A Vessel in the Dark
First Presbyterian Church
December 14, 2014
“And mention in the Book Mary, when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place. She set up a screen to veil her from them. And We sent her Our Spirit, which appeared before her as an immaculate human.
“I take refuge in the All-Merciful from you, if you fear God.”
“I am but a messenger from your Lord, to bestow upon you a son most pure.”
“How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me, nor am I an adulteress?”
“Thus did your Lord speak: ‘It is a matter easy for Me. We shall make him a wonder to mankind and a mercy from Us—a decree ordained.’”
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But 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. 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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
On this third Sunday of Advent our attention turns to Jesus’s mother, Mary. She is called Theotokos, bearer of God or Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be Theotokos, birth-giver of God, because her son, Jesus, was both God and human.
My seminary professor , Karlfried Froelich, didn’t like that term, Theotokos, Mother of God. He thought the title was a bit over the top. Mother of God? Mary was the mother of Jesus or the mother of the Christ. But who could mother God? If he had a vote in that early council he told us he would have voted for Christotokos, Mother of Christ.
But he didn’t get a vote and the mother of God team won. Like it or not, Mary is mother of God. So it is written. So it shall be done. Live with it.
I kind of like, theotokos, birth-giver of God, bearer of God, mother of God. Granted, I will concede the theological arguments. Once you start debating the nature of God, my eyes glaze over. I think talk about God is really human beings talking about themselves.
If it is true that God-talk is really Human-talk, then when these members of the council were calling Mary mother of God in 431, what were they saying? Sure they were talking about the debates over Jesus and how he could be both God and human and whatever. And patriarchy limited them to think that women played no role in the formation of the child biologically. Women were not believed to contribute to the child’s identity. In Mary’s case, she was a vessel or a vase to hold Divine Spirit. She was an oven to warm the bun but she did not contribute to the makeup of the bun. To use another metaphor, she was mother earth for the divine seed. Because Mary was a virgin, Jesus was thus untainted by human “sin”. All that said, still…
…I like to think that those who saw Mary as mother of God were trying to elevate the human. They were trying to find a way to relate to God. Perhaps inadvertently, but perhaps poetically, they were suggesting that human beings can give birth to the holy, to God. Mary and you and I can be vessels for all that is holy, beautiful and life-giving. If Mary could, then perhaps you and I could be theotokos as well.
I think they saw in Mary’s story a spiritual posture that inspired them and touched their hearts. Mary is God-bearer because she is able to trust God or Life or the Universe or her Deeper Intuition or whatever word is meaningful for you. She is able to allow something new to work within her even though it is frightening and unknown.
She doesn’t allow her fear or her doubts about herself or her circumstance keep her from saying these famous words:
Let it be with me according to your word.
Let it be with me according to your word.
This is the treasure that we find on the via negativa. We discover a resilience and a courage we didn’t know we had. This doesn’t come because of some sort of special virtue or superhuman power. We may not feel super at all, in fact, anything but. It comes because we have been hollowed.
Another image comes from Hinduism. Krishna is depicted as blue and playing a flute. Why does he play a flute? One explanation is this by Dhananjaya Bhat:
If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.
These spiritual traditions, from Hinduism to Christianity, recognize the human need to be a vessel. There are times when we are creative actors. The light is bright and we name things and we do things and we accomplish things. As we say on the farm, we make hay while the sun shines. That is the via positiva, and I am glad for it.
But there is also the path of the night that winds its way through the dark places of our inner space. I find this path to be at least as valuable. It is perhaps more valuable than the via positiva just because we have tended to push it away. Theologian Matthew Fox complains that the West does not have a healthy via negativa. Letting go and letting be lacks commercial appeal. We tend to ignore those dark spaces in our lives or rush through them because we equate the light with good and with God and we want to get there fast.
But God is also found in the dark. God is found in the letting go and in the letting be of our egos, our accomplishments, and our vitality. Our bodies age, our minds become less quick, our losses accumulate. But this is what is. This is real. The spiritual path of recognizing and accepting this has its rewards.
Carrie Newcomer, the singer-songwriter and poet, spoke with me on Religion For Life about her dog. Her dog taught her to accept limits without pining for what was. The dog gets older and cannot run as much, so she walks and sniffs and experiences life as she can without the angst of what she is not experiencing.
In life, the dark is present as much as the light and it is good to learn to walk in it.
While the text doesn’t say it, I have often had in my mind’s eye that it is night when Gabriel appears to Mary. In art, The Annunciation is sometimes portrayed as happening in the light of day and at other times at night. I tend to like the night versions.
Mary, according to the legends of the Bible, is acquainted with the night. She gives birth at night in a stable or a cave. She flees to Egypt by night with husband and child. She is at the foot of the cross when her son dies and according to legend, Earth is shrouded in darkness.
She embodies the via negativa. She is a survivor. Her survival begins by being able to be a vessel, to be open to what is possible, to say, “Let it be with me” even though that letting be will lead to both incredible joy and incredible sorrow.
She has been an inspiration, confidante, advocate and strength for those whose sorrow is deep and for those who suffer. Growing up Protestant, I never appreciated Mary as much as my Catholic friends. I went to Catholic high school and was introduced to Mary, a divine figure who is feminine, the mother of God. I learned this prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst 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.
Mary is also an inspiration for those who struggle against injustice. Her song, called by the Latin, the Magnificat is a radical song. Theologian, Robert McAffee Brown, calls Mary’s song “a call to revolutionary action.” She mixes music, politics, and prayer:
“God has shown strength with God’s arm,
has scatted the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich has sent empty away.”
As we think of Mary as a vessel, we should not think of Mary as demure or weak or uninterested in political things. Mary is a rabble-rouser. Her strength comes through the via negativa. She is the inspiration today for liberationist movements in Latin America and throughout the world.
Her song, called the Magnificat, that begins in Luke 1:46 when she is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, is a song designed to start a revolution. It is about the powers of this world, political, military, economic, being overthrown and replaced by the people. What is being born in Mary is a new creation. It is a vision or re-ordering of life according to justice and peace for the poor and the hungry. No matter the obstacle, no matter the circumstance, no matter the fear and the angst, no matter the uncertainty, no matter the opposition, Mary says, “Let it be with me.”
We honor Mary today. We honor Mary, the figure in the tradition, but more importantly, we honor Mary within and among. Mary, theotokos, the one who gives birth to God.
I am pleased to have been able to serve for these past nine years a Mary church. I don’t know if I could give a higher compliment than that. It is not that you need a compliment. You know who you are, who you have been, and with whatever new adventures await, you will say,
Let it be with me according to your word.