Mary, Full of Grace

St. Philip Lutheran Church
15 August 2021 + Mary, Mother of Our Lord
Luke 1.46-55
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching

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. Amen.

You could say I grew up bi-denominational – with one foot in the Lutheran Church and the other in the Roman Catholic Church. The Lutheran Church was home, though I went to Catholic mass regularly with my father’s side of the family.

It was my very devout Italian Catholic grandmother, who went to mass everyday and faithfully spent her mornings reading her bible and praying her prayers, who taught me how to pray the rosary. I loved that ritual – the feel of the beads in my hands, the repetition of the prayers, the connection to centuries of faithful Christians.

Then, in eighth grade, as I was about to be confirmed in the Lutheran Church, I can vividly remember sitting on the edge of my bed, holding the rosary my grandmother had given me. Soon I won’t be able to pray this anymore, I thought. Everything I had been taught in confirmation classes seemed to suggest there was something “wrong” with praying the rosary – and at odds with my Lutheran faith – as though it was somehow praying to Mary and elevating her to a divine status.

What’s a Lutheran to do with Mary? It’s unfortunate that too many Protestants, to avoid any semblance of “idolatry,” have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Devotion to Mary is seen as “too Catholic.” But we miss out on the richness of the prayers and practices that have guided the devotional life of faithful Christians throughout the history of the church.

Still: There’s something about Mary.

On the one hand, without Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, there’s no Jesus. But there’s also something more profound going on.

Luther himself wrote of Mary as “the most blessed Mother of God, the most blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ” and “the Queen of Heaven.” In his essay on the Magnificat – our gospel reading this morning – Luther marvels at Mary’s faith and lifts up her unique place as the God-bearer. Above all, Luther emphasizes how God’s grace “regarded” Mary’s low estate and “looked with favor” on her lowliness. It is on this single act of God that Mary’s song of praise is founded.

As Luther writes: “When [Mary] experienced what great things God was working in her despite her insignificance, lowliness, poverty, and inferiority, the Holy Spirit taught her this deep insight and wisdom, that God is the kind of Lord who does nothing but exalt those of low degree and put down the mighty from their thrones, in short, break what is whole and make whole what is broken.” (LW 21.299)

It is for this reason that all generations will call Mary “blessed” – not for anything she has done, but for God’s grace shown to her.

Mary’s song reminds us of God’s mighty power to save, that it is God who acts through us to turn the world upside down and make whole what is broken.

At the center of her song, Mary describes the works of God. She sings of a God who shows mercy to those who fear God and who scatters the proud, who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends away empty those who amass and hoard their wealth.

Mary sings of a God who flips the world on its head – defying the status quo and subverting our expectations of how the world-as-it-is operates. Mary’s song subverts expectations and shows us God’s mighty power to save and bring about the world-as-it-can-be.

It’s also important to remember that Mary sings. We know that music is a powerful means of communication. Music expresses emotions and experiences that simple speech is incapable of. It can make us laugh, cry, lament, or call us to action.

Last year, when our worship moved online and the church’s song was dispersed from our sanctuary into our homes, we sorely missed being able to sing together. Hearing hymns on our computers at home and singing along just isn’t the same. So, on Easter Sunday this year, when we gathered in the parking lot for our sunrise vigil, we were able to join our voices for the first time in over a year – masked, distanced, and outdoors – we sang our alleluias and resurrection joy together – perhaps as powerfully and poignantly as ever before.

Music is powerful. The spirituals sung by enslaved Africans enabled those who sang them to express their lament, disguised in biblical imagery, and empowered them to hope for a better world. Likewise, the songs of the Civil Rights Movement – “We Shall Not Moved,” “Freedom Is Coming,” and “We Shall Overcome,” to name a few – gave strength to those who resisted injustice and fought for a more equitable society.

It is out of this same emotional depth that Mary sings. There is no possible way for her to comprehend the magnitude of what she is being asked to do, or the significance of the events that will be set into motion as a result. And so she sings – in fear, excitement, confusion, and joy, connecting to a force deep within her soul, praising a God who has regarded her and blessed her life, a God who is present with her and a God who has acted and will continue to act.

Mary, full of grace, sings of God’s grace. It doesn’t get much more Lutheran than that.

Today, I have two rosaries, and I have incorporated them into my own spiritual practice. With each bead, I join my prayers with Mary’s own – her song of praise, a song of God’s victory and power to save.

Mary’s song reminds us that God stands with the marginalized and the oppressed and that God powerfully uses lowly, despised, and rejected to turn the world upside down and make whole what is broken.

Mary’s song is subversive. Mary’s song is gospel. Mary’s song is the prelude to the Messiah growing strong in her womb, who himself comes to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free.

And Mary’s song invites us to sing and pray along:

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. Amen.

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