Luke 1.30-38 and John 2.1,7-10
Today we consider and reflect on the role of Mary in our faith and her model of trust in God as well as dwelling on her example of motherhood as we meet as the Diocesan chapter of the Mothers Union.
As a part of that I would ask your indulgence to share my experience from reading a chapter from the book, The Universal Christ, by American Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, which draws on scripture, history and spiritual practice to articulate a truly transformative view of Jesus Christ as a portrait of God’s constant, unfolding work in the world.
It asserts that Jesus’ life was meant to declare that humanity has never been separate from God, expect by its own negative choice.
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, says that the book helps us to see and hear Jesus of Nazareth in what he taught, what he did and who he is – the loving, liberating and life giving expression and presence of God and in doing so is helping Christianity reclaim its soul anew.
It has had a tremendous impact on me in a very short time and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone wishing to explore their faith and their spirituality in a deep and meaningful way. The chapter I want to reflect on with you today examines and contemplates the role of Mary in the faith throughout history and I believe it speaks volumes about society’s, and our church’s, need for self reflection and contemplation on the role of women specifically and the idea the divine feminine plays in our faith more generally.
One doesn’t have to look far at the moment to realise that despite all the pretences and appearances that are put about, the treatment of women in both private and public life, in all fields of human endeavour, still has a long way to go before it lives up to anything that might be truly called “gospel values”.
As a church we are not only “not immune” from these issues but in many cases are chief perpetrators and instigators of mistreatment, marginalisation and even abuse, albeit normally (but not exclusively) indirectly through silence and inaction.
Theology is a powerful tool in helping humans expand our horizons and our journey towards God, but like any tool, when wielded carelessly, negligently or worse, maliciously, has the potential to cause great harm.
It is in an effort to avoid such harm, and perhaps to try and undo some of the harm that has already been done that Richard Rohr writes about what he calls the “feminine incarnation”.
He begins by acknowledging his limitations in approaching such an important topic from a male perspective but he goes to great lengths to legitimate his observations over a lifetime of interaction and experience and invites us to trust, not only his guidance but also our own experiences with the divine feminine.
And he feels that this experience needs to be validated and in many cases simply acknowledged because so many have consistently and falsely assumed that God is somehow “masculine”.
Rohr points out that while Jesus was clearly male, that the Christ that he is trying to articulate and reveal as the eternal Word of God existing in and through all things, giving life and substance to creation, is beyond gender. So it should be expected that our traditions would have found ways, either consciously or unconsciously, to give feminine expression to the divine incarnation and to give God a more feminine character, just as the bible itself often does.
This thought leads him to wonder about the extreme devotion that Mary, who is hardly mentioned in the bible, has generated in both the Eastern and Western churches over the centuries and he concludes that Mary became an “archetype” a sort of foundational symbol communicating a whole host of meanings in deep and penetrating ways that words cannot come close to.
Ultimately he posits that Mary became for many Christians a symbol of what he, and many others, especially Franciscans, call the first Incarnation, which is “mother” Earth, creation itself, where God poured Godself into the material world to take on and create matter, what would be needed as a precondition for God to then become flesh and dwell among us.
In art this is so often symbolised by the image of Mary, that archetype in the tradition of Sophia or Holy Wisdom who was spoken of in the books of Proverbs 8 and Wisdom 7, and even again in Revelation 12, as offering to us Jesus, God incarnated as a vulnerable and usually naked child.
For Rohr this image, replicated so many times in art down the millennia, reaches deep into our unconsciousness as Earth Mother presenting Spiritual Son, the feminine receptivity handing on the fruit of her own yes and inviting us to offer our own yes.
He hopes that people are not going to write this line of thinking off as simply trendy feminism or as an attempt to address those who have left the faith because of the sins of patriarchy but rather realise that it is the rediscovery that we have always had a feminine incarnation and understanding of God, that in fact it was the first understanding of incarnation and that even better, it included all of us as it was creation itself.
For Rohr Mary symbolizes all of us, precisely because she was one of us and NOT God.
The tragedy is that while Christians for the first thousand years seemed to understand this on an intuitive level, by the time the much needed Protestant Reformation occurred all we could see was “but she is not God.” This is entirely true. But because we could no longer see in wholes, but only in parts, we missed the fact that she is actually each of us! And that is why so many have loved her so deeply without ever probably fully understanding why.
We all needed to see in Mary our own feminine souls; to see ourselves in her and to say with her “God has looked upon me in my lowliness. From now on all generations will call me blessed.”
And Rohr notes that this trend seems stronger the more “macho” a culture gets – giving the example he encountered in Texas Cowboy country where in a single church he counted 11 images of Mary.
But the point that Rohr is really building up to in all of this is that in some ways many humans can identify with Mary more than they can with Jesus precisely because she is NOT God, just as we are not, but what she is is the archetype of our YES to God!
In scripture not one particularly heroic action is attributed to her expect trust itself. From her first yes to Gabriel that we celebrate today, to the birth itself, to her last yes at the foot of the Cross and her full presence with the disciples at Pentecost, Mary appears on cue at key moments in the Gospel narratives.
She is Everywoman and Everyman, and shows us how we are to both receive what God is doing and hand it on to others and she shows that God must never be forced on us and that God never come to us uninvited.
In Mary humanity has said our eternal yes to God, a yes that can never really be undone, a yes that in so many ways overrides our many and persistent noes.
Today on so many levels, Rohr observes, we are witnessing an immense longing for a rediscovery of the mature feminine at every level of our society – from our politics, to our economics, in our psyche, our cultures, our patterns of leadership and perhaps especially in our theologies, all of which seem to have become far too warlike, competitive, mechanistic and non contemplative. We are, he notes, and I find it hard to disagree, so terribly imbalanced.
Yet there is hope and a pathway forward also offered in the example of Mary, one that I feel that the Mother’s Union around the world has and can continue to utilise and latch onto, and that is the profound effect of working with subtlety and grace, with patience and humility, just as Mary did at the wedding in Cana, where she quietly says to Jesus “They have no wine” and then seems totally assured that Jesus will take it from there. And he does!
So my prayer for all of you and for the members of the Mother’s Union around the world is that you take encouragement and hope from Mary, knowing that in God’s hands a simple word spoken in love at the right time, a loving gesture or action can have a profound and prolonged effect. Amen.
The excerpt from the book can be found in the attached PDF.