Monday, December 19, 2011

The cloak of Mary

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

4 Advent – Year B – December 17/18, 2011
2 Samuel 7:1 – 11,16;  Luke 1:26 – 38
Preacher:  The Reverend  Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

The Cloak of Mary

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  Luke 1:28

            Three years ago, just days before Thanksgiving, the 13 year-old daughter of one of Susan’s cousins died unexpectedly and tragically.  In my 20 years of pastoral ministry, I have come to understand that there is no greater grief than the grief of a parent who experiences the death of a child; no matter what age that death occurs….It is doubly grievous when the child is young.  
            It is unclear whether Susan’s cousin’s child took her own life or whether a dangerous behavior went wrong and ended disastrously. Sadly, in either circumstance, this is not an uncommon occurrence in our society. 
            It needs to be said to our young people, and especially those in their teen-years, life is precious; you are precious.  You must be careful.  Don’t do reckless things.  It may seem to you, you are immortal, indestructible; as though nothing can hurt or harm you; but it can.  There is no reset button in life.  
            As adults we need to be reminded:  Too often, our young people are hurting and especially teenagers; we must pay careful attention to them, be in caring conversations with them; we must look carefully at what they are doing, how they interact with their friends and classmates, what they are doing on-line.  Too often in today’s world they are isolated and alone, disconnected, even when they are connected on-line. Parents, grandparents, other caring adults, if you think something is wrong in the life of a young adult you know, go with your instincts, follow-up on it.  Don’t ignore it. We must meddle in their lives.  
            I’m not suggesting that there was any fault or negligence in the instance of Susan’s cousin’s child….They were a dedicated, loving family and very conscientious parents.  It’s just that in this past year, I’ve had to minister to the families and friends of two young men who died from self-inflicted injuries.  I am deeply concerned about the state of our young people.  Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States for people age 15 – 24.   
            The daughter of Susan’s cousin was a beautiful child and her parents adored her.  She was their miracle child.  She was conceived after her parents had been told they would be unable to have children.  Susan and I went up to New York for the wake and the funeral to be with them, to love them and suffer with them, to join in their grief. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep,” St. Paul enjoins us.  We went to weep.  The mother of the 13 year old girl, Susan’s cousin, had been a bridesmaid at our wedding. 
            It was, as you can imagine, a heartrending experience…We celebrated the life of this child, this dancer, who loved pets and her friends, and above all, her family.  We celebrated her life and we grieved her tragic death.  This is a very devout and faithful Roman Catholic family.  The child had attended Catholic school.  The funeral mass was held at the church connected to the school.  All her classmates attended.  During the mass, an essay she had written just weeks before was read.  It was about Christmas and family and how vitally important being with family at Christmas was to her and how much she loved them. 
            At the luncheon following the service, another of Susan’s cousins sat with us; the child’s aunt; the mother’s older sister.  We have been close over the years.  She shared with us some of the excruciating experiences of the previous days.  The child had been discovered in critical condition and had been taken to the hospital and placed on life-support in an ICU.  It soon became clear that she would not recover.  After a couple of days and countless prayers, when all hope for a miracle had been exhausted, the decision had to be made to remove her from life support.  It was an anguishing decision only her parents could make.  They were not alone, however.
            This older sister telling us the story and her other sister were present in the ICU, standing on by the side of their younger sister, the child’s mother, ….They were holding onto her, holding her up as she looked at her daughter lying in the bed with tubes all over the place and a machine breathing for her.  “How am I going to do this? the grief stricken mother sobbed aloud….Her sister hugged her tightly and said to her, “You’re going to wrap yourself in the cloak of Mary.”  “You’re going to wrap yourself in the cloak of Mary...”  
            It was a sensitive, faithful, perfect evocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And, being a very faithful person herself, her younger sister knew precisely what she meant and did precisely that:  She wrapped herself in the cloak of Mary; and she and her husband made the awful, painful, heart-breaking decisions they had to make and released their daughter to the arms and loving mercy of God.
            Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee;
            Blessed are thou among women; and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
            Holy Mary, mother of God; pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,

