Today is a very special day for me, as today is my mother’s 90th birthday, and so I dedicate this sermon to her and to all women of faith who have heard and answered the call of service in the reign of God. Let us pray. Gracious God, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our God and our strength. Amen.
With all due respect to the tradition behind this story of the Annunciation, I feel comfortable with you in sharing a Roman Catholic spin to this narrative. And this is a true account, mind you! I was having dinner recently with some Roman Catholic friends and theologians in San Antonio when they shared with me their interpretation of the Annunciation, not knowing that I was going to attempt a hermeneutic of my own for this day. I asked them if I could share it with you and in the interest of ecumenism, they wholeheartedly agreed. So here’s the quip: “It appears that when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, like a good Roman Catholic, the Blessed Mother was praying the rosary! ….. (“Hail Mary! Full of Grace The Lord is with thee! …).
All humor aside, I have to admit that today’s pericope challenged me. To begin with, this story only has three characters and I like to identify with at least one in any gospel narrative. You have the translucent Angel Gabriel, Mary the young woman, and the Narrator Luke. In the case of Mary, there is a gender difference between us and so relating to her experience as a woman takes a stretch of the imagination.
In fact, my students in one of my classes, were quick to point out to me that I as a Latino male might find it difficult to understand how an Anglo woman, or an Anglo male for that matter, feels or how each relates to the world. And that is true! The student had learned her lesson well here at ETSS and LSPS. She was applying a hermeneutic of suspicion that questioned the professor’s interpretation of a text in light of gender and cultural difference. This was a good reminder for a Latino male whose students, for the most part, are all Anglo.
And then you have Mary in this story who lest we forget, is a young Jewish woman. So I enter this narrative with much respect and even caution, for I seek to understand the experience of the Other. For that perspective is also the one I teach and try to emulate. So I enter this narrative seeking to hear the voice of the community that gave birth to it and the thread that binds us together as a people of faith.
And then of course there is the Angel Gabriel in the story. I must admit it isn’t easy to relate to an angel. I mean, after all, what do they look like, other than what we see in Michaelangelo’s frescoes or what our creative imaginations can conceive. The popular TV program “Touched by an Angel” attempts to bring it home to us … by giving us the human dimension of angelic messengers. The message of the program to be sure is comforting and finds popular appeal: God sends special folks to those who struggle with their faith. I suppose all of us may fit in that category from time to time. But in my case, as my five older siblings would be sure to tell me, paraphrasing the words of Senator Lloyd Bentsen in his famous debate with Dan Quale, “Jay, I knew an Angel, and you’re no angel!” In fact, my older sister recently reminded me that I was the “Dennis the menace” of the family.
So I’m left with St. Luke, the narrator, with whom I share more or less an affinity. After all, he was a doctor (I have a phd); he was gentile, Greek to be sure, and the Greeks have confused me for one of them on occasion, so I guess we share some common traits. In any event, the story does contain a message that I believe crosses gender and cultural boundaries and is still relevant for our times.
One of the things that I tell my students about the way I engage pericope study is to begin by looking for the hard or challenging word of the text. And in this text, there are several words that stand out for me. The first is the famous Marian response to the Annuciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Imagine, if you will, the implications of this response in a culture that stoned women for unfaithfulness. Oh Mary, what on earth were you thinking when you made such a bold statement? By asserting her willingness to participate in salvation history, Mary would enter the company of saints who would live by faith without counting the cost. Or yet again, maybe she did count the cost in that moment of reflection on her call and figured that it was worth the price. By responding to the call of God on her life, she would no doubt experience what Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood as the costly grace of discipleship.
Josephus, the first century historian, would later write that the man Jo-shua – Jesus — was born of a Jewish woman who had been raped by a Roman soldier, thus subjecting the notion of an immaculate conception to critical scrutiny and to historical suspicion. The young Mary would surely know the scorn of her people as an unwed pregnant teenager; chances are she would be ostracized and marginalized by her own people. She would run the risk of being a social outcast or worse. Simeon would later sing his famous song:
“For My eyes have seen thy Salvation, Which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, A Light of Revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel,” …
Good news to many, but this would be a sweet song mixed with the bitter reality of his word to Mary: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul – to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2: 34-35). Mary would experience her own via cruces. After the birth narrative, the next time we hear about Mary she is standing at the foot of the cross, gazing as it were, at the injustice committed against her son by the powerful of his day.
So how is it that Mary can sing her own song later on in the text? Mary, I believe, can sing her song because she is critically aware of her social condition and location. Listen once again to the challenging words recorded by St. Luke: “Here am I, the Servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” Some interpreters see in this statement a semblance of uncritical passivity, of a willingness to be a surrendered vessel with no questions being asked by her, but that’s an interpretation that fails to examine the implications of her moral agency. For Mary did question the angel, “How can this be for I am a virgin?” and that critical mind stands in sharp contrast to any rendition of a passive Mary.
Nora Lozano-Díaz, a Protestant theologian from San Antonio, offers us an alternative hermeneutic. She reminds us that if traditionally the Virgin Mary has been perceived as a passive woman, an alternative feminist reading of this text can suggest the opposite. She writes: “The fact that [Mary] became a vessel to fulfill God’s plan gives the idea of becoming a passive object. However, [her bold statement recorded in St. Luke: “Here am I the servant of the Lord …”] suggests that she was in reality a subject. She decided out of her free will to take the mission that God had for her. She did not consult anybody about becoming a mother, not even her future husband. Thus this passage hints that Mary was an active and assertive woman who made her own choices.”
Lozano also refuses to accept the notion of a submissive Mary as the normative interpretation. Her song of praise, the Magnificat, suggests the contrary. This song of praise for God’s merciful acts reveals a Mary who was well aware of social injustices. And so she sings her song to celebrate the acts of God that reverse the social order in favor of the poor and the oppressed. Mary celebrates the reversal of fortunes ushered in by the reign of God and sings because justice has been championed.
