Harrowing Of Hell
August 15, 2021

Feast of the Virgin Mary

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I’ve had Mary on my mind recently. I’ve been reading a book by Hans Urs von Balthazar titled Prayer. He was a Swiss theologian, who trained as a Jesuit priest, but left the order to be a more active in the world, and yet, also continuing to be a person who lived a life of contemplation. His theory was that you could do both, and I think that is true.

In this book von Balthazar writes a lot about Mary. I might say, to my Protestant mind, Mary is a bit Catholic; but as I considering who she was, I can understand why she developed such fervent followers. After all, no Mary, no Jesus. She said “yes” to God’s big ask.

Sometimes I wonder if maybe the angel Gabriel hadn’t made this invitation to a number of other young women, but only Mary responded with: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

Her response was one of profound humility. God asked her to be the mother of the Second person of the Trinity and then gave her agency to choose how to respond. God gave her the greatest gift and the freedom to say “yes” or to say “no.”

Mary said “yes”!

And yet, her “yes” was one that took the church a long time to own and understand. Maybe this was because she was a woman. Quite certainly this was because she was a woman. And yet, the church did, in time, come to own the reality of her “yes” because the people in the churches continued to claim that Mary’s “yes,” was a model for their own “yes” to God’s call upon their lives. It was her agency and humility that inspired and continues to do so.

Finally, 431 years after Mary said “yes” to God, the church, at the Council of Ephesus, gave her the title Theotokos… the Mother of God; catalyzing her status and galvanizing the acknowledgement of her perpetual virginity.

I know, that is a hard idea to get our minds around. It’s sort of doesn’t make sense, given what we know about how babies are made, not to mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters.

That said, the Protoevangelist of James, a non-canonical Gospel written in the second century, tells the story of Mary as a young bride who traveled to Nazareth to be the wife of the widower Joseph; to help him raise his seven children, and in return he would honor her vow of a life of prayer and celibacy. They were both members of the Essene community, a sect of Judaism that practiced celibacy and also sought adoption as a primary way through which to grow a family. Culturally, it would not have been out of the norm for a couple to live in an agreed to celibate relationship; if nothing else, it is a fail safe form of birth control. Furthermore, the Essene community believed, as part of their dogma, in angels.

So, if were are to honor the culture of Essenes in Nazareth 2000 years ago, and put it up against Mary’s experience we have a story that sits easily within the context of those times. That said, most of us still believe that babies and virginity are incompatible. To which I can only quote the angel Gabriel: “Nothing will be impossible for God.”

And so, around Mary developed a devoted community of followers. I think this happened for a few reasons. One, is the need to recognize that indeed God moves powerfully and materially through both men and women. Indeed, other than Jesus, there is no one higher in the hierarchy of Christianity than the person of Mary. I think that is important to acknowledge.

Another reason people are so devoted to Mary is that she was a phenomenal role model for how to be a Christian. She was a person who accompanied people upon their spiritual journey. She was a person who was attentive to the needs of the community. She was a person with a most generous heart.

These attributes of Mary, accompanying, attending, and generosity are solidly scriptural. Mary accompanied her aunt Elizabeth when she was pregnant with John. Mary accompanied her son to the cross and the tomb. Mary was with people; she also heard their supplications. Mary was attentive to the needs of the community and the bride and groom at the wedding feast at Cana. Mary was attentive to the needs of the women as they went to the tomb to properly bury the body of her son.

Mary was attentive and she was giving of herself. Mary was generous in giving her whole life to God as Theotokos. Mary was generous as a leader in the church after the resurrection of her son. Mary accompanied, Mary attended to, Mary was generous.

But I’m not going to to into further detail about Mary as a role model today, because, I want to spend time on the third reason why people have become so devoted to Mary. She appears to people. She shows up, there as our Lady of Lourdes, our Lady of Fatima, our Lady of Zion, our Lady of Guadalupe, our Lady of Knock, our Lady of Gietezwald, our Lady of Filipow, and the list goes on, maybe all the way to Lebanon, OR, where I was on vacation with Kristin two weeks ago.

