I’m not sure when it was that I realized I love Mary. Growing up Presbyterian, we didn’t talk about her much, unless it was to make sure we’d drawn the proper boundary lines around her. My experience was much like the one Kathleen Norris describes—we pulled Mary out at Christmas and put her on display with the angels and shepherds, then packed her away with all of the other decorations until the following Christmas. What other Christians thought of her was of little concern to us, and we looked down at any displays of devotion or reverence toward her. Presbyterians just didn’t go in for emotional displays, and back then we were suspicious of mystery. We didn’t have statues, we didn’t light candles, and we certainly didn’t pray to anyone but the triune God.
That was a long time ago, though, and things have changed, at least a little. Reformed scholars now pay attention to her significance to the Christian story. Some embrace her as a significant female figure of the faith or a religious role model. Others see her as a prophetic voice, the one who sang Hannah’s song all over again to tell the world that its time had come. All of those facets of Mary are interesting to me. But there is more.
In one of my favorite paintings of the annunciation, the one by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Mary is a skinny, knock-kneed pre-teen. She looks at Gabriel, who appears as a column of light, peering up at him with an expression that is equal parts curiosity and fear. She does not look like a prime candidate to be the mother of God. She looks like a regular girl. I am drawn to this Mary, the one who is nobody special, the one whom God chooses for no apparent reason other than her ordinariness. I’m in awe of her “yes” to Gabriel’s strange announcement, even though it meant that her husband-to-be would want to disown her, her friends would never believe her, her family would be ashamed of her, the upright and religious would shun her, and her life, as she knew it, would be over. I am even more astonished when I think that she opened herself to receiving a child who would change not only her world, but the whole world. That she said yes to a son who would bring her deep heartbreak and even deeper joy. Yes to becoming something she could never have imagined – the very Mother of God. So there is the ordinariness of Mary, and then the extraordinariness of Mary. But there is still more.
Several years ago I came across Thomas Kane’s Dancing Church Around the World and was enthralled by the entrance of the gospel at The Poor Clare Community in Lilongwe, Malawi. It was Christmas, and women and men danced through the worship space while one of the dancers held aloft a large clay pot wrapped in cloth. After the dancers had circled the altar, the pot was placed on the altar, and the cloth slowly unwound. When the pot was uncovered, the lid was removed, and from the cavity was drawn the gospel book. The community understood the vessel to be Mary; from her was drawn forth the Word. This, finally, is the thing that really captures my imagination: Mary, Theotokos, gave birth to the Living Word.
As a minister, I draw a certain strength and confidence from Mary. She instructs me and, I think, all who would lead God’s people in worship. For whenever we preach or preside in the liturgy, we bear forth the Word. Whenever we chant the psalms or read scripture in the midst of the assembly, our very bodies are the vessels for the Word. Our ordinary flesh and blood—not unlike the ordinary elements of water, bread, and wine—are caught up in the extraordinary, and through the mysterious and wondrous action of the Holy Spirit, we become like Mary, proclaiming the coming of God’s just reign, the end of all sorrow, and the promise of unspeakable joy. Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
Image: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner