Sermon for the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin – “Mary said ‘yes’ to God”
Sunday, August 15, 2021
Christ the King-Epiphany, Wilbraham
Deacon Patricia M. O’Connell
Isaiah 61:10-11; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 1:46-55; Psalm 34:1-9
While today is the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Standard Lectionary, we are exercising our discretion to follow the August 15th commemoration of Mary, though it has been transferred on the lectionary calendar to tomorrow.
In the Lutheran Church, the feast is called Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. In the Episcopal Church, it is the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin; and in the Roman Catholic tradition, it is celebrated as the Assumption of Mary into heaven.
Mary was a Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee and from the first century she has endured as a symbol of humility and obedience. Mary is the virgin maiden who said, “Yes” to God and thus became the mother of Jesus.
The Lutheran Church honors Mary with the title theotokos, meaning “God-bearer,” for her role in giving birth to the Son of God. In the Episcopal Church, this is the commemoration of Mary, as the favored one who gave birth to Jesus and remained with him until his death on the cross. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church honor Mary’s Assumption into heaven at her death, with the day being a holy day of obligation in the Roman Church.
In the Anglican Communion, the doctrine of the assumption and the belief of Mary’s virginity are held as pious opinions rather than accepted beliefs. The Lutheran tradition regarding the doctrines of the assumption and Mary’s virginity can be summarized in these words from Martin Luther.
Regarding the assumption, Martin Luther said,
“There can be no doubt that the Virgin Mary is in heaven. How it happened, we do not know. And since the Holy Spirit has told us nothing about it, we can make of it no article of faith . . . It is enough to know that she lives in Christ.” (Martin Luther Sermon on August 15, 1522)
And pertaining to Mary’s virginity, Martin Luther wrote these words found in his “Little Prayer Book” (1522),
“She is full of grace, proclaimed to be entirely without sin—something exceedingly great. For God’s grace fills her with everything good and makes her devoid of all evil.”
In today’s gospel from Luke, we heard Mary’s Magnificat. It is Mary’s song in which she speaks eloquently of God’s lifting the lowly and feeding the hungry. Mary praises God for his deeds. It captures the essence of who Mary is across all the major Christian denominations. She is the woman whom God chose to bear his beloved Son, Jesus. Through her “yes”, the story of our redemption had its beginning. We heard it said just now in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4-7)
I think it is safe to say that Mary is full of grace and that she is blessed among all, men and women alike. As devotions go, there is probably a wide spectrum of beliefs in this room. For me, devotion to Mary, which is the way we revere Mary as the Mother of God, while deeply rooted in my Roman Catholic upbringing, has evolved over time. I have gone from seeing Mary as meek and mild in my youth to currently considering her as a feminist icon. That revelation and understanding came with age, grace, and religious women who opened my eyes and mind to Mary as a strong, independent woman.
The Mary of my youth was the image of a young woman, who was both virgin and mother, meek and mild, and obedient and perfect. She was the Mary portrayed in statues and icons, whom we revered with May processions and an emphasis on rosary recitation in October.
I was thrilled as an eighth grader in my Catholic parish school to have been given the honor of crowning the Blessed Mother during our annual May procession. My graduation gift that year from my parents were silver rosary beads, beads that I still have in my possession.
I went to a Roman Catholic high school in which devotion to Mary and Marian practices were entwined into the school’s curriculum. I joined a religious community which had a strong Marian presence and special devotion to Our Lady of Mercy. In fact, within that community the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven was, and may still be, Profession Day for the newest members of the community to declare their vows of poverty, celibacy, obedience, and service to the poor, the sick, and the uneducated. Today, the finally professed Sisters within that community celebrate the anniversary of their vows and the vows of those who have preceded them in life. I share their roots and am grateful for the impact that they have had on my life, especially their Marian devotion and traditions.
The voices of religious sisters and women theologians have played a significant role in how I see Mary today as a strong, independent woman. They have challenged me to ponder deeply the significance of Mary’s humility and obedience as it relates to her ultimate act of submission as reflected in her Magnificat.
Submissiveness had long been used as a tool to keep women in their place within a hierarchy that put men first. We are all familiar with the words from the bible that instruct wives to be submissive to their husbands, and verses that make it clear that men have the leadership role in their homes.
This application has been used throughout time, not just within the institution of marriage. It is the anthem for those who want to keep women subservient to men. It was how the male hierarchy of the church managed to keep women from ordination and leadership roles well into the twentieth century.
That is not how I subscribe to biblical submission. Such submission is not how I define the humility and obedience of Mary. Mary’s submission was to God. She was not just the meek and mild virgin of song. Her obedience was perfected in her submission to God’s will, from which she freely gave her consent to playing a major role in our redemption story. She gave birth to Jesus, raised him as her son, challenged him to fulfill his calling, and walked with him through his ministry, even to the point of witnessing to his death and resurrection. To be the woman, who Mary was and is, she had to be strong and fearless.
Trusting and submitting to God alone, Mary became the person she was meant to be—
humble, obedient, fearless, and strong—a leader and true role model of spiritual submission–letting go and letting God!
In other words, the Mary, we commemorate today, is a woman for our times. She is a role model for strong, independent women and the men who support them in equity. When we choose to say ‘yes’ to God and honor God with our obedience, then we too can be filled with God’s grace and our lives can be perfected in Christ.