Lozano insists that Mary’s role as devoted mother was not her only function in life. The Acts of the apostles offers a glimpse of a Mary who along with other women, was a committed and active disciple of the Jesus movement and one who was involved in the original group of disciples who started the church. This image speaks to me personally in a powerful way because my mother, who was named after Mary, was one of the original disciples who founded the first Hispanic Lutheran Church in Texas. The only reason that I can stand before you today is because of her response to her call and vocation to serve her community.
In the Hispanic community there are many images for Mary. The Virgin of Guadalupe is one of those images that comes to mind. She emerges from the experience of the people and even though she does not emerge from the biblical tradition in the canonical sense, she does represent that indigenous mixture of Spanish and Indian, a mixed-blood mestiza that affirms the reality of a gracious God. She represents the faith and hope of a people who refuse to die and be vanquished by the powerful of history. You will find her in all parts of the world, from Eastern Europe to South Africa to Southeast Asia. As an icon of the powerless, she represents the hope of a people who daily experience the struggle for life and living on the margins of their communities.
Another image that comes to mind is that of a ritual that is enacted each year at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. This is called the “Pésame a la Virgen María.” The Péseme is the Hispanic wake, the custom of visiting the mournful Virgen Mary after the death of her son on the Cross. Her image is draped in black as she is carried by several people through the center aisle of the Cathedral and placed in a prominent place towards the front of the church.
The faithful come to pay their respects to the Virgen in her mournful condition. When I asked my friend Sally Gomez who is lay leader at this church and a theologian in her own right what exactly happened during this ritual enactment, she told me that the liturgy for this ritual is such that mothers who have lost their sons and daughters to violent crimes move forward to embrace the virgin.
But Sally, I remarked, what happens then? Don’t they cry or wail? Yes, she answered, of course they do. But how can you control that kind of emotion in that kind of liturgical setting, I asked, being a careful liturgist? You don’t, she said. This is not a time for liturgical formalities or liturgical neatness. You let the people cry and wail if necessary because this represents a mutual understanding, mother to mother, woman to woman. It is she, Mary, María, who enters into solidarity with women who have experienced unjust suffering.
They lose their sons and daughters to systems of oppression where justice is often denied. These are the women and mothers who lose their sons and daughters to the foreign wars of the powerful. They will come to the “péseme,” the wake, to experience the consolation and the understanding that this symbol of solidarity represents for them. This María, this Guadalupe of the nations, this Other whose image bears many names, is the same one who graces the entrance of this chapel, as a silent reminder of the presence of the holy in those whom the world would reject. As holy icon, she greets the faithful as the symbol of renewed hope and of liberation because of the Incarnate Word, the Word made flesh, “hecho carne” as we say in Spanish, in her, whom she carries as Christ bearer.
But Mary as she is depicted in this Lukan text is much more that a woman who will bear much suffering as well as hope for others. She is a woman of conscience who embodies in herself the grace and dignity of womanhood. We notice it her question to the Angel: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary questions the messenger and rightly so, for it is her body, her embodied self, that will give life to Divinity at great expense. And in questioning, she reminds us that we have the right to engage the holy in holy disputation, much as the Spanish mystic St. Therese of Avila or the Mexican poetess Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, did in their journey of faith. They remind us that God is the giver of free will and of liberation and that critical engagement in the act of faith is not a sign of weakness or of disrespect or of blind submission to the powerful, but an act of ensuring that the gift of our embodied selves and of our freedom in God is used for the most noble of purposes. Mary in her questioning reminds us of St. Anselm’s famous statement: faith seeks understanding.
And the Angel answered and said to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.” And that, my friends in Christ, is exactly what happened to us, as with Mary, when in our baptism the Holy Spirit came upon us. The Most High overshadowed us, and we became vessels of the Incarnate Word. The life-giving Word of promise, took up residence, as it were, by the Spirit, in the innermost part of our beings, there to dwell and to give life and the promise of renewed life both to us and to those around us. The Holy came upon us and called us to service in the reign of God, and for that reason we, too, can sing our song of liberation. Amen.
\ Mary. , the servant of God, seems to understand the message that service in the reign of God entails faith, trust, hope, and ultimately surrender to a reality of another way of being far greater and grander than her mind could conceive. She seems to be telling us 21st century post-modern Christians that service in the reign of God entails this kind of servant life where the humble are exalted and the proud are stripped of their power. Mary becomes a vessel, a sign, and a symbol, for the incarnate Word. Luther the Reformer would write of the servant Mary in the most noble of terms.
In The Theology of The Cross for the 21st Century, Lutheran theologian Alberto García, writes:
While we as catholic evangelical Christians cannot support a devotion to Mary, we need to remember that one of the most important images for Luther is the one of the servant mother Mary, who in humility proclaims God’s love and affirmation of Gods’ people. In the Magnificat, Mary embodied for Luther a humble servant of God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ. In fact Mary underscores for Luther a theologian of the cross who affirms the paradox of calling worthy what is unworthy and unworthy what is considered worthy through human eyes. Mary affirms a theology of grace that reveals our unrighteousness yet God’s affirmation of God’s people under the cross. It is in this light that we can read the narrative of the
Guadalupe and affirm the “faith of the people.” [This particular narrative in light of the person and symbol of Mary] reflects God’s affirmation and healing of the helpless vis-à-vis the disdain of the powerful. It is in this realization, Luther observes, that we live the Rememberwas a moral agent with a free will and she did question the angel: “How can this be, as I am a virgen?” That critical mind stands in sharp contrast to any rendition of a passive joy of the presence of the Holy Spirit.