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A Christian War on Women?

The Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, August 14, A.D.2011 – Elijah White
first please read Luke 1:26-56

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Tomorrow, August 15, is the Feast of S. Mary the Virgin. I’ve spoken of her before, but today I revisit her for three reasons: [1] as we just heard from S. Luke, Mary has an absolutely pivotal role in the New Testament; yet, [2] most of us rarely think of her from one Christmas manger scene to the next; yet [3] we need and can learn much from both her example of cooperating with God’s will and her reminder of the tremendous importance of the so-called ‘feminine’ virtues in faith and in daily life.

Mary is much ignored – I grew up in S. James’ Leesburg in an every-Sunday Episcopalian family but I think I was 22 before I ever heard a sermon about Mary, and that was in England. I never heard any of the very few [five!] 1940 Hymnal’s hymns about Mary. She’s one of only two human beings mentioned in the Creeds – why do more sermons discuss the man Pilate who sent Jesus to death rather than the woman Mary who gave Him birth?

The long-term historical reason for Mary’s neglect is that when the Puritans came to power in the English church in 1548 after the death of conservative traditional Henry VIII, and especially after 1648 when they seized the English nation by force of arms under Cromwell, they sought to “purify” the Church by editing out, burning, literally smashing, eliminating anything they thought was “Popish” – including stained glass windows, organs, vestments, altars, statues, candles, paintings, much that we value as works of art. Lord Protector Cromwell wished that all private and public worship could be conducted in an absolutely dark room, so that the eye could not distract the mind from focusing on the word of God.

Among the victims of this destructive fanaticism was Saint Mary. Puritans couldn’t eliminate the Biblical events of the Annunciation, Incarnation, or Purification, but they downgraded them – their brethren in Massachusetts made it against the law for anyone to observe Christmas in any way whatsoever, fining any who didn’t treat it was an ordinary working day (unless it fell on a Sunday) – they did not come to these shores to establish ‘freedom of religion.’ In the Church of England they eliminated any other even mention of Mary, banning every feast-day of her own – while keeping the feasts of such shadowy males as Bartholomew who are only mentioned in New Testament lists.

Granted, it required tough aggressive characters to explore and clear and tame the wilderness, to homestead, to create farms where none had been before – could we say that our nation was created by ‘developers?’ Remember that Leesburg began as a subdivision by one Nicholas Minor – but let not masculine pride neglect our fore-mothers who toiled right alongside, working even longer hours into the night cooking and washing and sewing and mending – ‘man works from sun to sun, woman’s work is never done’ – facing the same dangers as the men from outlaws, rapine and raid, disease, hunger, disastrous weather, plus potential rape and the frequently-fatal perils of childbirth – for what credit? For how many statues? Name one?

The word ‘forefathers’ comes trippingly off our tongues, but I saw a few wince when I said ‘fore-mothers’ – yet think about it, each of us has just as many female ancestors as male, right? I can rattle off a number of my male forebears… but I don’t know the name of any female preceding my grandmothers: do you? This great nation was built inch by inch, field by field, house by house – it takes a lot of lovin’ to make a house a home -- by men and women – let’s not dishonor them by forgetting that fact of our national history.

Just so, in our religious history let’s not dishonor the 51% majority of humankind by ignoring Mary and all the other female saints and champions of the Bible and the Faith – hagiographers say that numbered among the official saints are more teen-age girls than popes. We diminish our own understanding of Jesus’ real humanity if we neglect His thoroughly human mother – remember that of those courageous enough to follow Him all the way to the Cross, three (including His mother) were female, only one, John, was male. The rest of the men ran, and hid.

Granted, generalizations about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics are at best confusing – as if no woman could be brave, no man tender – but we grow up with these artificial rôle antitheses which can give us misleading stereotypes quite contrary to the wholeness God wants us to enjoy. We need an appreciation, an understanding and seeking and respecting of well-rounded well-integrated fully-human character, we need Mary as well as Paul, Magdalene as well as Peter, Mother Teresa as well as Albert Schweitzer. We need compassion as well as assertion, encouragement as well as discipline, inter-dependence as well as in-dependence; we need gentleness and strength, patience and ambition, forgiveness and punishment, humility and self-confidence – all these we need, and more, within us and therefore available to us in proper measure for many different situations, all always governed by faith, hope and love in its biblical sense, the Latin caritas or charity, biblical Greek άγαπη, ágapē, godly love not sentimental, never inhibited by thinking that “my physical equipment prohibits my possessing or showing that particular virtue.”

Now be clear, broadening our religious thinking does not mean accepting any non-biblical ideas or stories about Mary – not at all – but if we’re to call ourselves Biblical Christians (is there truly any other kind?) then we have to accept the very clear and specific Biblical declarations of fact that we just heard: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with thee!... Thou hast found favor with God… The child to be born to thee will be called holy, the Son of God… Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb… Blessed is she who believed {now there’s a role model!} she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord!” (Luke 1:26-56)

That’s what Holy Scripture says about Saint Mary – can we say less? But I suggest that the most important message for you and me is what Mary says in verse 38, and then lives out: “Behold, I am the servant, the handmaid of the Lord: let it be to me according to His Word.” From Mary’s example of faithful, believing, accepting spirit and faith we can learn much to our soul’s healing and health, if only we’ll remember, honor, and learn,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.