            It is Advent…It is Mary’s season; a season marked by joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ; but joy that is bittersweet….We know the destiny of this woman.  We know the destiny of her child.  “Mary,” from the Hebrew, Marai or Miriam -- the name means “bittersweet,” “grieved,” or “sorrowful.” It is a fitting name for this woman, the mother of our Lord…
            For many, and especially for those who are not Roman Catholic, Mary is an enigmatic figure…To be sure, most recognize her as the mother of Jesus and, at least, give her credit for that.  Many are moved by portrayals of her in masterpieces down through the ages – Raphael, Correggio; Michelangelo – but what place does she have in our faith?   How does she figure in our piety? 
            For most of its history, Protestantism has relegated Mary to a back seat and left her there.  Although the early reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin for example,  held very positive views Mary, revered her; later Protestantism felt too much unbiblical superstition, even cultism, had attached to Mary.  Consequently, Mary was pushed into the background; brought out twice a year, of necessity; to give birth to our Lord; and to grieve over him at his death.  Other than that, generally speaking, in the Protestant world it was better not to speak of her (though the experience in Anglicanism has been somewhat different since the 19th century and the high- church Oxford Movement).  
            What are we to make of Mary today?  What is our position as a church with respect to Mary?  How should she fit into our beliefs and personal religious practices and piety? 
            In 2004, the second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, known as ARCIC  II, the body charged with the responsibility of leading our two churches in the dialogue toward unity, issued a document often referred to as The Seattle Statement.  The actual title is “Mary – Grace and Hope in Christ.”[1]  This is an agreed statement about what the two churches hold in common about Mary.  It also makes clear where there are still differences and disagreements.  It’s a fascinating, well-thought out and very helpful 62 page document.  I commend it to you.  You can access it on-line. 
            In the Preface to the document, the Co-Chairmen of ARCIC II, Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnely of Perth, Primate of Australia and Roman Catholic Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett of Seattle write:  “Our Agreed Statement concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary as pattern of grace and hope is a powerful reflection of our efforts to seek out what we hold in common and celebrates important aspects of our common heritage. Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, stands before us as an exemplar of faithful obedience, and her "Be it to me according to your word" is the grace-filled response each of us is called to make to God, both personally and communally, as the Church, the body of Christ.[2]
            In this opening statement, the two archbishops make a clear allusion to the story of the Annunciation to Mary, our Gospel reading for today.[3]  It is a powerful story which clearly brings Mary to center stage….She is an essential actor in this drama with God….She is integral to the Incarnation – to God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ.  We cannot tell the story of the Incarnation, nor even assert the doctrine, without her.  This opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel brings her forth, puts her in center-stage, and we see at the outset that she is a remarkable; indeed a blessed, woman…
            "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." (Lk 1:28).  The word that is rendered “Greetings” in our text is actually the Greek word “Rejoice!”  Joy is not her first reaction.  The text tells us, she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.     
            The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Lk. 1:30)  This is hardly reassuring....It must be noted that in the Bible, those who find favor with God often find themselves in overwhelming and threatening circumstances.[4]  Mary’s story will turn out no differently….
            “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."(Lk. 1:31–33) 
            In that moment, Mary could not possibly have imagined the kind of king her son would be... This son of hers would be raised to greatness, but it was greatness by way of the cross.... She would earn her name, “Bitterness,”  “Sorrow,”  “Grieved.”
            There is great risk and great cost at being favored of God.....There is great risk and great cost to Mary in giving birth to Christ. To give birth to Jesus is to risk love, sacrificial love - self-giving love for the sake of others, for the sake of the world....Loving always entails risk....Divine loving entails even greater risk still....
            Whether or not she was aware of the price she would have to pay when she said yes to God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”  (Lk. 1:38)  Mary took that risk and paid the price.....Mary deserves, demands, our reverence, respect and more….
            The Seattle Statement produced by the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission states, “Among all the saints, Mary takes her place as Theotókos [God-bearer]: alive in Christ, she abides [please note the present tense], with the one she bore still 'highly favoured' in the communion of grace and hope, the exemplar of redeemed humanity, an icon of the Church. Consequently she is believed to exercise a distinctive ministry of assisting others through her active prayer”[5] ] Again, please note the present tense].
            The statement continues, “Many [Christians]…experience a sense of empathy and solidarity with Mary, especially at key points when the account of her life echoes theirs, for example the acceptance of vocation, the scandal of her pregnancy, the improvised surroundings of her labour, giving birth, and fleeing as a refugee. Portrayals of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, and the traditional portrayal of her receiving the crucified body of Jesus (the Pietà), evoke the particular suffering of a mother at the death of her child. Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike are drawn to the mother of Christ, as a figure of tenderness and compassion.[6]
            “You’re going to wrap yourself in the cloak of Mary,” Susan’s cousin said to her young sister, grieving mother…It was beautiful and prayerful and perfect; in full keeping with the empathy and solidarity referred to in The Seattle Statement. 
             So much in our culture’s observance of Christmas is superficial and artificial…Too often, the power and poignancy of the Christmas story, the reality and truths of the Incarnation, become diluted, cheapened and robbed of their power to speak to the very depths of our souls; to reach into us and touch our hearts; to shed light into those deepest places of darkness and despair that yearn for the saving Word of God…
            On this 4th Sunday of Advent, we reflect on the powerful images of Annunciation….We are invited to wrap ourselves in the cloak of Mary; no matter what our circumstance this day -- joy or sorrow; to allow the seed of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, to be conceived in our hearts and in the wombs of our souls anew and to join our voices with Mary, the ever-blessed one, in saying “Yes….Here am I the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word” and with Mary, to sing out this Christmas, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  

[1]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ  also known as “The Seattle Statement” was prepared by the Second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II) and released on The Feast of the Presentation – February 2, 2004.  The full version of the definitive text can be found on-line at
[2]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ – The Seattle Statement  p. 2
[3]   Luke 1:26 ff.
[4]   The examples of Moses, John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul are a few examples.
[5]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ p. 53
[6]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ p. 53


author said...

Thank you for this beautiful sermon.

author said...

Thank you for this beautiful sermon.