By Chris Saxton
I took great delight this Christmas from following the exploding heads caused by a billboard erected by St Matthew in the City, an Anglican church in Auckland, N.Z. It was a depiction of the Virgin Mary. Dressed in blue, green and red robes, a deeply shocked Mary clasps her hand over her mouth while looking at a pregnancy test. To say the billboard caused outrage is an understatement! But it has prompted me to reflect on the Blessed Virgin Mary.
One of the beauties of going to a college in the Toronto School of Theology is the delight of being exposed to people of faith from different traditions. In my first year preaching class I was privileged to hear two students from the Roman Catholic tradition preach on the text of The Magnificat.
My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.
(Book of Common Prayer)
It was a reminder of how desperately beloved Mary is by so many. There is a blazing love for her that is not as evident in my Anglican tradition as it is for many other Christians. There is even reverence for Mary in the holy book of our Muslim brothers and sisters, the Qur'an. Mary holds a special place in the Qur'an where she is mentioned more times than she is mentioned in the entire New Testament.
How to speak of her…she has so many titles…
The Virgin Mary
The Blessed Mother
The New Eve
She is lauded as being: "Full of Grace," "Blessed," "Most Blessed," "Cause of our Salvation," "Advocate of Eve," "Mother of God," "Ever-virgin", "Mistress," "Queen of Heaven" "Star-of-the-Sea," "Seat of Wisdom," "Cause of Our Joy," "Mother of Mercy.
To our Eastern brothers and sisters she is Theotokos literally: God-bearer and the one who gives birth to God.
Mary has become the embodiment of the sacred feminine. She is equated with Wisdom and is seen as the hypostasis, the union of the spirit of Wisdom from the Hebrew Scriptures and a human woman concealing Her splendor during Her time on earth, with her Glory only becoming evident after her bodily assumption into Heaven either before her death according the Roman dogma or at her death or "falling asleep" for the Eastern church.
This is a heightened adoration of Mary that does not resonate with me. This sense that she was slumming it down on earth with us mere mortals does not touch me as it does for many others. For many there is an almost superstitious veneration, a "magical" Mary. For my mother-in-law, Mary was the touchstone of her faith, seeing in Mary a mother who has also known distress and tribulation in her life and is a natural source of comfort. My wife's Roman Catholic roots still show in her as she prays to Our Lady of the Highways to show mercy (usually when she is being driven by my mother) and in her nightly habit of saying the Hail Mary before sleep.
But it is the startling humility of the girl that resonates with me. Mary's song, her Magnificat, is a very human hymn to surrender, to faith in God. The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a virgin in Nazareth named Mary. She was engaged to a man named Joseph and is told that she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus and the he will be the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. This is startling news. To be an unwed, teenage mother is hard in any age. To be the unwed teenage mother of the Son of God is impossible. God is asking so much of Mary but it seems to me that he is asking for her trust first of all and last of all.
Mary responds with the ultimate statement of strength: "Here am I the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Lk 1:38). This is faith. And faith, says Cistercian Thomas Keating, is an experience of God that calls for a response of trust and self-surrender.
For me this is the beauty of The Virgin, an archetype that we are called to revere. Mary is offered the opportunity for transformation. She could have said no to God. Said I am afraid. Shut her ears to the Angel and turned away, as we all have done to God at times in our lives. But Mary said yes. Thy will, not my will be done. This is the moment where Mary embraced her transcendence. As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says: transcendence is an actual "falling into" and an "undergoing" of God…God is "done unto us" and all we can do is allow it, as both the prayers of Mary at the Annunciation and Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane make clear. And we are caught between profound desire and the question "Where is this going to take me?"
It has been said many times that after transformation, you seldom have the feeling that you have found anything. It feels much more like Someone found you. When we do get there we almost wonder how we got there. We know we did not do anything as much as we know we were done unto. We are being utterly and warmly held and falling helplessly into a scary mystery at the same time. This was what Mary said yes to. She surrendered to this uncertainty, to this mystery.
Surrender is a hard word for us today. It denotes weakness and defeat. It is an idea that we are less, that we are diminished as humans if we surrender. This is a notion that is so wrong. All of the great men and women in the scriptures and in history have come to a point of surrender, of transformation in their lives. They experienced a transcendent moment of complete surrender, of "not my will but thy will be done." A moment of humility that allowed them to abandon their self-will and align themselves with God's will.
When we have gone off course in our lives it is more often than not because we have forgotten the presence of a Higher Power in our lives. When we correct that course, when we align our will with God's will we find peace. The peace of an act of little self-surrender such as "God I love you" or " God I am doing this for you not for me." This consent to God's presence and love in us is true surrender. And true strength. We are called to embrace the ambiguity of the message the angel brings us.
Mary shows in her song of praise the strength she has found from her trust and surrender to God's will. This is what I venerate in the person of Mary, this is what I try to model: her absolute trust in the love and compassion of her Lord. Her acceptance of ambiguity. Her surrender and aligning of her will to God's will. Her utter certainty, that the love and mercy of God is absolute. Her trust, that those of us who are broken and lowly and humble in this world are held in the heart of our creator, of our redeemer, of our sanctifier.
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior," sang Mary in praise and surrender. And we today can offer our own prayer of strength and surrender saying:
God, we offer ourselves to you. To have with us and to build with us as you will. Relieve us of the bondage of self that we may better do thy will. Help us to bear witness to your power, your love and your mercy. Anoint us with Your gifts and draw us inwardly to Your presence which is life, and light, and love without limit.
Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton