Monday, October 6, 2014
Something about Mary: The sermon
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b] 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Ecumenism has not died dear friends. Today’s worship is an effort to say that ecumenism still lives and we need it more than ever before. Misunderstanding of cultures, beliefs and systems are not inter-religious problems but inter-denominational, ecumenical problems. We need to sort out issues between ourselves inside the church before commenting on other aspects of religion and society.
So what is a Syrian Orthodox priest doing in UTC? Can the CSI and CNI come to a common understanding with the Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches? Is there something more than Jesus that we can look up to for a common ground? This Sunday, these are some questions we can try to answer.
Luke 1:26-38 explains the announcement of angel Gabriel to Mary that she is going to give birth to Jesus. Mary is quite astounded and taken aback by the announcement but Gabriel reassures her. The skit that we saw took a different look at the passage and shows how Mary fears domestication as that which cannot fulfill what Gabriel announces to her. Mary’s status of a virgin is also her curse and she tries to make sense of what is happening.
“Something about Mary” is an effort to make sense of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and how she responds to it. It is also an effort to see how Mother Mary offers a chance for unity between churches which can in turn keep the ecumenical flame burning.
Some of the traditional ways of looking at the passage is to point out the obedience of Mary, her virginity and thereby holiness and her special place in the church. While the churches belonging to the Orthodox and Catholic families have given St. Mary the status of ‘Theotokos’, the mother of God, others have questioned her virginity and her status as mother of God and also her status as someone who has to be venerated.
Our present struggles involve looking at other religions and our acceptance of them. My concern is to look within Christianity and identify common grounding through inspired reading of the Bible. Our readings are inspired and led by the Holy Spirit and one should not doubt that.
The read passage offers us hope that there is something about Mary that could bring us together. It’s not just the procession or the chanting but the inspiration of Mary’s self that offers us life in its fullness.
1. Jo dhar ghaya samjo mar gaya- This is a dialogue in the iconic Hindi movie “Sholay” in which Amjad Khan playing Gabbar Singh delivers the eternally famous dialogue to his accomplices after shooting three of them. It just means that those who get scared or have fear in them will die then and there. Mary is scared of all that could happen by this visit of Gabriel. She is perplexed. One cannot blame her. She must have thought of the stories of spirits visiting people and what came about from these visits. She must have also thought of what was this character Gabriel hanging around for and trying to do by calling her the ‘favoured one’?
What was indeed going to happen? Was her freedom going to end? Would she be cornered into submission? The relationship between churches also borders around fear. Will I become less holy or pure if I mingle with other churches, will my people flock to other churches if I appear cozy with them, are others and their practises non-Christian and non-spiritual? Fear plays an important spoiler in ecumenical relations. Mary was also bordering around fear. The fear of losing familiar ground must have weighed heavily on her mind. Gabriel was telling things strange and unheard of. Would Mary be a victim to non-religious things? Mary being a Jew was doing something sacrilegious. She did what no other person would have the courage to do. She was becoming anti-religious from within the religion she stood in and anti-societal inside the society she was part of. She was scared but she overcame fear.
Mary’s reaction which overcomes the understanding “Jo dhar gaya, samjo mar gaya” not only defeats death for her but ensures life and salvation for all people as well. Mother Mary then becomes the symbolism of life by overcoming fear and death. She becomes the bearer of the son of God not by submission but by overcoming fear. This is a good model to follow for ecumenism as well. We don’t just submit to each other but we overcome the fear of one another and favour life through the birth of Christ in each of us.
2. Aathi kya Khandala? Virginity is not conformity.
Luke 1: 26-38 is misunderstood in several respects and Mother Mary is made out into a subservient, submissive, conformist by many. Elizabeth Johnson in her book “Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints” makes the observation that several women writers have said that Mary has let down women by being a conformist and allowing Christian writers to make her the correct woman figure over and against Eve, because Mary reflects obedience over Eve’s disobedience. But this is far from the truth. Mary, as pointed out in the skit is not submissive but instead tries to prevent Gabriel from having his say. The biblical writer must have written it in a way to suggest that Mary is showcasing and questioning domestication and using virginity as an anti thesis to submission. It is not submission but questioning. It is not the oppression of women but the expression of women.
The 1998 Hindi movie “Ghulam” starring Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee was a runaway hit and had a very popular song “Aathi kya Khandala”. Khandala is a hill station and a place which is popular among the youth. The song has a young man telling the girl that they will go to Khandala and have fun.
Aey, Kya Bolti Tu
Aey, Kya Mein Bolun
Aati Kya Khandala
Kya,Karoon, Aake Mein Khandala,
Arey Ghoomenge Phirenge Nachenge Gaaenge
Aish Karenge Aur Kya
Aey, Kya Bolti Tu
Aey, Kya Mein Bolun
But just because a girl goes there does not mean that she is morally worse than the boy who accompanied her. This pick up line “Aathi kya Khandala” was used and is still used by eve teasers and molestors on the road. An sms which went around much after the release of the movie was about a girl who had covered her face while entering the bus. An elderly man asks her “Aathi kya Khandala?” She replies “Papa, ye mein hoo” meaning father this is me your daughter.
Angel Gabriel is of course not asking Mary to go to Khandala with him. But Mary must have been petrified of having someone like him next to her, suggesting she is going to give birth to a child. Her reply that she is a virgin or that she is domesticated should be seen in two ways. One is to suggest that the angel should leave her alone and that she has nothing to do with men but is rather independent. Two is to suggest that how can a domesticated woman like her give birth to the son of the most high when she is domesticated by a patriarchal, male centric society? How can such good come out of her when she is part of the corrupt structure?
The church sees both in bits and pieces- Mary’s independence more than her virginity was at one point of time looked at as independence from the system. So the church identified with such independence. Many women in academic discourse call Mary as a domesticated saint. This means that she has been accepted, elevated and used by a patriarchal church leadership and this essentially means that she is of no use to women. But on the other hand Mary is also questioning domestication and the skewed connotation of virginity. Mary refuses to get into the patriarchal “Aathi kya Khandala” enquiry and instead deals with the angel, writer and the church on her own terms. Joseph’s role even though small is very significant. He acts as the perfect decoy in the story, making people look at him and in the process Mary gets her space and freedom.
Non-Catholic and non-Orthodox churches need not write off Mother Mary as a domesticated saint. The church may have domesticated Mary to an extent but Mary has not allowed herself to be domesticated. Taking Mariology seriously can bring churches closer to tackle the problems posed by patriarchy and kierarchy, which is power centred. Having various church festivals in an ecumenical setting helps us to realize that we are not domesticated virgins but rather children of God, inspired by the life of saints like Mother Mary.
In my church the eight day lent from Sep 1-8 is commemorated to celebrate the nativity of St. Mary. But this is not an official church lent. Yet hundreds of thousands of people, especially women observe this lent and identify with Mother Mary and intercede to her. They talk, cry, spent time with and completely immerse themselves with Mother Mary. This is not church induced but people induced. Understanding such traditions and observances gives a much needed fillip and energy for sagging ecumenical relations between churches.
3. Mere Paas Maa hai- The MOM mission
The assurance of angel Gabriel to Mary is that she will be filled with the Holy Spirit and bear a child who will be holy. It also suggests that the child bearer will be holy. In the 1975 Hindi movie Deewar, the character Vijay played by Amitabh Bachan tells his brother Ravi played by Shashi Kapoor, “Aaj mere paas paisa hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai, naukar hai, bank balance hai. Aur tumhare paas kya hai?” His brother replies “Mere paas Maa hai.” To the statement that one brother has money, a house, a car, a domestic help and a bank balance the other says that he has his mother with him!
The importance of a mother is well said and it reflects popular culture as well. The church believes that Mother Mary has the freedom and the proximity to intercede to her son Jesus. This is the special freedom of a mother. Ecumenical relations between churches are partly suffering because of an Americanised, homogenized, media style spirituality which leaves no space for the expression of local culture in our prayer and relationship with God. The neglect of the East and its spirituality is a cause of concern and a thorn in the flesh of ecumenical understanding between churches.
A New York Times cartoon reflects this refusal to accept India’s growth.
The Mangalyan Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has been hailed as a success for a country like India. It has been cost effective and speedy and has used local elements in its research and design. Yet the cartoon shows a person with a cow knocking at the door of the Elite Space Club. It also reflects this coat and tie spirituality from the U.S., exported and marketed by a section of people there. This uni-directional, anti-culture spirituality which is against local cultures and traditions poses a grave danger to Christian traditions in India and their relationship with each other.
The Mary Orbiter Mission can give us the opportunity to taste success in relationships between churches. This is a mutually respecting, learning and growing experience which has to be encouraged more in our context. To sum up, we must overcome fear, be non-conformists to wrong approaches and try to widen our belief system so that our prayers and spirituality become more effective. UTC becomes an apt space for us. It is a place to love, embrace and learn from each other. It is a vibrant ground of acceptance and respect. May God through the intercession of Mother Mary give us the opportunity to be good and better followers of Christ. Amen.
(Excerpts from a sermon preached in UTC for the Sunday evening worship on October 5, 2014.)
Picture credits: Calvin Sushit Ambler, Sr. Shruti,indiatimes.com and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Orthodox_Church