Text: Luke 1:26-38
Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 12-24-2017
Early on in The Sound of Music, a group of perplexed nuns sing: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” It is a question also asked by any who read Luke’s text today. What sense are we to make of Mary when she is visited by the angel Gabriel? Travel to the National Gallery of Art or the British Museum or the Louvre and you will see Mary portrayed as everything from angelic to naïve, from a mature woman to an innocent child agonizing over Gabriel’s news.
“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” If you are a Protestant, basically you ignore her. If you grew up Catholic, you scratch your head at how blithely Protestants ignore the blessed Mother Mary. So, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
Luke tells us next to nothing about Mary, but by the 3rd century, her story had expanded like a hot air balloon. By the 5th century, Mary was a virgin, not just at the conception of Jesus, but a virgin for all her life. Then there was the famous battle between Alexandria and Antioch. Those from Antioch said Mary was the Mother of Christ, but Alexandrians said “No”; she was the Mother of God. I will spare you the nasty politics behind that church fight; suffice it to say, the title theotokos – mother of God or God-bearer – won the day.
By the 7th century, many claimed that Mary never died, but like the prophet Elijah, was taken up into heaven. In the Mid-Ages, Christ was pictured as the great judge and Mary as the gentle intercessor. She was the Queen of Heaven, enthroned with the child Jesus upon her lap.
By the late Mid-Ages, Mary was the Maria Lactans whose mother’s milk symbolized God’s overflowing mercy. Augustinian monk, Martin Luther explained that Mary conceived Jesus when the Holy Spirit entered through her ear. In the 19th century, Pope Pius XII declared that like her son, Mary was also immaculately conceived. Since Vatican II, Catholics have rethought many of these ideas about Mary, but still she plays a far more prominent role in Catholic thought than she ever has among Protestants.
I am a Protestant, a thinker in the Reformed tradition, but I happen to believe Mary was a theotokos, a God-bearer. Where I differ with Catholic thought for the last two millennia is that I do not believe Mary was the “only” theotokos. Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?” (Meditations with Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, ed. And trans., pp. 74, 81).
Eckhart pays attention to what Luke actually does says about Mary. Many read this ancient tale and fix on a word like “virgin.” Before long, they are asking questions about which Luke has no interest in answering. Fundamentally, Luke’s story is a call story, a story about what happens when God calls unsuspecting women and men into God’s service.
When God calls, Moses presents a laundry list of why God needs to reconsider. When God calls, Sarah bursts into laughter. When God calls, Jeremiah tells God to look elsewhere because he is not even old enough to drink. But when God calls Mary, she asks a good question, gets a fantastic answer, and then says, “So be it” or “Amen.”
God does not campaign for Mary’s vote. God does not cajole her, saying, “By the way, Mary, I mean if you don’t mind, could you possibly help me out here.” No, God visits Mary and tells her that she is to be a theotokos – a God-bearer, bearing within her the child of God.
Read on in Luke’s Gospel and you will find Mary’s boy traveling throughout Palestine calling together women, men, children, hookers, sailors, fishers, losers, winners, anyone and everyone to be theotokoi, God-bearers. The Spirit of God still travels about and does the same. The theotokoi – God-bearers are what you and I become as with Mary we learn to respond to God’s call, “So be it.” And when we do, God does not breathe a great sigh of relief, as if God’s purposes were on hold until we made up our mind, but I suspect God does smile whenever we are faithful God-bearers, loving in the way God has loved us, living in the way God wants us to live.
Archbishop Desmund Tutu was often criticized for being too soft on those who committed horrendous crime in apartheid South Africa. In his riveting account of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he observes, “Frequently we in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such dastardly deeds were monsters because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon” (p. 83 of No Future Without Forgiveness).
Tutu knows that we cannot totally destroy the image of God within us, because we are not the ones who first put it there. He says, “Ultimately no one is an irredeemable cause devoid of all hope. . . . God does not give up on anyone, for God loved us from all eternity. . . . When I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover.”
He goes on to say, “Those who think this opens the door for moral laxity have obviously never been in love, for love is much more demanding than law. An exhausted mother, ready to drop dead into bed, will think nothing of sitting the whole night through by the bed of her sick child.
“As I listened . . . to the stories of perpetrators, I realized how each of us has this capacity for the most awful evil . . . This is not to condone or excuse what they did. It is to be filled more and more with the compassion of God, looking on and weeping that one of His [God’s] beloved had come to such a sad pass. . . . Mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to the stories of victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive. Then I thanked God that all of us, even I, had this remarkable capacity for good, for generosity, for magnanimity.’” (p. 86)
Such are the words of a theotokos, a God-bearer called to speak God’s words of grace and truth. The pages of the Bible are not filled with haloed saints who glide a foot or two above the common dirt, but with theotokoi, God-bearers, human beings created and called by God, all of whom live east of Eden, all of whom walk on clay feet. Mary fits that bill as well as any biblical star. In today’s text, she shines brightly as she humbly accepts the divine news from Gabriel and later the shine dulls as she tries to remove Jesus from a crowded room, thinking he had gone mad.
I long ago gave up any hope for human perfection, mine or Mary’s or yours. I still though believe that God’s perfect love is worked through imperfect people and imperfect institutions, and I trust that someday God’s perfect love will get the best of every last one of us. Till then, I am thankful for you - the theotokoi of Cove Presbyterian Church, for the wondrous ways you bear the image of God into a broken world, for the healing ways you bear the image of God to each other and to me, and for the loving ways that you bear the image of God until hatred and resentment and revenge simply have no ground on which to stand.
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Maybe, by realizing that she really is no problem at all. Maybe, by rejoicing that Mary is a theotokos, a God-bearer and by God’s grace alone, so are we.