Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
A Candlelight Service
December 24, 2023
Of all the fully human characters in our nativity story, Mary is the most celebrated, and the most complicated. Venerated as a Saint, she is often depicted in art as beatific, peaceful, the perfect, loving mother.
But can this be the extent of it? Or even the truth? The first Christmas did not happen to saints. It happened to real people. People with their own ideas of how their lives would go, and their places in the world. And that was surely just as true for Mary, who was a young girl when the angel paid her a visit. Not a famous person. Not someone already extraordinary.
I know one thing my modern thinking struggles with is Mary’s agency in all this. This baby happened to her. It was a gift, but the angel presented it as a done deal. This is happening, the Angel says, you are going to be the mother of God. It’s not as if she was given a lot of time to think about it. And just like that, Mary accepts: Here I am, she says in the gospel. Let it be with me according to your word.
So where does Mary fit in for women today, and the people who love them? The mothers I know are struggling hard to live up to an impossible standard – to have careers, to raise overachievers, to be awesome partners, and good friends. All while still conforming to a certain idea of what a woman is supposed to look like. It is a heavy load, and one most men still cannot fully appreciate.
I imagine some women will feel similarly conflicted about Mary and her lack of choice in this whole story. Mary was chosen by God. But she did not choose, as Joseph would. As I will discuss more tonight, this change in her circumstances was forced upon her, as it would have so often been for women of her time. And her role as mother and dutiful wife, in the end, was also the one most acceptable to the society in which she lived.
But consider this: life throws all sorts of burdens upon us. Twists from which we believe we will never recover. Turns that will forever change us. And we recover, and we go on. Mary’s story is one of courage and strength, and faith that God would help guide her.
Of all the people in our story, her burden is the heaviest: She found herself pregnant at the wrong time, with a new husband in her life about whom she must have still been uncertain. Everyone else gets to celebrate the birth. She actually has to give birth. And what then? According to the angel, this is not a son who will always be with her. This is a son with a destiny she cannot control, and at some point, she will have to accept his fate, and be there when he dies.
We don’t hear a lot of about how Mary felt about all those things. We are told that she was “troubled.” But we move quickly to hear her accept what the angel says. Surely, there must have been a great many thoughts – before and after – that spoke to Mary’s anxiety and fear about what was happening. Our scripture lesson makes short work of the many months of pregnancy when Mary had time to wrestle with what was happening.
Maybe, in this modern time, what we learn from those early days that Mary faced is to note how far society has come in gender equality and how far it might still have to go. Indeed, as history has shown, of all the rules that change, it has often been the rights of women – and of minority women in particular – that were the last to change.
But let us remember as well: this was only the beginning for Mary. She found her agency. She raised her son as best she could, imparting strength of character and resilience. She did not leave his side, and became a stalwart presence for him during his ministry. When Jesus died, she was still at his side, so special to him that among his last acts was to make sure that, in her old age, she would be cared for. She found a way to have a voice in the story.
And so, we have many qualities to celebrate about Mary, and the example she sets before us. Not only that she was chosen by God and accepted that choice. Not only that she gave birth to Jesus, despite the most trying circumstances. But also that she gave life to Jesus. And for all the pain it brought her, she stood with him at the cross.
This is what God must have seen in her: the strength of character to do what needed to be done, however frightening, and the will to see it through until the very end, however difficult. That is Mary’s power. And it is hers alone.
We are encouraged to embody these same gifts. This Advent we have heard the voices of Jesus, John the Baptist, our youth, and Mary urging us to know with certainty that we are not alone. That God goes with us into the messiness of life to help us through and find that hope and peace that know no ending. May we heed these voices in our lives for the sake of the world in which we have been called to live. May we live the life that we have been given with courage and conviction. And may we use what God has given us to herald the One who brings freedom and good news to all people. That is our power, and it is ours alone.