When our walking pilgrimage to England was canceled recently, friends made available to us their house near Lebanon, Oregon. And there, two Sundays ago, Mary may have appeared. We had gone to a local church to worship, and came home and we were having a quiet brunch, the two of us, on a quiet patio overlooking a beautiful vista. The sermon we had heard at the church hadn’t been inspiring, like Ruth Anne’s on her dazzling athletic career, so, we tuned in to another preacher that Kristin enjoys from Chautauqua, NY.

As we’re listening to the word of God in this marvelous place, eating our lunch, I notice in front of me a shadow cast upon a chair that looked exactly like a woman in prayer. I couldn’t believe it. The shadow was moving with dynamic hands folded and head bowing. It was one of those things where I thought if I looked long enough it would go away, or I’d realize I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was seeing.

I pointed it out to Kristin, who confirmed it looked like a lady in prayer. When the image persisted, I did what one does, I pulled out my cell phone and took a video. I then sent it to my friends who own the house, and they wrote back a short, polite response.

The woman danced there the rest of the day, even as the sun moved across the sky. I wasn’t sure what meaning to make of it, though I thought I might be seeing it simply because of that von Balthazar book, Prayer. It’s sort of like after I bought our Honda Odyssey, I started seeing Odysseys all over the place. You know what I mean, Honda Odyssey, an apparition of Mary…

Anyway, we get back to Seattle and I go over to my friend’s house to return the key. We chat for a bit, and then he says, “That was quite a video you sent us. When we got it, we thought you were sort of (smoking pot).” I assured him that would NEVER happen. He continued, “Clearly you spent some time syncing the words to the image.”

I was befuddled. So, he pulled out his phone and he played back the video. It turns out the words of the preacher we were listening to perfectly synced up with the actions of the apparition. I didn’t know that while recording the image I was also recording the words…

And what we heard is the preacher thundering:

“I wonder if we have the humility to appreciate the thoughts of God. I wonder if we have the humility to appreciate that our best thoughts and our most profound accomplishments are but one grain of sand on the seashore of God’s creation. I wonder if we have the humility to appreciate the thoughts of God?”

As these words reached out of his phone with Mary bowing her head and moving her hands in prayer, humbly: the Magnificat came to mind: “He has mercy on those who fear him and every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He’s filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers and mothers, to Abraham and Sarah and their children forever.”

“For nothing is impossible with God! For nothing is impossible with God! Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

I wonder if we have the humility to appreciate the thoughts of God. Maybe Mary did appear to me on that porch two Sundays ago in Lebanon, OR. Maybe she came with a message for me to give to you… Do you have the humility to appreciate the thoughts of God? Do you believe that nothing is impossible for God? Do you have the humility to acknowledge that your best thoughts and most profound accomplishments are nothing more than one tiny grain of sand on an infinite beach where God strolls. Do you believe it is possible for the Holy Spirit to ask a young woman in Palestine 2000 years ago to be Theotokos? Is it possible for a virgin to give birth to a child?

Or is that more than God can manage… God; God who created heaven and earth; God who gave us air to breathe, and land to walk on, and water to drink; God that made butterflies and dinosaurs and stars in the sky; is a virgin birth more than God can manage?

I am inclined to agree with the prophet Isaiah who quoted God as saying: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your way.” (Isa 55:6-11)

In a world where it seems we, humanity, can do anything, even tackle the scourge of a virus with a vaccine, is there any room for humility; is there any need for humility? Only if there is God. It was humility that enabled Mary to say, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

Can you say those words as well? We are invited to to do so every single day in Evening Prayer out of The Book of Common Prayer. They are words worthy of daily recitation. They are words worthy of calling our heart and mind, humbly, to the reality that God has made us with purpose, each one of us.

And then God has shown up in our lives, and invited us into our purpose. And then, the same God has given us the freedom to say “yes” or to say “no.” Agency. Purpose. That is love. Ours is a God who has chosen to be in relationship, faithful, loving relationship with us.

That is the God that Mary said “yes” to. Are you willing to do so as well?