The Virgin Mary: Someone we can relate to!

Today the Church invites us to remember, celebrate, and learn from the life and witness of St. Mary the Virgin, the mother of the Lord.  Now I suspect, as in most Anglican circles, some of us come with a strong affection for the blessed virgin, while others are perhaps even a little uncomfortable with the mention of her name, as it brings to mind all the reasons why Christians need to be careful not to become obsessed with saints to the point that it gets in the way of worshipping God and serving our neighbours.

But, you should know me well enough by now to know that I believe there’s always real value in digging in, getting underneath those assumptions, those things that we bring with us when we hear scripture, and instead open our ears and our hearts to hear what God is saying in his Word.

If Jesus is born a man like us, his mother must be a woman like us.

The fundamental reason that we celebrate this day is the simple-yet-mind-blowing fact that we believe that Mary, an ordinary, faithful woman growing up in an ordinary home, going about her business of loving God and loving her neighbour, became the God bearer, became the one who bore Jesus Christ, the one though whom all things were made.  God – supreme over all the universe – loved us so much that he entered into a young woman’s belly for our sake; not unlike the way he continues to be present among us, becoming our heavenly food and drink for our sake (but that’s another sermon for another day).

The point is, I think we need to strip away some of the ‘hype’ about the virgin Mary, so that our eyes can be open to the shocking extent of God’s love for us.

As Christians, we believe that God became man; he became one of us.  He didn’t become like one of us.  He became one of us, except – being God – he was able to do what we could not, and resist the power of sin, and forge a new path for us to follow.

If we strip away the pious romanticism about Mary and the holy family, I believe we’ll find great comfort.  We’ll find a saviour who doesn’t just know about our griefs and burdens and struggles,[1] but who knows them, who has seen them first hand, not just from his throne in glory, but in the dusty streets and in the joy and tears in the faces of those around him.

Mary’s Messy Life

If we stick to the words of scripture, we’ll see that Mary isn’t all that different than any of us.  And that’s the point – God didn’t choose some super-human heroine to rub our messy lives in our faces; not at all!  No, Jesus came to share our lives, to walk alongside us, to give us an example, and to reach out in love to lift our heavy burdens as we learn to take them off our worn-down shoulders, and share our yoke with the one who holds it all together and offers to lift us up if we’ll follow where he leads.

As we look at Mary from the pages of scripture, we see someone who looks familiar.

She’s a young woman who loves God, who trusts in His promises, but like any of us, is still shocked to find out that she has a role to play in God’s plan.

She finds herself saying “yes” to God in a difficult situation – a situation that throws everything that she and her parents have planned for her into a tailspin.  As much as Christmas pageants tend to gloss over the situation, she finds herself as the talk of the town, pushing her fiancé’s patience to the limit as he tries to distance himself from the scandal.  And it’s no small thing – we usually skip over those verses in Luke 1 where, after Mary conceives the Lord (and, as Matthew tells us, after word gets out), she leaves town in a hurry, leaves her parents’ house and Joseph’s family, and this pregnant woman travels 160 km by foot to her cousin’s house in Hebron.[2]  She makes that hard journey home three months later, just in time to head out with Joseph once more to Bethlehem to do paperwork for the census when she’s nearly full term.

Mary’s life wasn’t the romanticized one of Christmas cards and the soft, flowing fabrics of statues and artwork.

She was a busy mother of what might have been a blended family.  The gospels tell us that Jesus has at least 6 siblings, four brothers and at least two sisters.  Unlike most people in that era, Mary didn’t always have the support of her extended family.  We know they moved around: they moved all the way to Egypt with a toddler before returning to Nazareth.  And, as much as 17th century art work has given us the image of Joseph and Jesus working in a woodshop making furniture, what we do know from the actual words of scripture is that Mary’s husband has a skilled trade working in construction.  We know from historical sources that there was a shortage of construction workers in the early first century because of all the Roman construction in the area, so for Joseph to earn that reputation, chances are that he was like so many working in the mines, or the oil patch, or foreign workers harvesting in our fields today, leaving home for work during the construction season, and leaving Mary home with the kids to make ends meet until the next payday. 

Jesus knows what it is to grow up in a working home, where parents are making costly and painful sacrifices, facing loneliness and difficult decisions.

I also feel for Mary because I know what it is to have a son who speaks his mind, who tends to see things as they really are, and who is discontent with the simple, expected answers to life’s questions.  We know, from age 12, Jesus was teaching others to read the scriptures properly.  I can only imagine what that was like at home, or what sort of reports got sent home from Sabbath School at the synagogue.  And, of course, we know from John 7 that Jesus and his brothers didn’t always get along as adults, so we can well imagine what Mary went through when they were growing up.

And then it would seem, too, that somewhere along the way, by the time Jesus is ministering publicly, Mary is widowed, standing alone with the other women at the cross watching, helpless, as her own son dies, having pushed the limits of love, having done what is right rather than what is expected, as He finally accomplished that purpose as Messiah that she had secretly carried in her heart since the day the angel visited over three decades before.

Jesus knows what it’s like to test a parents’ patience; to see a family struggling to hold it together; to see relationships strained; to know real heartbreak, and the pain of loss.

Scripture paints a picture of Mary that isn’t extraordinary or super-human, but instead looks a lot like us.  And that’s good news, because God didn’t come for those who have their lives all put together; he came to save those who were perishing, to lift up those who were worn down, to carry the burdens and heal those who are willing to be honest and ask for the help that Christ offers to all.

Mary, full of grace.

Mary needs to be like us, so that her Son, Jesus, can be like us.

And yet the angel says “Hail, favoured one”, “Hail, full-of-grace”, “Hail, you who are blessed among women”.[3]

And, so I ask, is that grace, that favour in the Lord’s sight earned because of any special thing that Mary has done?

No. The good news about Mary’s life and witness is that it could be any of us.  Like all of the saints throughout history, Mary did nothing to deserve her part in God’s plan.  Mary certainly wasn’t full of her own grace; she received the grace of her saviour as much as anyone else.

Rather, Mary finds favour in God’s sight, she’s blessed among women because, as God calls, her heart is open, she trusts His promises, and she says yes.

She’s one of only two people named in the Creed – Mary says “yes” to God, Pontius Pilate says “no”. 

Called to be saints.

And so, whatever mess or stress or pain we find ourselves in – and let’s be honest, we’ve all got stress, and we’ve all got a bit of a mess – Jesus knows what it’s all about.  He’s been in a small town, he’s been in a messy family, nothing you’ve got is going to surprise Him.  So put your trust in him, and take him at his word.  Let him carry your burden with you; put his yoke around your neck and let his strong back pull you along when you’re at the end of your rope. 

Because, as the body of Christ gathered here, we too are called to be saints.

Like Mary, we’re not saints because our lives are perfect; the saints are those who say yes to God even when they’re not

So, my friends, whatever you’re facing and whatever you’re carrying, as we come to pray, as we confess things done and left undone, as we approach the Lord’s table to say “Amen” – “so be it” – and take the Lord’s body into our bellies, let’s take this opportunity to say “yes”, to hand it over, and to trust in the one who has been there, and who reaches out in love – even Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

[1] Isaiah 53

[2] Luke 1:39-40 says Mary went with haste to see Zechariah and Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah.  Zechariah was a priest (Luke 1:5-7).  Joshua 21:10-11 identifies “Hebron, in the hill country of Judah” as the city of the priests.

[3] Luke 1:28

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