Today at Old South Church we are marking Mothering Sunday. As is true of many Christian traditions and holidays, Mothering Sunday evolved from a pagan celebration. Early Christians were not above taking an old, beloved celebration and adapting and reinterpreting it in light of the Christian claim.
In some Christian calendars, Mothering Sunday is inserted into the middle of Lent as a gift … a welcome day of refreshment in the midst of the severe obligations of Lent.
The assumption behind Mothering Sunday is this: you have been observing a rigorous Lent. Your cheeks are hollow with fasting. Your pockets are empty from almsgiving. Your soul is weary of confessing. Your knees are bruised from lengthy prayer.
Mothering Sunday is a compassionate reprieve from the rigors of Lent … a mid-Lenten day of lightness, refreshment and joy: a break in fasting, a pause from almsgiving, a reprieve from confessing, a hiatus from bruising prayer. The music is upbeat and beautiful. The liturgy is lighter. We turn our attentions, our gratitude, our hearts to Mary, mother of Jesus.
Mary is the single most famous and recognizable female in history. She is adored throughout the world and across time … an adoration that is ageless, classless, raceless and timeless.
Mary is the subject of the most majestic art, the most sublime music and the most beloved carols (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night”).
Yet, there’s something awry in the Church’s take on Mary … something a bit skewed.
For one thing, Protestants and Roman Catholics don’t see eye-to-eye on Mary.
At Old South Church we are a diverse, multi-cultural congregation … we are rich and poor, housed and homeless, illiterate and educated, LGB and T, young and old, married and single, Republican and Democrat. We are multi-colored and multicultural … hailing from diverse continents, countries and cultures.
Among our differences there is one we are a little shyer about than others … we are Protestant and Catholic. And, if we are honest, Mary represents points of contention between Protestants and Catholics.
By some counts as many as 40% of newcomers to the United Church of Christ were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition.
I grew up in a largely Protestant world … and I couldn’t figure out what Catholics saw in Mary … why Catholics saw so much of her and in her? Why did Roman Catholics have paintings of Mary in their houses? Why did they affix Virgin Mary figurines to their dashboards, and hang from their rear view mirrors Madonna and Child charms?
My Roman Catholic friends knew Mary pretty well. She was active and present to my Catholic friends in ways that I found strange, other. Catholics prayed to and through Mary, venerating her in ways I found confusing. As a Protestant child I experienced the three persons of the Trinity as already something of a crowd. Adding Mary to the crowd of godly venerables was just one too many.
If you grew up Roman Catholic, you may wonder what Protestants possibly have against Mary. After all, she is the mother of God … the brave teenager who faced down humiliation … the broken-hearted mother who watched her son being tortured … the faithful disciple who never abandoned him.
I wonder, though, if both Protestants and Roman Catholics have missed the real Mary and the real story of Mary.
I have attended lots and lots of children’s Christmas pageants—both Protestant and Catholic—and this is what I witnessed: a demure, modest, diffident Mary, a mute Mary … without a single line to memorize or deliver. Year after year, in church after church, hers is a cameo appearance. She enters, head bent, eyes averted. Her baby appears … delivered by an angel … and she departs.
And I have to wonder this: Why don’t we cast in the role of Mary the brashest, smartest, loudest teenage girl in the Church school? Why don’t we ask this girl to memorize and belt out the Magnificat? Why don’t we stage our Christmas pageants with Mary trodding the boards, singing the Magnificat with a deep, strong alto?
God has shown strength with his arm;
… scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
… brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
… filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
That’s not your parents’ Christmas pageant … nor Protestants, nor Catholics. What have we done to Mary?
The Magnificat, Mary’s song, employs the language of revolution ... of radical, world-reordering reversals. The ethics of the kingdom of God, sings Mary, will inevitably lead to a reordering of our lives … the first will be last, the last first … the proud will be humbled and the humble raised.
What if you—you who grew up Catholic and you who grew up Protestant … and you, who grew up with no religion at all—what if you left here today, on this Mothering Sunday, committed to learning the Magnificat?
Many of us know by heart the 23rd Psalm … a psalm of comfort. What about making a Lenten commitment to learning the Magnificat … memorizing it, ingesting it, digesting it … for this is a song that gives comfort to the least and lost.
What if we used this Mothering Sunday to ask ourselves: How can my soul magnify God? How might I rejoice in God my Savior? How might God use me to lift up the lowly and to fill the hungry with good things? How might I live in fear and awe of God? How might I participate in the radical, egalitarian, revolution … a revolution of reversals of which Mary sang and Jesus inaugurated?
Now, there’s a Mothering Sunday even God could get behind.