While we tend to celebrate Mother's Day with some gentle sentiment expressing affection and appreciation, the reality is that Motherhood is a full time demanding job fraught with imperfection, much love, much effort, many tribulations, and hopefully much joy. Support and help is always needed: Fathers, Aunties, Uncles, Grandparents, friends, neighbours, teachers, youth leaders, and more all have an important part to play. This is a given we all recognize. If we look at the news today, we can see many places in this world where it is very difficult, even impossible, for mothers and fathers to protect and nurture their children. There are some really tough situations brought on by wars and terrorism and occupation, drought and floods, disease and famine -- circumstances we are fortunate to personally have limited experiences of, but which are happening in many places today. I've seen journalist photos of distressed mothers holding malnourished, dying infants. And each time I see these pictures they remind me of the icons of Mary holding her infant son. It seems she is within them, sharing the extreme sufferings of this world.
So I thought this morning I'd like to share with you a meditation on the life of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Mother of our faith. She was an amazing woman from whom we can learn much about relationship and the spiritual journey we are on. She was intimately linked to her son's life and she had a very significant role for his followers. She certainly knew about parenting in difficult and extraordinarily challenging times.
I'm drawing on a number of sources for my reflections: From Dr. Harry Maier, our Professor of New Testament at VST who encouraged us to a more likely history of Jesus' parentage; a book entitled "Rabbi Jesus" by American Theologian Bruce Chilton; another book entitled "Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother" by Lesley Hazelton, and American Journalist who spent a number of years in Israel; and finally a 6th Century hagiography called "The Life of the Virgin", attributed to Maximus the Confessor, a Bishop in the Eastern Church. And finally, my own musings on the subject.
Hagiography is simply defined as a spiritual biography crafted to inspire the faithful. It has different standard than our contemporary sense of historical story telling. This particular hagiography, I find sometimes difficult to read: We are aware of the role of women in a strongly dominant patriarchal society, we still see it today in the Middle East and elsewhere. And the world view of our early spiritual ancestors is quite different from ours, living as we do in the 21st century largely informed by 500 years of Reformation theology and Western Enlightenment. Contemporary scholarship sees a more natural process of procreation than the early church presented. Given the historical context of those ancient days, it is more likely that Mary met with the same fate as countless numbers of women and girls over the history of humanity in any brutal oppressive military and imperial occupation. Active insurgency and violent Roman reprisals were the norm of her time and place. Mary may well have experienced an all too familiar trauma.
Given that likelihood I find she becomes much more human, much more accessible and relevant certainly to my life, and far more amazing as a courageous young woman with a tenacious, profound and vitally alive faith. Mary's relationship to God, the context of her own family, her betrothal to Joseph, and the living faith of those close to her would very much have influenced her responses to her circumstances. These give us clues and some potential conclusions regarding her life. She must have been a remarkable woman.
Mary's Prayer Life:
This 6th century hagiography describes Mary as giving many hours of her day to prayer. So we may presume that even while very young, she was spiritually sensitive and was developing a strong relationship with God. She would have been well within her Jewish tradition to be praying for her people in times of injustice, calling for God's mercy and grace. Such prayer would have been an instinctive response to personal trauma of any kind. This raises for me some interesting questions about Mary's prayer life and the annunciation. Jesuit theologian George Maloney has said that Mary's virginity is about purity of her heart, about a heart that remains open and turned toward God even in the midst of injustice and violence. I have a hunch this describes Mary all through her life and the suffering she experienced on behalf of her son.
In the practice of contemplative prayer, we are taught to attune our awareness to God, and to let all else fall away. It is a training we do in daily practice. We gradually strengthen our prayer muscles. During those particular times when all Hell seems to be raging against us through life circumstances and turbulent emotions with intense confused thoughts, we simply hold to central field, stand our ground, returning again and again rooted within the heart of God. As we do this, it has been demonstrated repeatedly over millennia in many different spiritual traditions, we come to a place of Divine break through: grace expanding awareness, experiences of love, mercy, peace, wisdom and insight, understanding for action and life restoring direction. So I ask the question: was this happening for Mary as she battled in prayer to resolution -- an opening for God's grace to pour upon her and through her, an open heart ready and able to hear God's message.
This raises yet another question, because this battle for a heart open to God's presence and communion is the very same struggle Jesus engaged during his crucifixion. If we attend closely to the stories and descriptions in our Gospels, we can see him doing just this. So where did he learn to do this? It requires training and teaching and practice to have this extraordinary response in extreme trauma resulting in an immense opening of Divine Grace. Might Jesus have received some of this training from his Mother? We can see this understanding through the heart of his teachings: the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes specifically describe the process and qualities of the transformation taking place in the human heart with this dynamic kind of prayer.
This Hagiography describes a family environment of people deeply engaged in living a very real faith tradition with multiple direct experiences of God. It is an environment vital to both Mary and Jesus -- for their literal physical survival, as well as their spiritual, psychological and social development. So who is in this family and what were they about? They appear to be people with active faith, not simply nominal. They were a family of visionaries and prophets, dreamers and revolutionaries, living humble lives in dire times.
Elizabeth was Mary's cousin, married to a temple priest, both capable of hearing God's communication to them. Like Mary, their relationship with God kept them attuned in heart and being. Last week Bryan asked us how do we hear God speak to us. Consider also how we respond when we do hear God's voice. Elizabeth felt a physical impulse from her unborn child, and from that prompting spoke encouragement and hope to Mary. Zachariah it seems may have been dulled by his routine temple service, but after a knockout blow (becoming mute), he too responded with a simple act of obedience in naming his child. They could hear because they could listen. How do we develop our capacity to hear God with open and ready hearts? What time do we make in our day to practice listening so we may be available? All these family members changed lives and human history simply by hearing God's prompting, and responding.
We know little of John until the Gospel story of him baptizing by the river and pointing his disciples towards his cousin, Jesus. This hagiography gives a hint. As Joseph and Mary escaped Herod's murderous rampage by escaping to Egypt, Elizabeth fled into the desert with John. We are told Elizabeth died in the desert. Zacharia was assassinated as he served in the temple. Out of this tragedy came one of history's greatest prophets. Chilton suggests that John and Jesus may have been students together in the Essene community during those missing years. Certainly some of the Essene teachings sound very similar to things Jesus said. We can read the similarities in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.
And then there is Joseph without whom neither Mary nor Jesus would have survived, nor our faith tradition come into being. We can certainly draw some inferences about his character, his faith, his influence. Who was this honourable, compassionate man of faith, able to hear God's counsel in his dreams and able to courageously respond risking his own reputation and safety and that of his household? The hagiographer suggests he was considerably older than Mary, so much so that his children from another marriage were also older than Mary. Where have we heard of similar situations these days? In this case, we have hints that Joseph was honourable and genuinely caring of his child bride.
Whatever our conclusions might be about the means of Mary's conception, the society of her time had one clear conclusion, and it was very harsh indeed. The hagiographer tells us Joseph did not want Mary to be exposed to the questioning and judgments of the religious authorities with its most likely outcome. In that society, if you became pregnant outside of marriage and outside their religious laws, as a woman you were guilty regardless. But if Joseph took her into his house and family, the stigma touched them all. We can see the tension set up, like the best Shakespearean drama. But wrestling with this conundrum of impossibilities, in the presence of God, brought an opening for God's communion with Joseph. Our gospel stories indicate Joseph was a man of deep faith, open to God's leading.
How did it go for Mary and her infant in this blended household? There are some things about Jesus that might give signs of family influence. He did not just pop into the world ready made. He had to grow, learn, develop like any other human being and like all of us was subject to his family environment. I've already raised the question if he learned some of his spiritual mastery from his mother. Chilton suggests that with questionable parentage, Jesus might not have been allowed in the local synagogue. If that was the case, he would have been home schooled by Mary and Joseph. We know he was precocious and brilliant: the story of the 12 year old dialoguing with temple priests and rabbis reveals this. Another theologian suggests that Jesus was like a Mozart or Einstein. We may well assume that Mary was highly intelligent herself. Jesus is certainly one of the greatest spiritual masters (if not the greatest) this planet has known, and it is quite possible that Mary also had a high degree of spiritual mastery. As an adult, Jesus held women in high regard. Contrary to the norms of his society, he gave women equal place to men, he defended and respected them. Might he have learned this from watching how Joseph treated Mary, and from Mary herself? In later years, Joseph's son James, Jesus stepbrother, became a follower of Jesus and a highly respected leader of the church in Jerusalem. Jesus called him "James the Just"... another indication, perhaps, of the influence of Joseph and the home environment. The hagiography describes another family member closely involved. With Mary at the cross was another Mary, the wife of Clopas. Clopas we are told was Joseph's brother.
The Hagiography states that after Joseph died, Mary travelled with Jesus. But she was no clinging vine. Rather she was a strong leader in her own right. In that society men and women divided into specific roles. So as the men gathered around Jesus, the women gathered around Mary. We can imagine her sharing his teaching as she sat and walked and worked with them. We do know from our gospels that a number of women were around to care for Jesus and his disciples, so perhaps we have a picture of how under Mary's guidance that happened.
