermon Seeds, Dec. 20, 2015.