Let us say for a moment, that it’s the year 2016—that doesn’t require any stretch of the imagination I know—and that you are the angel Gabriel. That DOES require a stretch of the imagination—not that we’re not an angelic group, just sayin… God has called you into the holy office. Penthouse suite in heaven. You are sitting there, facing the Almighty, and God tells you SHE has a job for you. God wants you to “Find the perfect mother for Jesus.”
That’s your job. Now, I ask you, where would you go to find this perfect mother? Would you go to an abbey, if in fact abbeys still exist, and I guess they do—looking for that special someone who has dedicated her life to God and is living as a virgin? Or, would you go to a rally, say, for women’s rights, to find a strong woman who speaks and acts her mind? Would you go to a local high school, to find a naive, meek kind of girl—a wallflower? or would you check out Harvard and Yale, hoping to find an attractive, popular young woman who exudes smarts. Would you go to a nursing home say, to find a young, gentle soul, who never finished high school, and is spending her days caring for sick, elderly people? Or, would you roam hospital corridors looking for that special someone who has had the grit to make it through med school and is now dedicating her life to saving lives? Would you choose a poor Mexicana, who is in this country illegally, or, would you choose the female attorney who is representing her in court, and whose passion it is to defend the poor and the outcast? Be honest.
This story of Mary is problematic, isn’t it? In fact, this story is far removed from the reality that we live today. We don’t raise our girls to be Marys—do we? We don’t value traditional Mary-esq qualities.
So today I want us to 1) let go the image that has been created for her in Christmas carols, “Mother Mary meek and mild,” Gentle Mary, pool and lowly Mary, Round yon virgin Mary, and then 2) I want to reframe her, which we can absolutely do, again with a little imagination— putting her in a modern day context.
I want to do that by relaying to you a true story,
It was ten years ago, while I was a pastor at Covesville Presbyterian. One of the members of that church, a single woman, had one child, a daughter. That daughter, I’ll call her Kate, was 16 years old, beautiful, really stunningly beautiful. She could have been a model. The mother had poured her life into that child—spending a great deal of her time and money making sure that Kate had everything a girl could want—designer jeans, a car, albeit used, you get the picture. When Kate took an interest in, and demonstrated a talent for softball, the mom threw herself into that sport. My goodness, she volunteered at the ball park so often that she eventually was offered, and took, a part time job manning the ballpark refreshment stand. Kate’s mother had plans for her daughter to finish high school and go on to college, possibly on a softball scholarship.
Then one day in October, this stunningly beautiful daughter, who was beginning to put on a little weight, announced to her mother that she was pregnant. As the Yiddish proverb goes, humans plan, God laughs; or as Woody Allen puts it, “If you want to make God laugh tell him your plans.” God must have been doubled-over laughing.
Kate told her mother she was in love with the baby’s father, who I will call Douglas, and they had decided to marry. She would get her GED, she promised her mother—but who needs college? “After all,” Kate told her mother, “Douglas didn’t go to college and he has a well-paying job at the asphalt factory.”
Kate’s mother contacted me. I stopped by her house. Over hot tea and through tears at her kitchen table, she gave me the news. She asked me to officiate at the wedding. Of course, I agreed to do that.
Let it not be forgotten, though, that pastors are also sometimes parents. As you know, I have three daughters. Ten years ago, they were in their late teens or early twenties—just a little older than Kate. I identified with the situation and frankly, It rattled me.
First thing was to engage in some serious premarital counseling with Kate and Douglas. Which I tried to do. Sitting across from the couple in my church office, I led us in a discussion about faith and God—Whoop! neither of them attended church,; they weren't sure they believed in God. Ah well. Then we moved on to talk about the pregnancy; finishing school, finances. Might as well have been talking to my dog. You know, when you say something a dog doesn’t understand, how it cocks its head?
In fact, they were supremely happy! Happy! Happy! And I could feel my own resolution to “make them see the light” as it were, sliding into the gutter. Happiness IS contagious. It definitely is. After they left, I chided myself. "I should have said that, I could have said that,….."
