I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's the week of December 21. The text is Isaiah 7:10-17. The passage has a very particular historical context. Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary summarizes:
“The text itself is lodged firmly in the eighth century B.C.E.. Syria and Ephraim are in league against Judah, and Judah's King Ahaz is afraid. Unwilling to trust in God's protection, he seeks an alliance with Assyria; this will eventually come back to bite him, making Judah [subordinate to] the Assyrian empire. The mice invite the protection of the cat at their peril.”
Though the passage refers to a particular political situation in Judah, it has been reinterpreted by the authors of the Gospels.
This week I was over at a friend’s place for a little pre-Christmas celebration.
There’s a little group of us who call ourselves the kick-ass lady pastors
(because we’re all ladies, and we’re all pastors, and we’re all, well, pretty kick-ass).
We get together about once a month.
This time around, Jes was hosting, and she was very excited
for us to all make some very glittery feminist Christmas ornaments
featuring our favorite feminist icons.
She also showed us how to make little shrines
out of an Altoids box, like this one:
My feminist icon is Mary.
The virgin Mary, to be precise.
And I wanted to make a little shrine with Mary and my favorite line from the Magnificat,
the song Mary sings in the Gospel of Luke.
But I ran into a problem.
As I looked through all the pictures of Mary
(Jes had a little book of icons she had sacrificed to our craft night)
I couldn’t find a picture that was, well, kick-ass enough.
Mary was always making faces like this:
She was always looking all calm and peaceful and beatific,
surrendering herself to God’s will.
I was looking for an image of Mary who looked capable of uttering
those radical, status-quo shattering words of the Magnificat:
You have brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
you have filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
I wanted a Mary who looked powerful.
History has painted Mary,
this young woman who gave birth to Jesus,
as gentle, sweet, and virginal.
We see her portrayed that way in the large majority of Western artistic depictions of her.
And the image is reinforced through our hymns.
When we sing of Mary we sing lines like,
“Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head.”
Another hymn refers to her as,
“Mary mother, meek and mild.”
And most of them,
most of them,
reference her virginity.
Or her purity.
Which is interesting.
Because the text here in Isaiah speaks not of a virgin, but of a young woman.
A maiden, ready to bear a child.
The Greek in Luke and in Matthew
(and Matthew is a direct quote of this text in Isaiah)
uses the word “parthenos,” to describe Mary.
This word is ambiguous.
It can mean a virgin, but also a maiden:
a woman who is of marriageable age, but not yet married.
Someone who, based on the cultural norms of the time,
would have been a virgin.
Some scholars believe that the intense focus on Mary’s virginity
emerged during the formation of the Christian church,
as a response to detractors of Christianity
who slung accusations that Mary was a prostitute or was promiscuous,
and Jesus born out of wedlock.
So this idea of Mary’s virginity came into sharp focus as a defense.
Why is it so important to us
that Mary be pure?
Why do we want so badly
to set her apart?
To make her different from us?
Brittany Wilson of Duke Divinity School
writes of the ambivalent relationship feminism has to Mary.
“One the one hand, some feminists view Mary with suspicion,
highlighting how she has been a source of oppression for women.
Men, in an effort to define and control female lives,
have long preached to women that they need to model themselves after Mary --
especially her humility, obedience, and subservience.
Mary has been held up as the ‘female ideal,’
yet as both virgin and mother,
Mary is also the ‘great exception.’
Mary is the unsullied, privileged woman who is idealized o
ver and againstall other women;
as Marina Warner concludes,
Mary is ‘alone of all her sex.’”*
Alone of all her sex.
As if, for God to be born of a woman,
for God to take on human flesh,
that woman must be divorced from all that is earthy,
all that is ordinary,
all that is, in fact, human,
such a love, desire, intimacy, sexuality.
If we know anything from this book of sacred stories,
it is that there is nothing pure
about Christ’s coming.
Nothing pure about a child born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough.
Nothing pure about a tyrant of a ruler
who orders the death of innocent children
when he hears of this new king who has been born.
Nothing pure about fleeing to Egypt, just days after birth,
fleeing, like so many refugees had before her and so many will after her,
to save the life of her child from the powers that be.
Nothing pure about bringing up a child in poverty.
Nothing pure about watching him die at the hands of the state.
So why do we need so badly for Mary to be “pure?”
We are a mess,
With too many people of color dead at the hands of the police
and two police officers dead at the hands of a man who was not well.
And rather than taking a step back
to view larger picture:
a long history of racialized violence,
a culture obsessed with firearms,
and a country that places too little value on the care of our citizens,
our city is jumping for the chance to take sides.
To make this an “us versus them.”
To allow one man, who was so ill that he took his own life,
to represent a movement that is calling for justice for all people.
And we are a mess:
each of us, and me too.
Over the years we have been a church together,
I have had the great privilege of listening to many of your stories.
I have heard of all you have lost
and the pain of losing it.
And though I have not felt what each of you have felt --
the pain of your own particular story,
I have tried to witness that pain.
To hold it.
We are all so badly in need of redemption.
and our world.
There is nothing pure about any of it.
Nothing pristine about the pain of our nation,
or the pain of our hearts.
And yet, right in the middle of it,
right in the middle of that terrifying journey through the darkest night
to an improvised manger
with a roof just barely over our heads,
there is the cry of God being born among us.
It’s a mess,
God is coming to dwell among us.
And I await that coming
with the same kind of hope-infused fear and trepidation
with which I imagine I would await the birth of my own child.
A baby brings with it a surge of love.
I’ve been told it’s a love so strong
you never even imagined you were capable of feeling that way.
But child also brings revelation.
Every parent I’ve talked to has told me
that having a kid showed them things about themselves
they wished they didn’t have to see.
Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary writes of the promise and threat inherent
in Isaiah’s prophesy:
“On the one hand, [the prophesy tells us that the] threat
from Syria and Ephraim will fade away,
But then, in the verses just beyond today’s reading, things turn darker:
the king of Assyria will come as invited,
but bringing violence and destruction.
And, of course, both things are ‘Immanuel’ (God with us),
for when God comes it will always mean both judgment and promise.
God comes always to bring life and salvation;
but God comes always to expose human sin
and purge everything that stands in the way of justice.”
“God-with-us” means standing in the light.
In that light that shines from God.
It is not a light that cleanses or purifies.
But it is a light that reveals.
It is a light in which we can see clearly,
see clearly just who it is we have become,
as individuals, and as a nation.
See clearly the lies we have told ourselves,
as individuals, and as a nation.
See clearly the wounds of our hearts,
as individuals, and as a nation.
I don’t think God comes to make us pure.
I don’t think purity has much to do with God at all.
I think God comes to make us honest.
God comes to bring the truth.
The truth of these messy lives we lead,
that we are all, all of us,
so badly in need of redemption.
Madonna II, Elizabeth Catlett, 1999
*From "Mary and Her Interpreters," Women's Bible Commentary.