White China

(A sermon on Mary, preached on the 4th Sunday of Advent at St. James Anglican Church, Kemptville, Ontario, Christmas Eve 2000)

A couple of days ago, my younger kid got down our creche set and unwrapped all the figures and set them up on top of the china cabinet, next to the Christmas tree. The set was given to me some years ago, by a friend. It's plain white china, very pure and tasteful. It has the manger with the Christ Child in it, the figures of Mary and Joseph, a couple of shepherds, the three Wise Men, with camels, an ox, two donkeys, a trio of sheep, and an angel. The set will stay out until Epiphany, when I'll wrap all the figures up again and put them away in their box until next Christmas.

That's a pretty normal Anglican approach to Mary. We take this pure, featureless, colorless figurine out at Christmas; we put her back in her box again at Epiphany. We don't go for gaudy over-decorated Mary-figures in crowns, or bleeding hearts, or stuff like that: we've rejected the flowery Mother Mary traditions of Roman Catholicism, and we really don't know much of anything about the mystical traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy. We Anglicans are apt to have a discreet, featureless sort of Mary, who we don't think very much about, except at this time of year.

Who was this young woman? We know very little about her, really ≠ just a few references in the Gospels, many of them strangely uncomfortable. There's actually more about Mary in the Islamic Koran than there is in the Christian New Testament. The only other sources of "information" are a number of scriptures that weren't included in the canonical New Testament, things like the apocryphal Gospel of James, which says that Mary was the daughter of Joachim and Anna and was miraculously conceived. A great deal of traditional doctrine about Mary is actually more poetry than anything else ≠ that's where the beliefs about her perpetual virginity come from. Or doctrine arises from what people thought should be true: for example, that God must have planned this all from the beginning of the universe, foreordaining Maryís acceptance from the very start. Or doctrine comes out of early church debates on the nature of Christ ≠ that's where the Orthodox doctrine about Mary the God-bearer comes from.

All we really know from the gospels is that Mary was a young Jewish woman, probably only a girl in her teens, married to Joseph but not yet living with him in any sense of the word, when the angel came to tell her she would bear God's son. We know that Mary and Joseph were both observant Jews; we know that from their presentation of Jesus in the Temple. She seems to have been a thoughtful person; we're told that she took things to heart and pondered them.

We know that she was proud of her remarkable son and wanted to show him off ≠ witness the story about the marriage of Cana. We know that sometimes they struggled; it's not clear that Mary really understood was Jesus was about, at least at first. We are fairly sure that she watched her son die on the Cross, surely the worst pain a person can go through, and that he commended her to the protection of his beloved disciple. We know that she was with the disciples in Jerusalem after Christ's ascension. Thatís roughly all the information we have about Mary.

And we know even less about Joseph: only that he was a good man who listened to God in a dream. We know that he took his young wife to Bethlehem, as part of the census, and then, when they were threatened, he took his small family to exile in Egypt for a time. We know that they settled in Nazareth but visited the Temple in Jerusalem. Thatís just about all we know for certain.

But think about it, and some other things start to emerge. Look at the Gospel of the Annunciation, the part of the Gospel of Luke right before this morningís Gospel. The angel comes to Mary and says, "Mary, God thinks so highly of you that he has chosen you to bear His Son." And Mary says "yes" to God. She does question how she can do this, since she's still a virgin, but that's her only hesitation.

She doesn't say, "'Scuse me, do you mind waiting a minute while I check this with my intended?" She simply says, "Yes, I'll do it, God."

Now, her "yes" has been interpreted as total obedience ≠ a sort of passive acceptance of her fate, something she didn't have any real choice about. That's where we get Mary as the Ultimate Pre-programmed Goody Two-Shoes. And that image of absolute obedience has had terrible consequences for women through the ages. Women were measured against that image and found always wrong and lacking: Eve's daughters, not Mary's sisters. "Alone of all her sex she pleased the Lord" one Roman poet wrote: well, what does that say about all the rest of us? Mary was a standard none of the rest of womankind could ever live up to.

But what if her "yes" was a free choice? What if she had the choice to say "no"? After all, God was asking her to take some very, very big risks. She had no way of knowing that Joseph wouldn't cast her off. After all, he would be the one person who knew for absolutely certain that Jesus wasn't his child. He might not believe her; he might be hurt and furious. Maybe she had that much trust in Joseph's love; but in fact, Matthew says that he did in fact come close to repudiating her. And that would mean total ruin for her ≠ expulsion from her family and community, perhaps even death. She would be without a home or any support, totally disgraced. Even today, women in the Middle East who are thought to have had illicit sex are routinely murdered for the honor of their families. So what God was asking of her was a very big deal indeed. And yet she said "yes", immediately.

