By Gary D. Stratman
Saturday, November 01, 1997
It's really crazy, isn't it? Here we are listening to the same story, again. Who doesn't know how it is going to come out? The plot doesn't change from year to year. Every shepherd is in place; the star is shining on cue. No matter how predictable, we do keep listening. We lean forward with anticipation, for somehow, despite the too familiar details, we believe that this story is about us. What if God does invade a world of "business as usual," do what you have to do to survive? What if the angel's message to Mary (the Lord is with you) is God's message to us?
If we want to find ourselves in this ancient but life giving tale, we need to look at the one who received this word of assurance: Mary. For in her we see the one Karl Barth called, "the figure that is raised above all the figures of Advent." In John, we may see our need to prepare the way of the Lord, but in Mary we see the even greater need to prepare Him room. In her, we see the response of faith.
There is a problem of long-standing that faces us as we seek to focus on Mary, who is called blessed. For Mary has been either highly venerated or, reacting against that veneration, she has been ignored. In either case, a beautifully human witness to the coming of God in Christ has been missed. For if you want to render someone ineffective and powerless, place her (or him) on a pedestal. Long before I had heard anything of such truth, I observed some strange things through the eyes of childhood and the window of a '48 Plymouth.
Every time we journeyed to see my grandparents, we passed an A & P store in a town that was largely Catholic. In the very top of that wood frame store, there was a stone niche with a statue of Mary carved out of it. She seemed so silent, pure and flawless. Every Sunday on the way home from church, I would see a string of small signs shaped like the then familiar Burma Shave signs. Instead of the punch line on the last sign it said something like, "Mary, pray for us now and in the hour of our death." When I asked about such things, I was told simply, "Catholic superstition."
But for all our Protestant rejection of such notions, we are indebted to the Roman Catholic Church for keeping alive the singular place of Mary in the "gospel," the good story. For she has much to say to us now as we are poised between belief and unbelief.
Mary gives us a picture of faith that is a response to God's grace. As P. T. Forsyth reminds us, "Faith is not something we possess, but something that possesses us." Faith is an obedient response to God showing Himself in our lives. In Jesus Christ, we have experienced God as loving and giving; that is grace. Grace is God's love and care in action. This love is not superficial and sentimental. Mary learns that this is tough love that shows itself in a cry of pure pain in a birth and later the jagged pain of a piercing loss. "You shall call his name Jesus."
It is a virgin birth, just as faith is always a virgin birth. Trusting in God to deliver you from ultimate despair, discouragement and defeat does not come from the faith of your parents, or from a friend. They may prepare the way for faith but they cannot create faith in us. Faith comes only as we discover for ourselves that we have been favored, chosen, and blessed. We begin haltingly, trusting in One who loved, created, accepted us before the foundation of the world. That is an aspect of the doctrine of the virgin birth that I have missed before.
Mary, a young and evidently poor woman, is chosen for this high calling of giving birth to the world's savior, before she is married, before she has children. In her time and culture a woman's status came from her husband and ability to rear children. Remember the poverty of Ruth and Naomi who had no husband? Recall the anguish of Sarah who was barren in her old age. Yet Mary is cherished, loved, chosen for herself. After she responded to God in faith, then came the promise of a savior for all generations. God's message to Mary is His message to you and me. Our status comes not from any attainment, skill, or connection. We are loved first, thus empowered we turn to God in faith.
Mary's faith was not a mindless, blind leap. She has the holy nerve to challenge the "messenger" or angel. So we, too, should not be ashamed of our questions, or testing the spirits, to discern if the message squares with the God who is revealed in Jesus. The Church of Jesus Christ does not require that you check your mind at the door as you live by faith. Mary lived out what her Son later advised. She was wise as a serpent, but gentle as a dove. Do not even suppose that a tender, sensitive heart means a soft head.
There is much in modern life that persuades us that obedient, humble faith like that of Mary is a sign of weakness. We are likely to respond to the story of Mary by saying, "If you are going to talk of faith, at least give us a model like John the Baptist." He seemed to fit our concept of strength. He wore his strength in clothes of animal skin, rock hard muscles, booming voice. Now that strength we can understand. Yet Mary who is falsely understood as weak and frail reveals the strength of God given to those who will quietly receive it. Is not Mary the pregnant teenager who made the rough trek to Bethlehem when she was nearly at term? How long did she have to savor the miracle of birth before fleeing into a strange country to escape a rampaging tyrant? Then there were long hours of loving a son she could not fully understand. Can you and I know the strength that came to her as she watched her son undergo the agony of the cross? Could we have believed that God was still alive in the world? Nevertheless, her strength glorified God.
Yes, she knew fear. Part of her fear came from the fact that God wanted her, that she was needed for God's purposes. That is a kind of awe that we know little of ... to believe in fear and trembling we have been grasped by the Holy. It is fear that comes every time something new is to be born in us. We know that with every fresh birth of courage or obedience, there is a death of an old lifestyle, an old way of coping or not coping. It's scary. Yet despite the fear, strength comes. Strength borne of suffering. For faith is not an inoculation against pain or disappointment. Mary was not spared her humanity; she was given the strength and faith to live it fully, redemptively.
So we have heard this story again, this time through the eyes of a woman of faith. Still there are questions, intellectual doubts that block our belief. Can we be like Mary who asked questions but did not wait until every doubt was answered before she risked herself in believing the fantastic story?
The times I have shied away from trusting God for my future, or from believing that God's will was superior to my plans and schemes were not times of intellectual doubt, but fear. I was afraid that believing God might mean losing something, giving up my own comfort, or security or familiar lifestyle.
Emil Brunner once said that, "Faith is obedience, nothing else; literally, nothing else at all." Faith is not dwelling on what we do not understand, but being faithful to the light we are given. Faith is not an act, it is a process It is committing all we know of ourselves to all we know of God in Jesus Christ. Both will grow. As we know more of who we are, there will be more to invest in a God who has come to us, and said, "Fear not!" Mary stands out on the corner of faith for she not only prepared the way of the Lord, she provided Him room!