Saturday, August 14, 2010

Mary, Mother of our Lord

Have you ever wished there was a bit more detail in the New Testament about the really important things – like what Jesus got up to as a boy – what his grandparents’ names were, how Joseph and Mary got together – all the human interest stuff?  If so, you might be interested in some of the gospels and letters that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Most of them are actually appallingly bad – for example the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that tells about the first time six-year-old Jesus gets into trouble with the scribes for working on the Sabbath – by making toy pigeons out of clay and then making them fly away – this fairly fanciful version of Jesus’ childhood has him regularly working quite advanced miracles like helping his father in the carpenter’s shop by miraculously stretching pieces of wood that had accidentally been cut too short, reattaching people’s feet that had been cut off in industrial accidents – also there’s a slightly troubling episode of divine delinquency to do with mates who tease the young Messiah mysteriously dropping dead.

A slightly more coherent one is the 2nd century document, the Proto-Evangelium of James – again it tries to fill in the blanks about Jesus’ childhood but this one goes back a whole generation and tells us how Mary and Joseph get it together.  Even though it isn’t in the Bible, the Proto-Evangelium is the source for a lot of the anecdotal stuff, and the Church traditions – for example the one that says Mary’s mum’s name is Anna, who is barren and unhappy until one day she receives good news through an angel that she is going to conceive.  Like Hannah in the Old Testament, Anna is so pleased she decides to offer the baby to God by sending it to the temple to be brought up by the priests.  So Mary gets brought up in a sort of boarding school for Vestal Virgins where – according to the story - they are hand-fed by angels.  To make themselves useful while they are there, the girls set to work weaving tapestries for the temple.  The young Mary gets the job of weaving the purple and scarlet yarns for the veil that hangs in the sanctuary – this veil is a sort of curtain that hangs in front of the Holiest of Holies where nobody ever goes except the high priest, who once a year ventures in to stand in front of the ark of the covenant and make peace between God and the people of Israel. 

Well, when the Vestal Virgins turn twelve the priests quite naturally decide they don’t fancy the idea of sharing the temple with a group of teenage girls, so they tell them all it’s time to go home and get married.  I imagine most of the girls are probably quite relieved at the prospect.  But not Mary, who says her mum always wanted her to be a temple virgin and that’s what she plans to stay.  The priests are equally certain they don’t want girls of marriageable age hanging around the temple, so they pack her off back to mum and dad’s place in Nazareth with her scarlet and purple wool, telling her she can keep weaving the temple veil in her spare time until Joseph can get around to marrying her.

But here things get a bit strange.  Back at home, Mary dutifully picks up the scarlet wool and starts spinning, but then she feels thirsty and goes outside to draw a bucket of water from the well.  As she’s pulling up the bucket she hears a voice coming out of nowhere saying, ‘hello, favoured one!  You’re shining with God’s beauty!  Of all women, you are the most blessed!’  You know, and I know, that this is Gabriel, making his entrance, but Mary doesn’t know that, and she can’t see anything, so she goes back – quite flustered - and decides to have a go with the purple wool.  This time, Gabriel decides to be visible, and he says to her, ‘Mary, you’ve got nothing to fear, you’ve made quite an impression on God, and you’re about to conceive the child of God’s Word.  Nothing is impossible with God!’  And after that, the story unfolds more or less as we know it in the Gospel of Luke.  Mary says, ‘Let it be with me just as you say’.

Setting this story around a visit to the well to fetch water is almost certainly meant to get us thinking about all the other chance meetings by wells in the Old Testament – like Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and his wife-to-be Zipporah – as well as Jesus himself at the well with the woman of Samaria, which I think is the only story in the whole Bible where a chance meeting at a well doesn’t lead to a proposal of marriage – but maybe the point is that always in the Bible we see that the well is a place of refreshment and a place for great turning points in the history of God’s people.  Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us that Jesus promises the Samaritan woman that the water he gives will become a well of refreshment springing up in the believer’s heart, and suggests that the image of the well itself represents the bubbling freshness of God that always lies just beneath the surface, ready to spring up again and again from the depths. [1]  Mary, who in this story stands for the whole history of God’s people, the centuries-long exchange of promise and faithfulness, becomes the first person in history who explicitly believes in the fulfilment of God’s promise through Jesus – and from this point on Mary’s own womb is going to become the well from which springs the river of life.

But there is another great symbol lurking in this story, as Archbishop Williams points out – a more challenging one.  Because what Mary has been occupied in weaving is that great symbol of holy fear, the veil that hangs in front of the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant, the curtain that stands for the unbridgeable gulf separating sinful humanity and God.  Yet as Mary works she is interrupted – God, it seems, has done what human beings can’t do, and has stepped through the veil from the heavenward side!  God parts the curtain of everything that keeps us isolated and alienated from God, the curtain of fear and guilt – and is only able to do so because this one human creature is sufficiently unafraid, sufficiently attentive - sufficiently in love - to let God in without reservation.  And what this means for you and me, is that that now, when we look at God, we don’t just see the unknowable, terrifying emptiness of infinity, but the vulnerability and helplessness of a baby on a young mother’s lap.

You might already have picked up the most poignant connection of all, in this image of the veil that Mary is weaving.  And it’s the echo of Good Friday, the echo of Jesus’ last cry as he hangs on the cross, and as the gospel writer tells us the veil that hangs in the temple is torn in two from top to bottom.  What it means is that what separates us from God has been ripped apart - in daring to claim his oneness in love with the Father, all the way to death and beyond, Jesus has made a way for us to follow, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it, through the curtain, through his own body.  Just as Mary is interrupted, spinning the curtain, so the whole history of the world is interrupted by the cry of Jesus from the cross – everything that we try to put between ourselves and God is torn apart by God’s own initiative and Mary’s wholehearted consent.

I wonder, what curtains do we put up ourselves?  Where do we waste energy, and where do we put up barriers in between ourselves and the life-giving water that God wants to give us?  Because, make no doubt about it, it’s a very human thing to do.  We resist what gives us life.  You see the big conflicts that tear our world apart, and you think, why can’t we trust one another?  Why is it that we are more energised by ideologies and national identity that only give us a partial answer to what it means to be human, than by the challenge of reconciliation and the recognition of common humanity?  And you see it in the lives of families torn apart by the half-forgotten memory of some disagreement, what should be a place of love and unconditional acceptance becomes an arena for competition and point-scoring.  I think it comes from the place of shame, from the deep-down sense of inadequacy that means we’d rather hang onto our hurts than risk rejection by reaching out to the person we are alienated from.  And it can be like that in our religious life too.  The encounter with God can be challenging: when you really think about it the weekly encounter with the God we meet in the Eucharist, and the daily encounter with God in the life of prayer and Christian action challenges us to dare more, and to love more, than we ever dreamed.  Ripping down the curtain means refusing to retreat into a religion of dull convention or private spirituality, it means refusing to settle for the religion of habit that mistakes the form for the substance.  Ripping down the curtain means saying, over and over again, yes! when God asks us to agree to be transformed, to be changed in ways we can’t predict by God’s silence and by God’s humanity.  Ripping down the curtain means saying yes to the utterly astonishing proposition that God wants to take on flesh in our own lives, that we will finally see humanity – including our own humanity – as God intended it to be.


[1] This sermon is based on Rowan Williams’ book, Ponder these things: praying with icons of the Virgin’, (2002, Mulgrave, Vic., John Garratt Publishing).  See especially chapter four, ‘Weaving Scarlet and Purple – a legend of Mary’, pp. 57-70.