The wedding was scheduled for three days after Christmas—December 28th. The church, was decorated as in Christmas’s past, with fresh greenery and candles at all the windows just like here. Kate’s mom has an artistic bent, though. She added her own touches. Gold ribbons at the front door. A beautiful floral display in the narthex. Breathtaking, really. But the juxtaposition of the decorations announcing the promise and joy that comes with the birth of Christ, with the calamity that had befallen Kate and her family--whether Kate and her fiancé understood it to be a calamity or not, definitely grated on my sensibilities.
I went through many, many drafts of a wedding homily—or I as I refer to it, a wedding meditation. Homily sounds too Episcopalian, and my wedding messages are not long enough to be considered sermons. So meditation. Some of my drafts had a slightly accusatory tone. I finally settled on the tried and true, 1 Corinthians 13 passage, which is almost cliché for weddings, although it IS lovely: you know that one—it ends with, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” And in my message I would just ignore the drama.
Then came Christmas week. I was at my desk. I put aside my still incomplete draft of the wedding meditation. I turned to my sermon for the last Sunday before Christmas. The text for the Sunday before Christmas day was this one—from Luke—Luke1:39-56. Mary was pregnant and unmarried. Mary was pregnant and she was also unmarried. Mary equals Kate. Kate equals Mary--Whoa!
You know, probably no one back in Mary’s day bought the story that Mary was a pregnant virgin.
Because she was pregnant and not married, Mary could have been stoned to death by her community, and that would have been legal! Surely when they found out Mary was pregnant, her parents tore their clothes and heaped ashes on their heads. Kate’s mother hadn’t gone that route, but close enough. She HAD cried into her hot tea.
In fact, could it be that Mary visits Cousin Elisabeth to escape the drama at home? Or, could it be that Mary had been banished from her parents’ house, “You’re not my daughter anymore!” However it was, when she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s house, she shows no remorse over the pain she has caused her parents if there was pain, and she is not worried about the future. Instead, Mary has the audacity to SING, my soul magnifies the Lord!!. That’s pretty much what Kate and Douglas had done in my office. Well, not literally, but you get the idea.
I finished my sermon for Sunday, and then I phoned Kate. “Would you mind if I mention your pregnancy in the marriage service?” I asked. And here I should say, that since she was by then, six months pregnant, the fact that she was “with child” would be evident anyway. She gave me the go-ahead.
So, I wrote a meditation for Kate’s service, based on this passage in Luke. I wrote about what might have been Mary’s family’s reaction to the pregnancy. Then I drew a line from them to Kate’s mother, and her own sadness. Parents love their children and they want them to have easy, uncomplicated lives—as if that is ever possible! I wrote about courage, too—Mary’s courage, and also the courage Kate and Douglas had demonstrated—acting according to what they knew to be true and good and right. And I talked about the courage they would have to muster in the near future—raising a baby, paying bills, getting that GED. I talked about faith, too—if not faith in God, at least faith in the world, in their fellow humans, and faith in life. And, I talked about love. They said they loved each other. They would need to act on that, depend on that, in spades in the years to come.
At the end of the service, we prayed for Kate and her husband and for the baby growing inside Kate. As they say in pastor circles, “The message was well received.”
Kate and Douglas became the proud parents of a baby boy. They named him Jesus. No they didn't. Wish they had though for the sake of this story! They named him after his dad. So he became a "Jr."
Now I need to do a reality check here, especially for you on this side of the sanctuary. Kate and Douglas were fortunate, or blessed, to have mothers who had the time to babysit while Kate finished school and then got a job. I suspect the couple has faced substantial financial hardships, too.
But, let’s return to the question, if YOU were Gabriel, assigned the job of choosing a mother for the baby Jesus, where would you look? Whom would you choose? Let me suggest that If social constructs, and education levels entered into your equation at all, it would be further down on your list.
Kate and Douglas now have a second child, A girl. She was, born five years ago. I was invited to come by the hospital, which I did, the day after she was born. There were hugs all around—grand-moms, mom, dad, brother, and me. I’d say the family is doing just fine, and God is smiling, maybe even laughing, in heaven. Amen