I’ve always understood that to be a cultured person you had to have at least a passing acquaintance with the world of art. Mostly, by that standard, I’m not very cultured. I know a little bit, just about enough to fake my way through a cocktail party. I like van Gogh and Cezanne like most people do. When I was up in Maine I gained a fondness Andrew Wyeth as well. I especially like the way he captures facial expressions. I also find Escher and Salvador Dali pretty interesting, and pretty weird. And I appreciate Sir Peter Paul Rubens because the models he used were so voluptuousness, in stark contrast to the “twiggy” image that is so popular today, for reasons I fail to comprehend.
One of my favorite things about serving my church in Westport, Connecticut, was that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was so close by. I used to enjoy running into Manhattan on the train and spending the day there. I must have done that about a dozen times. What a wonderful place. I could easily wander around the galleries for hours, which came as a surprise to me because I’d never been particularly interested in museums before, and I might never have gone at all if it hadn’t been for my brother.
Michael, my older brother, was visiting from Florida and wanted to spend the day in New York. I had no idea that a museum would be on his agenda, but he particularly wanted to see the Met. We ended up spending about three hours there. I remember being struck by how many of the paintings had religious themes, which just goes to show how ignorant I was. Because of my training in ministry though, I ended up being something of a tour guide, talking with Mike about all the Christian symbolism in the paintings. What I found most fascinating, were all the pictures of the Virgin Mary with Jesus. There must have been two or three dozen of them in all different shapes and sizes and attitudes. I found myself comparing the various portrayals of Mary’s face. Sometimes she looked distant and austere, as if she was somehow above it all. Sometimes she is dark and brooding, or anxious. Most often her face is portrayed as tender and compassionate; the kind of look almost all mothers bestow on almost all newborns. One statue showed Mary in a white dress, representing purity, with a blue cloak, representing truth. Her arms are slightly apart, in a posture of radical openness to God and the world. No doubt about it, Mother Mary has been a fascinating subject for a lot of people.
In the Catholic tradition, Mary plays a very prominent role. She is venerated as “the Mother of God, free from original sin, the eternal merciful Virgin.” Whenever I find myself in a Catholic sanctuary, as I did for this year’s Thanksgiving service at Blessed Sacrament, I’m always struck by how present Mary is in their artwork and liturgy. Mary is a very powerful symbol of love and compassion. She is sometimes compared to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy in the Buddhist tradition. As Protestants though, apart from nativity scenes at Christmastime, we hardly ever talk about Mary at all. Our Samuel West window of the Annunciation is pretty unusual in Protestant churches.
This is because, historically, the theology of the Protestant Reformation did not work in her favor. Martin Luther had a great love and respect for Mary. He often preached about her in his sermons. At one point, he said, “The veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart.” (Sermon, Sept. 1st1522) But he also felt it was wrong to take this veneration of Mary too far. Some were essentially worshipping her as equal to God, a practice that later came to be called Mariolatry. The differences in how Catholics and Protestants view Mary has long been one of the deep divisions we have suffered. Whatever you think of her, Mary is certainly a model of what it means to be open and faithful before God.
As the Bible presents her to us, Mary is a mystery, a paradox, a divine contradiction. She is the Virgin Mother. Now how is that possible? Well, people answer that question in different ways. For some, it is simply a part of the mystery of God; something to be taken on faith. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who would simply say, “It’s not possible. The Virgin Birth is just part of the mythology of the early church.” But whether or not you believe that Mary’s story is historically accurate, there is a powerful truth here.
In the Bible, one of the frequent themes is that God’s Spirit must be present in order for a given birth to take place. When Adam and Eve have Cain, their firstborn, Eve’s response is to say, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:1) Abraham and Sarah are told that they will be the parents of a great multitude. But it isn’t until they are old and grey that God sends messengers to announce the birth of Isaac. Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth are all described as barren until God, “opens their wombs.” They give birth to Jacob, Joseph, Samuel and John the Baptist respectively, all of whom grow up to play critical roles in the Biblical story.
So, Mary is part of a longstanding tradition. It’s not that she would have been unable to give birth without the Spirit’s help. The gospels tell us that Jesus had a number of siblings who presumably came along in the normal way. But as the story of Jesus has come down to us, it is God’s intervention that was the key factor in Mary’s first pregnancy. When the Spirit comes to Mary she opens her heart, and her body, in order to be a vehicle for God’s grace and salvation.