I prefer to think that Mary said "yes" not out of blind, passive obedience, but out of radical faith: "yes, Lord, this is a really big thing you're asking of me, and I can't see how it's going to turn out, but I'll trust you completely on it." As evidence for this view, look at this morning's Gospel, the Magnificat, the song of triumph Mary sings when her cousin Elizabeth greets her. Itís not a namby-pamby pure-white-china song. It's full of triumph and challenge: this is a God who's going to turn everything topsy-turvy, a God who's going to tumble the rich and powerful out of their seats, a God who's going to upend the social order. "I am going to be called blessed throughout all the ages," Mary sings: that's not exactly maidenly modesty, is it?

This isn't a simpering young lady, with downcast eyes and narrow white hands pressed together in pious prayer and with golden waving hair flowing down her back. This is a strong-minded young Jewish woman with black hair and flashing dark eyes and red cheeks: think of young Palestinian women today. She's not dressed in pastels; she's wearing homespun, dyed with whatever plants were available. Her feet are bare and calloused. She is courageous, faithful, intelligent, and deeply loving, because God would choose nothing less to be the mother of his Son. But a sweet demure young thing ≠ I don't think so.

Is she "gentle Mary, meek and mild"? Maybe; although I'd like to think that her Son got his considerable temper from his mama. "Meek and mild" sounds a bit too much like a man's idea of what a nice girl should be like. What she must have been is strong ≠ strong enough to take on the job in the first place, strong enough to face down her husband and family when she told them, strong enough to face exile, strong enough to survive the Crucifixion. Whatever Mary was, she wasn't a weakling.

And she married a remarkable man. Martin Smith once wrote a beautiful sermon about Joseph. He reminds us that Jesus calls God "Abba", Daddy. Who taught Jesus what abba was supposed to be like--tender, merciful, ever caring? Who taught Jesus that fathers are close and loving, not distant and angry? Who but Joseph? Who took this child, who he knew wasn't his, completely as his own? Think of a strong young man bending down to scoop up a toddler Jesus and swoop him overhead, the two of them laughing their heads off. That's a real Joseph, not a white china figure. And who trusted in God when he thought he'd been betrayed by the woman he loved, when he must have been in such pain? When you take your Joseph-figure out of its wrappings at Christmas next year, think about that man. He's not a faceless old man with a beard. He too is a person of strong character, great love, great faith. And unlike our Roman Catholic brethren, we Anglicans happily believe that he and Mary went on to have a brood of their own children, after Jesus was born.

Mary and Joseph aren't white china; they are vivid flesh-and-blood people. Set aside the conventional images. Don't think of Mary kneeling upright before the manger, worshiping her Saviour. No woman who's just given birth is going to do that. Think of her lying back in the straw, her hair loose and her forehead sweaty after the bloody, violent business of birth: this girl, cradling her newborn baby ≠ who probably looked like a monkey, most newborns do. She's holding him in the crook of her arm, touching his tiny hands and face. The two of them are figuring out how to nurse --it takes some practice. She's exhausted and happy and triumphant; and Joseph close by her, loving the two of them, is exhausted and happy too.

Why does this matter so much? Because Mary and Joseph, those two good Jews, are also the first to follow Christ. They are our oldest siblings, the first of the great company of pilgrims. And their humanity matters. God comes to us not when we're perfect white china figures, but in all our messy, meaty humanity, our confusion and pain. God didn't choose Mary because she was a characterless doll; he chose her for her courage, her boldness, her capacity for vibrant love. He loves us for our humanity, not in spite of it.

And as these very human people could welcome Christ into their lives, so can we. Mary accepts Jesus literally into her body, carries him inside her for those months while his own body forms and grows; and then she bears him in all the pain and messiness of childbirth. We take the Holy Spirit into our own selves, and we are as radically transformed by it as Mary's body was transformed by pregnancy. It's not an abstract image; it's what incarnation is all about. "Carne", the core of the word "incarnation" means "flesh" or "meat". This is not an abstract, bloodless sort of business. God meets us exactly where we are, here, now, in our own bodies, in our own lives.

I know that it's much easier to picture the Nativity scene in white china, because painting a realistic scene is so much more difficult. We're so afraid of making Mary too garish that we don't give her any color at all. But God seems to love this world just as it is, in all its messy immediacy ≠ that's why he chose to dwell among us--and he loved Mary all the more for her being a vivid, strong figure instead of a passive sweet young thing.

And I have to say, as one strong-minded woman, that I think I like her better this way too. If the only women God wants are the gentle, meek, and mild ones, I'm in deep trouble, for sure. I need this big sister of mine, this brave and faithful young woman, Mary. She can teach me honesty, love, and courage. She deserves all the honour I can give her.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sun, 24 Dec 2000
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