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

The Cheering Crowd of Saints

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Hebrews 12:1-2

Once each year, Christians around the world observe the Feast of All Saints, an opportunity for us to stop and think about what it is that we believe when we recite our faith in “the communion of saints” in the Creed.

All Saints, or in the older English, All Hallows, which comes each year on the first of November, is a Christian celebration going back to the late 300s, when Christians would remember the great heroes of the faith, the God-given examples of men and women who were not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, who were not ashamed to serve the weak and the poor, and who were not afraid to be rejected by those who are powerful in the eyes of the world.

The Church, from an early age, celebrated these heroes as inspiration for our own Christian pilgrimage – ordinary, imperfect men and women from all walks of life, who followed in the footsteps of our Lord, and in whose footsteps we ourselves now walk along that narrow path of discipleship.

For centuries, All Saints, or All Hallows, was a major high-point in the year.  In fact, the celebration lasted over three days, and even now, if you visit France, Spain, Portugal, or pretty much anywhere in South America, you’d encounter a public holiday with parades and special family meals. 

For many Christians around the world, there are two parts to this celebration: first, we remember those heroes who are examples that we can follow as we also strive to imitate Christ; then, as we did last night, we remember before God those who have died, praying for the repose of our loved ones, as we entrust them to the mercy of God in the hope of the resurrection. 

Sadly, in this country, that deeply meaningful custom is largely forgotten. 

For centuries, in England, Portugal, and parts of Northern Europe, on the eve of All Saints or All Hallows – that is, Hallow’s Eve or Halloween – children would go door to door, singing hymns or even praying litanies, knocking on doors to pray for the departed relatives and loved ones of each family, and in exchange, receive little sweet treats, “soul cakes” they were called.  In some places in England, groups would even dress in costume and perform a short play about death and resurrection, where those representing the saints of God would defeat an actor playing the Devil, reminding the audience of Christ’s triumph over death and the grave.

That, of course, was the root of Halloween, which has lost it’s Christian mooring altogether – if a child knocked on your door asking to pray for your family and your departed loved ones, I doubt many of us would even know how to respond!

On this day, as we remember and celebrate the Saints of God, I think there are two questions for us to answer.  First, who are the saints?  And secondly, why does it matter?

Simply put, the saints are those who are “set apart” for Christ.

The saints are the holy people of God, and the whole idea of “sacredness” means someone or something that is dedicated and set apart for the work and service of God.

Of course, there are those saints known to all Christians around the world – Peter, Andrew, James, Thomas, Paul and the other apostles, those first messengers who founded and were the first bishops of first churches in Rome, Greece, Jerusalem, India, and the cities around the Mediterranean.  The evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Those biblical examples of faith: St. Mary, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany.

But it’s also important not to limit the definition of “saint” too much – after all, the great news of the Gospel is not that God calls perfect people, but that God calls and equips everyday people, the only requirement being that they’re willing to follow: if Peter, who sank in the sea and publicly denied Christ not once, but three times could be a Saint; if Paul, who persecuted the Church and held the coats of those who stoned Stephen the Deacon for his faith in Jesus could become a Saint, then there’s hope for all of us if we’re willing to follow.

God raises up saints in every age – not that any of them are perfect in their own right, but that they are examples of what it means to live a life that is sacred, that is “set apart” to the service of God.

In each generation, the Church looks to those who have gone before, who have finished their race, and sees that God has given us examples of what it means to be a disciple in our own age, of what it looks like to love your neighbour as yourself, to offer yourself in the service of others, to repent of sin, and to take up your cross and follow Christ.

The saints are not perfect – only God is perfect.  But the saints are important examples to encourage us to persevere in following Christ.

Holiness is contageous

There’s another important idea, from the Old Testament, about who the saints are.  Going back to the book of Genesis, there is the idea that sacredness is spread by coming into contact with something that’s holy.  The People of the Old Covenant built altars – sacred sites – on the mountains where God revealed himself. 

