The Mary Problem
Growing up I just knew that the Beatles' song "Let it Be" had Mariolatry in it when Paul McCartney sang, "When in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, Let it be." Since then, I've learned that Mary was the name of McCartney's mother. Now I think her words of advice "Let it Be" are the answer to The Mary Problem.
What's the Mary Problem? One side of it is making too much of her. The Catholic is taught not only to say Scriptural things about Mary in the "Hail Mary" such as "Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus," but to pray unscriptural things such as, "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." The first two parts date to ancient times and are biblical. The last part was added in the 15th century and Pope Pius V declared it authoritative in 1568.
A unicorn can show us another aspect of The Mary Problem. You might have noticed a unicorn in Christian churches and wondered why this mythical creature was there. It's the Mary problem. Mythology says the only way a unicorn can be caught is for a virgin to go into the woods and sit on a stump. The unicorn comes and places its head in her lap, and then can be captured. Now the problem is not that Mary wasn't a virgin; our text twice calls her that. The problem is thinking that Mary's virginity is what attracted Christ too her.
Rather than a natural state for an unmarried woman to be in, Mary is thought to be in a special holy estate. This only makes the Mary problem more complicated because how could Mary be holy if she herself was born like every other person? How could Mary be untainted from the stain of original sin that infects us all? Catholicism says she was conceived without sin because of her closeness to Christ. They reason since the highest form of redemption is not forgiveness but to be kept from sinning, Mary must have been kept sinless by the grace of Christ from the first instance of her existence. The Immaculate Conception of Mary was proclaimed an official belief for Catholics by Pope Pius IX in 1854.
This really didn't help The Mary Problem. The Bible teaches the wages of sin is death. We die not because our bodies give out or get diseased. We die because we're sinners. No sin, no death. So what to do about Mary dying? The Catholic church solved it this way. "'Finally, the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 252, 966). Pope Pius XII proclaimed this an official belief for Catholics in 1950.
Now good Protestants that you are, you think you're immune to this side of The Mary Problem. You're not. How do you always picture Mary? Exceptionally beautiful. Our children's books portray her as striking. In a Christmas play it's unimaginable that anyone but a beautiful girl should play her part. However, for the most part, our problem with Mary is not making too much of her but seeing too little. A Lutheran pastor who had grown up Catholic said to me, "When some Protestants get to heaven they're going to have to apologize to Mary for what they said about her on earth."
Mary was a devoted, faithful member of the Church. At vespers we have been singing her paean of praise called The Magnificat. It is one of 3 special utterances Luke records in one chapter. First there's Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Before she speaks Luke writes, "And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." The last person to speak is Zechariah, the father of John. Before he speaks Luke writes, "Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit." Mary speaks in between. Luke introduces her words with, "And Mary said." I'm not saying that Mary's words of praise are less than the Word of God. What I am saying is that all those Scriptural references came from a pious woman who knew her Bible.
Of course, Mary's knowledge of Scripture didn't cause God to choose her. No, that was by grace without any merit or worthiness in Mary, yet we must also acknowledge it and learn from her devotion to Scripture and from her humility. Although she is told she will be the Mother of God, she calls herself, "The slave of the Lord." Although she did have parental authority over Jesus, the times she overstepped her bounds, when He was 12 and at the wedding of Cana, she took His gentle rebuke graciously. Though at the cross as Simeon predicted a sword pierced her own soul too as it would've any mother's, after the Ascension we find Mary in the upper room with the church as just another sinner saved by Jesus' suffering not her own.
Not seeing her piety and humility is a problem Protestants have with Mary, but it's neither the only nor the biggest. We see too little in Mary when we don't see that though visited by an angel Mary went not by his miraculous appearance but by his words. Part of this is because of translation. The angel ends his remarks with, "For no word from God is impossible," and Mary's last words are, "Let it be to me according to the word of you."
Neither making too much of Mary, nor seeing too little in Mary will lead us to the meet, right, and salutary thing of being Mary like. Let it be for you as it was for her that God's Word trumps, triumphs, trains your thoughts, your feelings, your life, and death.
Let it be God's Word about your sin and sinfulness that you go by. So much of what goes on this time of year gives the impression that the real problem that plagues you is that you're not in good cheer, in the Christmas spirit, in the holiday mood. No, God's Word says what plagues you, what eventually will not only drag you into the grave, but decay you back to dust is your sinfulness.
Let it be God's Word that you go by. Your problem isn't merely that you do this and that wrong or not good enough, but that you are lost and condemned by nature. A child of wrath by nature says St. Paul. A fish by nature breaths in water; a mammal by nature breaths in air, a leopard by nature has spots. No more than a fish can suddenly become an air breather, a mammal a water breather, a leopard change its spots can you change your sinful nature.
On your own the best you'll conclude is what Marley's ghost did. Your bad deeds in life forge chains that weigh you down. If it were only that! Chains can be broken; chains can be unlocked; chains can be carried. But if you go by the Word your problem is not just this or that bad deed, thought, or word that have made you chains; no you are born a prisoner. You are by nature a son or daughter of the Devil himself.
Let it be God's Word that delivers you from the lie that you can make everything merry and bright this Christmas by being more Christmassy, more giving, more lighthearted. Not even as big a change as came over the Grinch or Scrooge, can rescue you from your fallen, sinful, disgusting nature that you hide so well, yet know is still there. It takes no less than God to rescue you. But to rescue you from your fallen nature, He had to take on your human nature.
He enters Mary's womb to take on all your obligations and pay all your debts. All the giving, all the rejoicing, all the believing, hoping, and loving you ought to do not only during this season but everyday of the year, Jesus did for you. Though innocent of everything you're guilty of, Jesus took on all your chains. Those chains you forge by repeatedly being unbelieving, unforgiving, unloving were wrapped tightly around Jesus. That fallen, rebellious, wicked nature that in your better moments you long to be free of and in your worse moments you indulge was placed on Jesus and God the Father nailed that beast, that child of wrath, that demon-child to the cross. And the holy, blameless, meek, and mild Jesus felt every blow, watched every drop of blood fall, tasted every bitter tear till it was finished. Not only Marley's chains were broken but the wicked beast was dead.
Be Marys; let it be God's Words you go by not your thoughts or feelings. Learn from that Word not only about your sinfulness and your Savior but about how salvation gets to you. Yes, I say you are to believe Jesus kept your obligations, paid your debts, and buried your sins and sinful nature in the grave, but if I just preach faith without a place for faith to hold on in the end I'm only preaching despair. For what is faith in the heart without an object outside of it to hold on to?
Mary asks "How can the miracle of the incarnation be?" And the angel answers it will be by the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High God. The 8th century church father John of Damascus says based on these words, "How can you ask how the Bread becomes the Body of Christ and this Wine becomes the Blood of Christ?" Jesus becomes incarnate in Mary's womb by an operation of God, a miracle of God. Let Mary's miracle be yours. Let it be as God's Word says that Baptism is a renewal of you by the power of Holy Ghost; let it be as God's Word says that Absolution comes from an office that has received the Holy Spirit so that whosoever sins it forgives they're forgiven. Let it be as God' Word says that Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus, and because the Spirit of Jesus is the Holy Spirit He who eats and drinks Jesus eats and drinks His Spirit too.
Be Marys. "Let it be" be your answer to God's Word this Christmas as it was hers. Let it be to you according to His Word that your Baptism has given you a new nature. Let it be to you according to His Word that my Absolution frees you from your chains of sin. And let it be to you according to His Word that you leave here with the Body and Blood of your God in you even as He was in Mary. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday in Advent (20081221); Luke 1: 26-38