We are given the picture of Mary inseparable from Jesus during his arrest and interrogation. She is described as being prevented from entering the room, and therefore standing outside the door, stopping and questioning anyone who came out. This is a strong woman who has moved far beyond fear.
The story tells us that at the cross, Mary went actively looking for a burial place. When she saw the freshly hewn unused tomb, she knew Joseph of Arimathea to be a secret follower, so she petitioned him. Strategically, this Joseph was an acquaintance of Pilate and could negotiate for release of Jesus body. Under great stress, Mary was a woman of effective action.
As he was dying, Jesus matched Mary with the only male disciple who stood with his Mother, young John, son of the wealthy Zebedee family. Apparently Mary lived there home with John, but after his parents passed away, John sold that home, and purchased a house in Jerusalem. From there, as the regrouped disciples began traveling to other regions, Mary went with them, until they asked her to return home where she could remain as "home base" for them, caring for the newly forming and growing community. There are some moments in this Hagiography that sound like an Indian Jones movie. The house, with Mary inside was miraculously protected when vandals attacked with fire brands. The jist of this telling is that Mary was greatly loved and revered by Jesus followers, and feared by his enemies.
We are told that Mary knew when her time was ending. The disciples returned to Jerusalem from the various regions in which they were evangelizing. There is a description of her body filling with light similar to Jesus transfiguration. Those gathered were afraid to touch her, so a few brave ones took hold of the corners of the blanket on which she lay to lift her on to the stretcher. They carried her through the streets of Jerusalem to Jesus’ tomb. Crowds around them were hostile so they had to form a tight shield around the funeral bier as they walked. The story ends similar to Jesus’ -- when they returned three days later, the tomb was empty and filled with light.
My intention in sharing these ancient and contemporary stories of the Mother of our Faith is to try to give you a sense of the environment in which these people lived their lives. Jesus and Mary were real people, exceptional in many, many ways, but they were real human beings. The lived in a turbulent, occupied society; violent insurgency and equally violent reprisals were the norm. Think Taliban or ISIS occupation today. Jesus and Mary were both exceptional leaders and great spiritual masters. Like all of us they were formed by the situation in which they lived. Their responses to the injustice, violence and chaotic ongoing assault on their people and culture was extraordinary. They drew all their resources, their understanding, their wisdom and responses from their own Jewish faith tradition. They were engaged not just with tradition and ideas, but with an actively life transforming deep heart connection with God. Their culture and faith tradition had been severely compromised by the Roman occupation. But Jesus and Mary were different. They developed within themselves a vital and authentic spirit to Spirit, human to Holy, relationship with the living God. And they demonstrated and revealed to those around them the character and dynamic presence of the Divine. I would say they were so open to God, so real in their relationship that they were immersed -- baptized with the Holy Spirit -- as cousin John described.
Our Gospels tell us stories and give us words that speak of their experience of who God is, and of their response to that ongoing encounter. We have the Magnificat of Mary, the Benedictus of Zachariah, the recognition and blessing of Elizabeth, the proclamation of John the Baptist, we have Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and the most powerful statement of all in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We have their invitation through how Jesus and Mary lived their lives, their own authentic, intimate, personal relationship with God. We could spend our lifetime and more engaging just these words and stories and never begin to fathom their full depths and dynamic life giving power.
Mary and her Son developed their relationship with God through prayer and immersion in the great teachings of their Jewish tradition; they lived that relationship through their responses to daily life around them. Open human heart to open Divine Heart. They knew ways of praying that transformed not only their own lives, but the lives of those who follow them. Marcus Borg named Jesus "The Revolutionary". I think we can also share that name with Mary.
Our world today is in mighty rough shape. We are well beyond being able to deny the impact of climate catastrophe, hard working political leaders inadequate to situations locally and globally, the rise of dangerous world leaders. As in the times of Jesus and his Mother, we are invited, actually we are called to prayer. Through prayer, the Divine Presence enters and inhabits our lives, our actions, our responses and circumstances. The ancient stories of our Faith tell us that both Jesus and Mary spent many hours of their day in prayer. Look in the Gospels. Jesus spent entire nights in prayer before he set out each day. It formed his final response on the Cross, and also his Mother's response to that event. I invite you to give time each day to meditate upon the scriptures of our Faith, and to pray; Lectio Divina as we have often taught here at St. John's, and 20 minutes once or twice a day, being present to God. Listening, responding, opening our hearts, being available to God's availability, as did Jesus and his Mother.
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 now, and in the hours
of our dying and transforming. Amen.
By Deborah Foster