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Mary: the legacy

The last woman mentioned in Christ’s genealogy is arguably the most significant, certainly the one who had the most direct influence on him, and that is his mother, Mary of Nazareth. The Roman Catholic Church has cultivated a deep reverence for Mary as the Mother of God. Catholics also believe that Mary was conceived without original sin, and when she died, did not undergo corruption, but was assumed body and soul into heaven. While I think there is much to ponder in these dogmas, there is no Scriptural basis for either the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption. However, the Mary of the Bible is a wonderfully rich character all on her own, and worthy of our consideration and contemplation.

When we first meet Mary in Scripture, she is entertaining an angel in her kitchen, who greets her with an astonishing title – “Hail, full of grace!” Wow! “Hail, you who are full of the favour of God.” That’s pretty big. Only one other person in the Bible is referred to as ‘full of grace.’ Care to guess who that might be? Jesus, full of grace and truth.

And when the angel tells Mary that she has been chosen to bear the Messiah, she doesn’t say yes right away. “Hold on a minute,” she says, “how’s that going to work, as I know not man?” And Gabriel says, “The power of the Holy Spirit will over shadow you.” “Oh,” she says. “Alright then.” And then she proclaims her acceptance – “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” Now that’s Mary’s humility before God, and it’s beautiful, but it’s inaccurate. Mary is not God’s handmaid. Mary is God’s co-creator. The Messiah will not come into this world, will not become a reality without God’s Holy Spirit, and Mary’s DNA. As Leonardo Boff said, “When the Word became flesh, it was Mary’s flesh the Word took on.”

But this little arrangement of God’s would be so outrageous, so scandalous, it would cause Mary and Jesus trouble all their lives. Why? Because Mary became pregnant during her betrothal year. Why couldn’t God have waited until she was “decently” married? You’ll have to ask God that. But it seems God wanted to create the maximum amount of scandal surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus. So Mary starts out this great adventure of God’s as an unwed mother. Which was a dangerous thing to be back then.

I can’t imagine what Joseph, her fiancé, must have gone through when he discovered her condition. Matthew says that he did not want to expose Mary to the Law. And what was the Law? Well, Mary was pregnant in her betrothal year, and not by Joseph. That would have been considered adultery, and the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. Joseph must have felt angry, hurt and betrayed, but he didn’t want Mary killed.

And there may have been something else going on here. Joseph has a dream in which an angel tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as you wife.” Tony had an interesting insight into this passage, as he often does. He said, “Was Joseph afraid because he didn’t believe Mary that this was God’s child, or was he afraid because he did believe her? Either way, it seems he couldn’t handle it, and decides to end their engagement quietly and move on. But then he had that dream, and somehow Joseph found the courage to become this extraordinary woman’s husband, and foster father to her miracle child. That wasn’t asking too much of the poor man, now was it? No wonder he was afraid!

So they get married. But problem was, by then it was too late. Nazareth was a small town and it would have been impossible to keep the pregnancy secret. Everyone would have known Joseph had gone through with the marriage to protect her from the Law, and that he was not the father. Mary would be considered an adulteress and Jesus, her bastard child, and these labels would follow them wherever they went. The Pharisees once said of Jesus, “But this man, we don’t know where he comes from,” which was a polite way of saying, “We don’t know who his father is.” And isn’t that an ironic statement? Later in his life, Jesus, who himself was judged at every turn, was to say to his disciples, “Judge not!” and oh! I shudder to think how many times I judged someone as unworthy who may have been in the eyes of God, full of grace.

Right after she conceives, Mary journeys to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, who is experiencing a miraculous pregnancy of her own, and it’s there that she proclaims a powerful message of praise, referred to as the Magnificat – “My soul doth magnify the Lord!” Beautiful hymn of praise. But Mary goes on to say this – [God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” This wasn’t wishful thinking on Mary’s part. This was prophecy! Though she didn’t live to see it, the powerful were pulled down from their thrones; the mighty Roman Empire would crumble to dust. But the kingdom of her Son, would endure. Mary proclaims quite boldly that indeed God does take sides, and it is not the side of the powerful and it is not the side of the rich. She passed this understanding on to Jesus who was to say, “Blessed are the poor, the persecuted, the outcast, those hungry for justice, for theirs is the kingdom of God. And woe to you rich and well-fed, for you have already received your consolation.” He would also say that the chances of a rich person getting into heaven were about the same as camel going through the eye of a needle. Radical thinking, subversive even, in a culture that held only the rich and powerful were blessed by God.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph are called “The Holy Family” in the Roman Catholic Church, but although they were a holy family, Scripture says they were far from a happy family, and that unhappiness began early.

