by Daniel Harrell
I’m taking these Easter Sundays to share insights and experiences from the generous sabbatical you granted me and my family this past winter in Southern California. I thought I’d be done by Pentecost—that’s May 15—but I think I’ll need a couple more weeks. So far I’ve explored time and eternity, vocation and piety, relational capacity and our religiously predisposed minds, black faith and postcolonial Colonial. Thanks again to all those who made last Sunday’s 70th anniversary such a special time.
I was a visiting scholar at Fuller Seminary during sabbatical in both their school of psychology and theology. Coincidentally, or better, providentially, I took classes on spiritual formation in each school, somewhat unexpectedly when my classes in Deuteronomy and evolutionary psychology both cancelled. It seems the Lord had other plans. My psychology of spiritual formation class taught me about the measurable influences of prayer and worship and generosity and sabbath on the human mind. On the theology side, my spiritual traditions and practices class surveyed various renewal movements in Christian history with the added opportunity to practice proven spiritual disciplines designed by monks for the purpose of realigning our hearts with Christ.
Among these disciplines was a day spent on silent retreat at Mater Dolorosa Monastery in Sierra Madre. Silence has a long history in Christian devotion—I preached a whole sermon series about it a couple years back, seven sermons filled with talking about not talking. The essence of silence as discipline is making space to hear and to heed the Lord. Remote monasteries traditionally provide perfect venues. Perched on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, Mater Dolorosa, Latin for Our Lady of Sorrows, is a classic Catholic retreat center with an ornate chapel at its center, a bloody crucifix glaring at you as you sit in the pew. There’s an elaborate stations of the cross, featuring, I felt, melodramatic statues intended to subtly accuse, evoke guilt and remorse and penitence with tedious self-examination at every step. Garish gardens give no relief as they are mostly paved walkways with kneelers every few feet so you can stop and cry some more as you adore various virgin Marys, her heart ever wounded and forlorn.
Clearly I have issues. As a hardcore Protestant and starch-collared congregationalist, mawkish, three-hanky graven images designed to manufacture emotion and invite veneration always spark my inner John Calvin. Can it not be enough to abide in the beauty of creation itself, a Bible in your hand and a simple prayer on your lips? Scripture alone. Grace alone. Faith alone. Christ alone. Sola Deo gloria! Why all the prayer beads and tight scripts, the endless gesticulations, cumbersome rituals and enigmatic doctrines? Why pray to saints and to Mary with Jesus on call, and why does she have to be sad all the time? Surely she heard Jesus rose from the dead! A priest friend back in Boston always referred to Mary as “ever-virgin,” whatever that meant. Didn’t Jesus have brothers. “No, those were Joseph’s kids by another marriage,” he’d say. What? Catholic doctrine has Mary “immaculately conceived” like her son Jesus so she might be more worthy than she already was to be the handmaid of the Lord. And then as reward, she was presumably assumed “body and soul” into heaven as decreed by the Pope in 1950, though not even that made her happy. I settled in for my retreat on the outskirts of Mater Dolorosa, as far as I could get from all this celebrated silliness—the statues and the relics—uncomfortable with coming close even for lunch in the refectory. Why couldn’t they just call it a cafeteria?
My austere Reformed theological training taught me that to be Protestant meant never bowing to Rome or praying to Mary. Faith alone in Christ alone. Jesus himself, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, when told of his mother’s presence outside the house where he preached, responded by asking, “Who is my mother?” And then answered his own question by pointing to his disciples and saying, “My mother and brothers are here.” Maybe that’s why Mary cries all the time. In Boston, I’d invited my priest friend to preach at our historic congregational church as a display of Christian unity between Catholics and Protestants, a big deal in Boston and the first time for our church. My priest friend had prepared to preach to our unity, but being a Pentecostal sort of priest, he felt at the last moment a prompting to preach on the virtues of the virgin instead, causing deep division and leading one man to stand to his feet and shout “heresy!” Our senior minister spent weeks cleaning up my mess.
And yet every Christmas in that church, like in ours, a young woman will be honored with the role of Mary in the Christmas pageant, silent and submissive to the will of the Lord, a humble and virtuous teenager on whom hinged God’s whole plan of salvation. How is it that in relation to this obedient girl—the Mother of our Lord— we define ourselves as being one kind of Christian or another? How is it that a figure of such humility and grace could become the focus of so much religious rancor?
Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, April 4 this year, naturally nine months before Christmas, and the focus of our reading this morning. The angel Gabriel spoke to Mary a line that gets prayed countless billions times every hour: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. Mary was the devoted mother and first disciple, completely committed to God’s saving work made manifest in her son. A gospel exemplar of faith, filled with self-surrendering love, she followed Jesus from his mysterious conception through his nativity and childhood, into his young manhood and baffling destiny to proclaim and advance the kingdom of God. Mary did not always understand the words nor the actions of her son, whether at the age of twelve in the temple, or at the wedding in Cana or in the scandal of Calvary. Yet she was always open to God’s merciful will even when the divinely appointed hour was at its darkest. She was doggedly present at the foot of the cross, at the failure of all hope, and later seated in that Pentecost upper room praying fervently for the Spirit of her risen Son to rain down. It is her commitment to prayer, and its fulfillment, that inspires those holding their rosaries to ask longingly and constantly, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Hers is faith at its most honest, love exemplified by many mothers, fierce yet forgiving, focused and simple, unwilling to idealize so to embrace and to love what is true and real. An angel of the Lord appeared to her in her poverty and uncertainty and delivered mixed news: she had found favor with God but would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit with dark clouds of blessing. Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. She would give birth to divine royalty, the Son of God destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign from above to be opposed and a sword would pierce her own soul too. Still Mary rejoiced at the news, the good and the bad because both came from the Lord, and she and yielded her will. Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. She praised God for the great things he had done, even as she and her people were beat down and bankrupted by imperial oppression. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. She sang a song we call the Magnificat, celebrating the salvation growing strong in her womb: “God has bared his arm and performed mighty deeds; He has scattered the proud, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” Mary is both first disciple and prophet. And as is typical of Biblical prophecy, she confuses her verb tenses. She sings in the past tense rather than in the future, as if the promises had already come true. Jesus isn’t even born and already Mary declares victory.