In a way, the holiness of the presence of God is contagious – in Exodus God tells Moses that the altar in the place of worship must be set apart for no everyday use, and that anything that touches the altar becomes holy in the eyes of God.[1]  The same goes for the sacred vessels used in the worship that God directs,[2] and in Ezekiel, God directs that the priests should have special garments reserved for their ministry at the altar, which become holy by their use in the holy place.[3]

It’s this idea that St. Paul has in mind when he refers to all the baptized – to you and to me – as “saints”.  By the grace of God, we’re made members of Christ’s body; through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re invited to approach the throne of God boldly, as we receive the holy food and drink of Christ’s body and blood – and as we all know, you are what you eat.

Who are the saints?    The saints are those who have answered the call to follow Christ, and in doing so, are examples to us in our journey. 

Now, to be fair, there are some who are uncomfortable giving much attention to the saints; and certainly, there are entire denominations that at times have gone overboard.  But, if the way is narrow, and Christ is the one name by which we are saved, then to follow in the footsteps of those who follow Jesus is to walk in Christ’s own footsteps as well.  And it’s by the grace of God that our faith isn’t some distant memory in a far-off culture; but God gives examples and heroes of faith to every generation and every language and culture, that we may follow where he leads.

The Role of the Saints in our own Pilgrimage

So, if we know who the saints are, we might still ask, why does it matter?

Well, first, I’d say that an understanding of the communion of the saints is essential because it proves and even requires that “my faith” cannot be about ‘me and Jesus’.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s important that each of us decides to follow Jesus, that each of us has a relationship with God.

But the Christian faith is anything but personal in the sense of being individualistic. 

There are those who believe that we have to search for Jesus, to “find him”, as though he’s been hiding.  There are those who teach that we are to read the scriptures and come to our own conclusions, as though there isn’t 2000 years of continuous, unbroken teaching and preaching that has come before us.

When we decide to follow Jesus, it’s not as though we’re walking through a food court picking what we might have for lunch.  When we follow Jesus, we join a family, as we receive the inheritance of those who have gone before us, and are entrusted with the great responsibility of handing that inheritance down to those who come after.

The whole idea is not that me and Jesus are now best buddies, but that I am joined to the whole family of those who, across space and time, have joined themselves to God’s covenant community. 

Or, think about it this way: baptism isn’t just about you being washed from your sins.

Baptism is about us, together, being led through the Red Sea, from death and slavery to the land of life and freedom, though the one offering of Christ for the life of the world.

In our baptism, we join ourselves to Christ, and as we allow ourselves to come into contact with the Holy One and to follow where he leads, that holiness is contagious, and we ourselves become holy.

The other side of it is this: as we proclaim on All Souls Day and really every time we gather, death is not the end.  Our eyes don’t close when we die. It’s the exact opposite: when we die, the veil is lifted and, for the first time, we see God as he truly is, and we are fully known.

The Book of Hebrews describes the saints as this “great cloud of witnesses” – but I don’t think that’s the best translation of the Greek.  The word translated there as “witnesses” also means a crowd of spectators in the arena, watching a sporting event.

Now think about it: as we heard last week, St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy describes the faith as a race that we run, a race where we are to keep our eyes on the prize that is Jesus, as we run with endurance the course that lies ahead. 

This “great cloud of witnesses” – the saints – are those who have finished the race ahead of us, and now, with Christ, stand at the end of the course, cheering us on.  In the book of Revelation we read that these witnesses cry out around the altar of God, saying “how long”, praying for us to finish the race.

In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal covenant.  All Saints Day is the opportunity for us to remember our own baptismal covenant, and to recommit ourselves to live as the holy ones of God, and to reunite ourselves with the Body of Christ, that great and wonderful family that extends across all nations, across all times, in which we are all brothers and sisters, and those who go before cheer on those who follow after, just as we, running the race today, pick up those who stumble, carry the burdens of those who mourn, freely give even the shirt off our back to the one who needs it, and pass the torch to these little ones.

The Lord is glorious in his saints.  Let us live as those who are part of this family, let us live as those who are being made holy, even as we this morning are invited to recommit ourselves, to approach the altar, and to receive the body and blood of Christ.

To God be the Glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 29:37

[2] Exodus 30:29

[3] Ezekiel 44:19