After the birth of her son, Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus and present him in the temple, where they meet a prophet named Simeon, who tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul. A sad prophecy that was to be fulfilled not just once, but over and over. The first time was when Jesus was twelve and ran away. Mary and Joseph spend three days searching for him until they finally find him in the temple. And Mary would scold him saying, “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you [literally] in pain. You hurt us!” And Joseph’s heart must have broken when Jesus replied, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house…you know, my real Father?”

It was Mary who urged Jesus to begin his public ministry when Jesus clearly did not want to, didn’t think it was time. It was at the marriage feast in Cana, and they had just run out of wine, which was a huge embarrassment to the families of the couple. Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine,” and Jesus replies, “So what? What is that to thee and me? My hour has not yet come.” What did he mean? I think he meant that if I work this miracle, which was really a frivolous miracle, something just to keep the party going, but if I do it, nothing will ever be the same between us again. I won’t belong to you anymore. I’ll belong to those who need me. I can’t look after you. I can’t be a good son to you. And I’m not ready for this yet.” And Mary as much as says, “Ready or not, my boy, this is what God is asking.”

Now, I think this conversation takes place in the presence of the servants. I think they were right there listening, because Mary and Jesus are speaking in code. They never use the “M” word – miracle. No no. It’s all “They have no wine,” and “What is that to thee and me?” and “My hour has not yet come.” And the servants are going back and forth and back and forth between them trying to figure out what’s going on. (“Who’s winning?” “I don’t even know what they’re talking about!”)

Then Mary, staring directly at Jesus, says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Oh, that’s very clever. Masterful, even. Why? Because now Jesus has to tell them to do something! The servants are all staring up at him. “Well?” “Fine! Go fill up the water jars.” And he turns the water into wine. And Mary, whose work is done here, flicks her veil over her shoulder and toddles on back to the feast. Of course she got him to do it. She had power over him. She was his mother…

…until he rejected her, just as he did Joseph.

Scripture describes a time in Jesus’ ministry when he was working so hard, he wasn’t even taking time to eat. Mary hears about this, and like any good Jewish mother, whips up a casserole, gathers the rest of the family together, and heads off to Capernaum where Jesus was stationed. And when she finds him, he’s in a house surrounded by the dregs of society – sinners, tax collectors, and yes, prostitutes. And when she sends him a message that his family is there wanting to talk with him, he sweeps his arm toward his new family and says, “Here are my brothers and sisters…and my mother! This is what I told you would happen at Cana. I’m not your son anymore. And you are not my mother.”

Once more, the sword passes through her soul.

She must have been utterly devastated, but somehow she found the strength and courage to forgive him, because very soon thereafter, Jesus finds her looking up at him from the foot of his cross. And perhaps there was a moment when he wordlessly asked her forgiveness and she wordlessly gave it. Then, as an act of atonement, Jesus entrusts her into the care of the Beloved Disciple. At the end, he gives her to someone who would care for her, stay with her, be a good son to her.

So why does the gospel writer end the genealogy of Jesus with Mary? As I said at the beginning of this series, no one knows why any of the women’s names were included. They weren’t supposed to be. But in this case, perhaps the gospel writer wanted to point out how much like Mary Jesus was, that he inherited more than her DNA. He inherited her spirit.

Mary was possessed of a love so strong it made her say yes to God’s absurd plan, and horrendous timing, though it cost her her reputation, and very nearly her life; a love that would enable her to forgive the rejection from the one she had sacrificed everything for, and would give her the grace to stand with him through his final moments.

Jesus was possessed of a love so powerful it would drive him to sacrifice anything, endure anything, forgive everything to bring people new life in the love of God, even if it meant ending his own life on a Cross.

Who taught Jesus to love like this if not Mary?

This was and is the heart of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Son of Mary.

Let’s bow in prayer…

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