Granted, Mary’s victory hardly looked like a win. Her own life went from triumphant singing to scandalous hand-wringing. Her husband Joseph considered divorcing her since everybody knew the baby wasn’t his (and nobody was going to believe God did it). Caesar’s coerced relocation induced Mary to give birth in a feed trough. And as for the Son of God, rather than toppling tyrants, Jesus got toppled by tyrants. Instead of lifting up the humble, Jesus suffered humiliating defeat. Turn to the last pages of Scripture where you’d expect to find a risen Christ finally victorious in heaven, a ferocious Lion of Judah and King of the Beasts. But instead is depicted a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been butchered. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb of God conquered by dying. And yet this conquest, while predestined, remains pending. With the rest of us, Mary weeps as she waits.
Nietzsche once said that if a human being put his ear to the heart chamber of the world and heard the “roar which lies on the other side of silence,” the “innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” he would surely break into pieces. But the daily news, pumping its dark current of despair works just as well. Literary critic James Wood describes a day he drew a line down the middle of a piece of paper, on one side writing his reasons for belief in God, on the other his reasons against. “I can’t remember the order of my negatives now, but [unrelenting evil ] and the inefficacy of prayer was likely at the top. Here was a demonstrable case of promises made (if you have faith, you can move a mountain) but not kept (the mountain not only stays put but suddenly erupts and consumes a few villages). During my teens, two members of my parents’ congregation died of cancer, despite all the prayers offered up on their behalf. When I looked at the congregants kneeling on cushions, their heads bent to touch the wooden pews, it seemed to me as if they were literally butting their heads against a palpable impossibility… like the bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses.”
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. In moments of greatest misery and confusion, we need another to pray for us, our mothers to give comfort and care. The need is instinctual, and as Mother of God, Mary provides for all. She is both blessed and gives birth to the blessing, whom she nurtures and feeds, follows and mourns, in whom she finds hope and her own redemption, full of grace and prayer and access. When the Father says no, you go ask your mother.
As a hardcore Protestant, I still can’t bring myself to pray to Mary. But if for some reason Catholics have this one right… I’d welcome Mary praying for me.
In the chapel crypt of the Calvinist monastic community of Taizé in France, there is an icon of the Virgin Mary. Visitors are invited to pause and pray: “Holy and merciful Father, you have revealed to the Blessed Virgin Mary that by the coming of your Son the mighty will be put down and the lowly lifted up. We pray to you for the humble who with Mary cry out to you. O Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, obedient to your Word, grant us also a spirit prompt to obey. ‘Let it be done unto me according to your will.’ Oh God, Holy Mary figures your Church. She received Christ and gave him to the world. Send on us your Holy Spirit so that we may be soon united in one body and that we may radiate Christ to men and women who cannot believe. Gather us all in a visible unity so that with Mary and with all the saints, witnesses of Christ, we may rejoice in you, our Lord, now and forever and ever. Amen.”
I circled the retreat center grounds at Mater Dolorosa, stiffly resisting the figurines of Mary, like a teenager too big to be hugged anymore. I stayed away from every statue, images of a dying Jesus said had to happen for life to happen. And yet to avoid something you still attend to it, and think about it even as you reject it. And thus I found my circling soon turned into spiraling closer and closer, pulled to the center of the retreat center grounds where grew a contrived Garden of Gethsemane with twisted California oaks instead of olive trees. In the Garden stood a statue, of course, this one also melodramatic and wrought in bronze, a life-sized depiction of an overwrought Jesus bent to his knees bewailing that God might take away the cup of death he had to drink if ever it were to overflow with mercy. Some say that when God abandoned Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane he abandoned himself. Christian faith reverts to the wisdom of Job. Like his mother before him, Jesus yields to a greater purpose. Not my will but thine be done. Be it unto me according to thy word.
With only a few minutes left before our departure, I gingerly stepped into the garden and toward the sculpture, checking first to make sure nobody saw me, but then willing to let it be unto me whatever God would let be. I reached out and touched the hard bronze, then reached up and took Jesus’ hand, and for a mystical moment, as Catholics would call it, had my own heart connected to mysteries both beautiful and terrible, symbolized for all Christians here in broken bread and wine we must drink as sinners needing prayer both now and at the hour of our deaths, Amen. Turning to leave, I bumped into yet another image of sad Mary ever-crying, Our Lady of Sorrows weeping for me, only with what I decided were tears of joy instead.