Third Advent: December 13, 2020



I once heard a story about a Dutch Reform Church in the Netherlands. A new minister arrived and noticed that every Sunday as the people left the church, they paused before the same spot, and many reverently touched the plain, white, wall. This new minister was, understandably, confused, and so he started asking around, but he could not find anyone who knew how that tradition had gotten started. It was just something that everyone did for as long as anyone could remember. Even the oldest members of the church, the patriarchs and matriarchs of families with multiple generations of church members, who were themselves the children and grandchildren of members of that congregation going back centuries, did not know why they did it.

Sometime later, a team of historians and archaeologists contacted the church. This church, like many European churches, was very old. The building dated back to the 1300s, when it was built by the Roman Catholic Church as a small, country parish, well before a suburb had grown up around it. These historians were interested in how these old church buildings had adapted over the centuries, through renovations and additions, to suit the changing needs of the people in the congregation. They were also, of course, particularly interested in the period when the Reformation had swept over the Netherlands and this building changed hands from the Roman Catholic Church to the Dutch Reform Church. The congregation was happy to learn more about their building, and so the team got to work, poking around the foundations, studying the ways the walls came together, the ways different architectural styles matched, or did not, and so forth. They even had tools that could see underneath paint.

Our minister finally saw his chance, and so he told the team about the spot on the wall, the spot that everyone stopped by, and many touched, every week. It was easy to see: despite regular cleaning, so many people touching it each week had left a spot. The team was curious, so they got to work, and found that underneath what was, by now, hundreds of years of white paint, a portrait of Mary. They think that it, along with all other decoration in the church that could not be removed was painted over during the reformation. The Dutch Reform Church is a cousin to us Presbyterians, and we share a preference for simplicity in worship. Our own sanctuary has few decorations, and the purchase of an organ back in the 19th century was controversial. I read the records. In this little Dutch church, though, the people continued to venerate Mary, and so, even after her portrait was painted over, people would continue to pause to pray, or touch the spot where her face used to be visible to ask for a blessing. I am sure this infuriated the early Reform clergy assigned to this congregation, unless they were closet-Catholics as well, but they never managed to stamp it out, and so those who remembered the painting kept the practice, then taught it to their children, and so on down through the generations, even as the memory of the painting was lost.

We probably all learned different things about the Reformation. You probably learned about Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Germany—a step that was not as provocative as we might think, since in his time and place, the church door was essentially a community bulletin board, an apt modern analogy might be he posted them to Facebook—perhaps you have also learned about Calvin, or even Knox. You have likely heard about some of the theological disputes: maybe you know the five solas: sola scripture, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria. You have heard things like salvation by faith through grace rather than through works, or administering communion in both parts, the priesthood of all believers. There were many more, but one we rarely talk about is the role of Mary.

The Catholic Church had elevated Mary into sort of a super-saint. She was not quite as important as God or Jesus, but she was more important than even the other saints. The Protestant Reformers could not let this stand—part of their belief was that everyone had access to God, and so they rejected the notion that priests, saints, or even Mary, could intervene with God in people’s behalf. The reformers believed that Jesus is the only intercessor we need, and that those praying to saints, or to Mary, asking for intervention with God, were getting dangerously close to making those intercessors into idols, coming too close to treating them as gods.

And so, the reformers sought to stop veneration of the saints, and veneration of Mary. Unfortunately, as is usually the case when a group is breaking away from another group and trying to distinguish itself, the reformers went too far; they overcorrected. They did not just stop the veneration of Mary as a demigod, but took it to a point where it feels strange to talk about Mary at all, unless it is just to focus on her as a sweet, innocent, silent, and empty vessel for God to put Jesus in.

This silencing of Mary was not just about stopping the worship of Mary. It was also about silencing women more broadly. The women in the Gospels are the first to bear witness to the Risen Christ. The Book of Acts names several women as leaders of the early church in Jerusalem. Paul himself names multiple women as his peers in ministry and as leaders in various local churches. We will have time to talk about them later.

Just focusing on Mary, we have reached the point where a popular Christmas song can ask, more than twenty times, if Mary knew. A song so ignorant, even contemptuous of scripture, that it can ask, in all earnestness, more than twenty times, a question answered very plainly in the first chapter of Luke. And it is not just the songwriter’s fault. This is the fault of generations of clergy and Christian educators more interested in silencing Mary and other women than preaching the Gospel. I even put some of the blame on the lectionary writers. Our lection for the day begins halfway through a verse. We read Luke 1:46b-55. Listen again:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”

Who is speaking? Let us go back to the beginning of verse 46, to verse 46a: “And Mary said:”

Mary knew. Mary was the first to know. Mary was the first to tell. Mary was the first apostle, the first evangelist, the first to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Mary knew.

Mary knew and was not a silent or passive vessel. Mary was preaching the gospel from the start: God will scatter the proud. God will tear the powerful from their thrones. God will feed the hungry and send the rich away empty. Mary knew.

Mary knew because God told her first. Mary knew because God chose a soon-to-be unwed teenage mother with no political or social importance to carry God’s love into the world, both literally in the child she carried and figuratively in the words she preached. Mary knew.

The reformers were right, we do not need Mary to be a demigod. We do not need Mary to be a perfect intercessor. They were wrong though; in that we do still need Mary. We need Mary as the reminder of the promise, full of both joy and terror, that God chooses us. That God calls us. That God can and does speak to any of us.

This is why it is important that we remember Mary, and this is why it is important that, if nothing else, we know one thing: Mary knew.

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