I found her sitting behind a family photo on my grandmother’s shelf in the living room. Meme always sat in her recliner, watching her stories, and she had several shelves behind the television filled with family photos. I was around sixteen, I guess, and I had come over to visit and thought I would clean a bit while we talked. So, I started taking the photos and other trinkets off the shelf to dust them. I was surprised to see this little porcelain figurine, tucked over into the corner. I recognized her immediately: blue and white gown, eyes looking slightly down, her hands pulled to her chest, guiding our eyes toward her golden heart. Even though the porcelain had faded and there were chips around the bottom, she was beautiful. But, what was a statue of Mary, the Blessed Mother, doing on my Baptist grandmother’s family photo shelf?
“Meme, how did this get here?” I asked.
“I have no idea what that is,” my grandmother said. “Let me see it.”
I handed it to her, and she looked at it and shrugged. “I have no idea how she got there. You’re welcome to have it if you’d like.”
I was very happy to take Blessed Mary home with me, this mystery who came out of nowhere, and somehow found her way to a place behind the family gallery. Who knows how long she had kept watch over us all, peeping over the sepia photographs, silent, her golden heart waiting there…
For twenty years, I guess, I have had the honor of caring for Our Lady of the Dusty Shelf. And, I have brought her today for my own version of show and tell.
Blessed Mary is a complex figure to be sure. To some of us, she is a crucial focus of our practice of faith: Blessed Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, highly-exalted, venerated, the Queen of Heaven. To others, rather than being such a relic of faith, she is a relic of superstition, something…too……well….catholic. Something unnecessary, even. Why even bother with Mary when one can “go straight to God?” No mediator, or mediatrix, in Mary’s case, necessary.
For someone who speaks on only four occasions in the entire Biblical account, no matter how we may view her, the Mother is important. Protestants tend to shy away from Mary. Roman Catholics and Orthodox venerate her. Anglicans, as is typical, are stuck in the middle, occupying a rich spectrum of religious practice. But, as Cynthia said as we shared tea last week, “whether you’re drawn to her or resist her, she is the incarnation of mystery.” How can this be? How can I be invited to give birth to God Incarnate? How me?
Denise Levertov wrote an amazing poem called “Annunciation,” where she reflected on this dynamic tension around Mary. Describing the scene when the Archangel Gabriel pops by for an afternoon visit, she writes
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience.
No one mentions courage.
No one mentions courage, yet courage—rooted in that willingness of the heart with an awareness of the situations’ risk—that courage of Mary is key.
Her fiat, her “let this be with me according to thy will,” is essential.
Her participation and willingness is the fulcrum on which our own salvation history shifts… as Levertov describes
To bear in her womb
infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power—
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
The reality that God would pick Mary, Miriam, the young engaged girl from the backwaters of Nazareth, to be the bearer of grace…and that this powerless, young girl lifted her eyes to look at the herald of God in the face and say…..yes….. Maybe we can’t imagine this. Perhaps we’re left with my grandmother’s words, when, as we look at this thing we’ve truly noticed for maybe the first time, we say, “I have no idea how she got there.”
This is why the broader Christian tradition has venerated Mary for twenty centuries. But veneration can be a tricky thing.
I remember having a conversation with my grandmother when I first became an Episcopalian. She said, “But it’s so close to Catholic.” “I know!” I said, with wide eyes. She was worried, of course, about worshipping Mary and the saints and such. How to understand veneration…a tricky thing, like I said.
The truth about veneration is that we so often “use it,” if you will, to keep certain things far from us. Keep holy, costly, demanding things at a distance. Protect ourselves, if you will, from even seeing that “they” are like “us.” So, we see Mary, and we may think, “Well, that’s Mary. That’s not me. She’s over there. I’m over here. Blessed are you among women, as Elizabeth says in today’s text.” And Mary becomes a relic sitting on a shelf, collecting dust.
But, what do we do with today’s collect?
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself…
And maybe we think… hmmm…. What does this mean about me? About my participation with God? About God’s call on my life? That Christ may find in me—in you—a mansion prepared for himself?
The deeper spiritual truth that we come to realize is that Mary is not meant to be set apart from us in that way—this beautiful object gathering dust. Mary means to show us how to embody Christ in our own lives. Mary becomes the reminder of our own vocation to carry God…to be a dwelling place for God in our own day. Does this feel radical to you?! It is the deep, contemplative truth of Christianity.
Mary is the incarnation of mystery, a mystery that we are called to explore and embody in our lives. It is our vocation, and it is the deep, resonant practice within community. It is grounded in our response to the Living Spirit of Christ who flows through us, opening us to an awareness of both our true self and our connection with all of life. It is a dynamic mystery. When we begin to understand it—and live into it—any dullness and fear and anxiety within life lightens a bit. And we see….the potential for grace. And, our heart sings out, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”
Mary carried this awareness within her as she went to visit Elizabeth. And, as Mary’s voice reached out to her, Elizabeth felt a great quickening within her. The baby—the promise and potential and hope that she was carrying within her—was stirred, was awakened…and lept for joy. Mary’s own participation with God—her own resonance with the Spirit—called out to the potential within Elizabeth. The promise of life and hope and blessing within Mary caused a deeper stirring of life and hope and blessing within Elizabeth. Deep calls to deep, as the saying goes.
The encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is a powerful icon of what can happen when a community participates in the great mystery of the Incarnation, when faith comes alive, when hope reaches out to hope, when life calls forth life. When we see Mary as an icon for our own practice of faith, we come to understand our vocation to call forth a quickening in all those we meet—in all those who suffer and are in need of compassion. When we carry the message of God’s mercy and hope, God’s strength and promise with us, to share in all the world.
The Mother reminds us of who we are, of what we are called to be. And, when our eyes open to these deep truths of our faith, when we see her as being “full of grace,” we will know that this state is our own purpose as well.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Advent IV, Year C
December 20, 2015