The Ave Maria is one of the best known prayers of the Christian tradition – often put to music, it originates with the words of scripture describing Elizabeth’s encounter with Mary. According to Luke, Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Christian devotion gradually expanded that to the Ave Maria (Latin for “Hail, Mary”) which we know today:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women
And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
Pray for us sinners, now
And at the hour of our death.
These words of praise and appreciation are well deserved — her story is an important piece of the Christian witness. She is venerated in the Roman Catholic tradition – Pope John Paul II pretty much dedicated his entire ministry to Mary – but she has not had much attention in Anglicanism. Her story and her place in the scheme of things is compelling and continues to speak to men and women in all kinds of circumstances.
Matthew’s version of her story suggests that Jewish religious sensibilities had been disturbed, that this sudden pregnancy was viewed as morally suspect, and therefore was susceptible to what they considered appropriate punishments. A passage in the Book of Deuteronomy (22: 23, 24) suggests stoning (to death) as an appropriate punishment – and Deuteronomy (23:2) says “Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” So both Mary and her child would have been at least suspect and probably condemned and excluded.
Matthew’s point seems to be that there was no room for her within the existing form of Judaism – that the significance of this birth was unappreciated and unacceptable – that the religious tradition was not open enough, insightful enough, or compassionate enough to accommodate something new – even when that new thing, ironically, might be the Son of God.
It is an attitude not restricted to the ancient world. In the United States, about 12,000 unwanted babies are disposed of every year, for at least 12,000 different reasons, all of them painful. Matthew’s Gospel says very minimally that Mary’s husband Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Every society dismisses certain people – justifies their marginalization and exclusion – and closes their doors and their eyes to their ongoing presence and potential.
Here in Vancouver, at St. Paul’s Hospital, there is a ministry called Angel’s Cradle which allows desperate or destitute mothers to drop their newborns off, safely and without repercussions, so the children are saved and given an opportunity rather than being disposed of. It is a practice that originated in the Christian Church about the 12th Century. The pain involved in being marginalized, poor, incapable of providing a proper home for a child, and of having to let go of a newborn, is a pain most of us will never know. One thing the Christian story can tell is that both mother and child are precious in the sight of God whether they know it or not. Matthew’s theology suggested that this child to be named Jesus belonged to the whole world, that he was God’s gift to the world even though most were too blinded by their morality and scruples to be able to see it. In a godly world, it can’t be enough to create a drop-off zone for unwanted babies, and to suggest that it’s OK as long as these poor women have somewhere to dispose of them. It’s not OK because it points to a much deeper problem which belongs to all of us. These children are our children!
Sometimes the right thing to do can’t be found within the existing wisdom and knowledge. The Gospel suggests Joseph, instead of taking some rash action, went and slept on it and was moved by the Spirit in the depths of sleep. A profound solution came to him, revealing something which transcended his customary sense of right and wrong, and by virtue of his dream Joseph was empowered to make the godly choice, the loving choice, the hard choice, the right choice, as opposed to just falling in with the conventional wisdom of the moment, which dictated that he should abandon Mary and her child. Ironically, Joseph was awakened by his dream!
By a profound act of faith, which we will never fully comprehend, Mary and her husband Joseph came to understand an unexpected and shameful pregnancy as a gift – a gift from God — and to believe that the child was not a curse but a blessing – and of course, we know the rest of the story (or I hope we do).
In the business world, they know that over time, some things “depreciate” while others “appreciate.” Over the centuries, Mary’s value to the faithful appreciated, and she was given a makeover to try to honour her important place in the scheme of things. Eventually, the Church invented special pedigrees and categories called “immaculate conception,” and “perpetual virginity” to promote her purity and virtue. Yet the story of an obscure young woman facing disgrace and exclusion persists in our imagination. As such she is a light to the downtrodden and alienated, an example of how God lifts up the lowly and obscure and poor and clothes them in his love and purpose, and reminds the world that receiving the Christ Child requires stretching our imaginations and our hearts and wills.
In the shopping malls the songs try to convince us this is the slap-happiest time of the year. But in the midst of the chaotic and high pressure season Christmas has become, the Church listens to some other voices, and they are like dissident voices, sounding in the wilderness, spoken between the lines as it were – the sound of silence offered to a world often deafened by a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Those dissident voices make us ask: What is it we are celebrating? What is Christmas really all about?
I believe we meet the Mary’s of the world everywhere, and the song attributed to her (known as the Magnificat) is as appropriate today as it was then:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant . . . [God] has shown the strength of his arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
One of my favourite lines ever is from Soren Kierkegaard, who after attending an evening service in a Danish church, said, “They stood up, in the furs and jewels, and sang the Magnificat — and nobody laughed!” It is important that we comprehend the terrible irony he refers to – of a church, of Christian people, content to sing songs which have no real meaning, no real intention, and of religious traditions which bear no resemblance to the persons and events in which they originated.
In a world of growing gaps between rich and poor, where there are thousands of people living on the streets, without meaningful work, and without a sense of personal significance, Mary’s song needs to be sung and Mary’s song needs to be heard, and not in the token way we so often do such things. Mary’s song needs to be embodied and acted on.
This Mary – the behind-the-scenes, marginalized, and obscure Mary – is always among us. At our Food Bank Christmas dinner on Thursday I was given a new reason to sing Ave Maria, because I met another version of Mary. This incarnation of Maria is the two year old daughter of two of our Food Bank guests. This Maria was wearing pink running shoes and seemed very well loved by her parents. This Maria, though she is poor and unimportant in the worldly scheme of things is, in my view, as full of grace and potential as the Mary we now celebrate as the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Christian tradition suggests that one child, from an obscure background, changed the world. That, in essence, is the Christmas story.
So this is my Ave to little Maria, and all the “Maria’s” of the world: Ave, Maria — Hail Maria — full of grace: I hope you know that the Lord is with you; I hope you will experience the love of God; I hope you will realize the potential already within you and that you will be given opportunity and encouragement to fulfill your true purpose in life; I hope you know how much you blessed us by your presence among us; and may the world have the wisdom to be grateful for your presence. Amen!