Now as far as the Bible is concerned, this is precisely where human greatness lies: in our willingness to be nothing in and of ourselves; in our willingness to be empty before God, so that we may be filled with the Spirit and give birth to God’s creative purposes. I’m not suggesting this is easy. Most of us have a fear that if we give ourselves too much to God we’ll be asked to do things we don’t want to do: give away our money to the poor, share our faith with strangers, tend to the sick, the dying and the imprisoned. When the messenger of God comes to us and says, “Greetings O favored one,” we usually think, “this cannot be good news.”
Mary’s calling was to become pregnant. Was this good news? Well, it’s hard to imagine that Mary would have been too pleased to be an unwed, pregnant teenager in a society that tended to stone such people. Her experience after Jesus was born was hardly any better. The prophet Simeon turned out to be right when he told Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul as well.” But in her moment of decision, regardless of whatever fears or doubts she might have had, her response was to trust in God. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
If you didn’t know already, these are the words that inspired the Beatles’s song that used to be so popular: “Let It Be.” “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” That song was very important to me when I was in high school. Whenever I got caught up in hardships and challenges of being a teenager, I would pop the Beatles into the tape deck in my car. “Let it be. Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” It always had a calming effect.
And still today, we often we need to hear these words of wisdom. We spend so much time wrestling with life, holding on to anxieties and resentments, trying to live up to expectations that are too high, forcing ourselves into roles that don’t fit, suffering the tragedies that come out of nowhere. Through it all, the still small voice of God is whispering words of wisdom in the background. Your best option is in my hands. Your peace lies in surrendering to my will. Let it be.
In a book called Life Lessons,by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, there’s a story of a woman who was driving in Los Angeles. She was leaving work for a relaxing weekend in Palm Springs and was anxious to get there. But just at the outskirts of L.A the freeway traffic came to a standstill. She pulled to a stop behind a line of cars, and then noticed in her mirror that the driver behind her was not stopping. She realized she was going to be hit and that she might die. This is how she described her experience.
I looked down at my hands clenched on the steering wheel. I hadn’t consciously tightened them; this was my natural state, and this is how I lived life. I decided that I did not want to live that way, nor did I want to die that way. I closed my eyes, took a breath, and dropped my hands to my side. I let go. I surrendered to life, and to death. Then I was hit with enormous force. When the movement and noise stopped, I opened my eyes. I was fine. The car in front of me was wrecked. The car behind me was demolished. My car was compacted like an accordion. The police told me I was lucky I had relaxed, for muscle tension increases the likelihood of severe injury. I walked away feeling that I had been given a gift. The gift wasn’t just that I had survived unhurt, it was greater than that. I saw how I had been living life and was given the opportunity to change. I had held life with a clenched fist, but now I realized that I could hold it in my open hand, as if it were a feather resting on my palm. I realized that if I could relax enough to release my fear in the face of death, I could now truly enjoy life.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could learn to truly enjoy life without having to be hit from behind? But sometimes that’s just how the lessons come. We find ourselves in situations where we are at the mercy of events beyond our control. In that moment, the choice that we have is either to clench our fists or surrender. We can resist, or we can let it be. In my experience, surrendering is by far the better option, but it’s important to understand what this means.
In the Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle described it this way.
To some people, surrender may have negative connotations, implying defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic, and so on. True surrender, however, is something entirely different. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it. Nor does it mean to cease making plans or initiating positive action. Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposingthe flow of life.”
As Christians, we would say yielding to, rather than opposing the Spirit of God,but it’s essentially the same thing. And that’s what makes Mary such a wonderful example; her yielding to the Spirit of God. “Let it be, with me, according to your word.” She was, truly, speaking words of wisdom.
That wisdom is for us as much as it was for Mary. In our journeys of faith, our lives are not, and cannot be complete, until we allow the Spirit of God be whatever it needs to be in us. Our success as people, from a faith perspective, does not lie in our own accomplishments. It lies in our willingness to be nothing, to be empty before God, to surrender to God’s will so that we can become channels for God’s love, mercy and creativity to move through us. It is only when we’re open to receive, that we can give birth, as Mary did, to the Spirit of God’s son.
I’ll close with a piece about Mary from a book called Peculiar Treasures,by Frederick Buechner. This is Buechner’s imagined portrayal of the angel Gabriel’s encounter with Mary, the same event pictured in our window.
She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,” he said. As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
Gabriel need not have worried. Mary responded as God must have known she would. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she said.“Let it be with me, according to your word.” Let it be.