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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Imogene Herdman Can't Be the Mother of God!

Mrs. Armstrong was absolutely scandalized. For as long as anyone could remember, she had directed the church Christmas pageant. And for as long as anyone could remember, Mary, the blessed mother of the sweet little baby Jesus, had been played by a mild and subdued, prim and proper, debutante-in-training. It was just unthinkable that the unchurched, rough and tumble, cigar-smoking, curse-word using, hair-dying girl who came from the welfare family and who was known, along with her brothers, for talking about "sexy things" could possibly be acceptable enough to play "the mother of God!"

And it came on me, too, all at once, like a case of chills and fever: Who else? Who possibly OTHER than an Imogene Herdman could be in such an auspicious role, if the gospel really is good news at all?

It was at that moment, sitting on the second row of the theater with my second-grader, that I knew the good news once more, in my very being. This Jesus is for me. And I started to cry then and I didn't stop until long after getting home from dropping the children back at the school. It came and went, in fits and starts: I'm a Herdman! He came for ME. I couldn't possibly be acceptable enough for the family of God! He came for ME. He's the image of the Creator of the Universe, Immortal, Invisible, God ONLY Wise, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace! He came for ME. He came TO me.

And there I am. More Herdman than the traditional view we have of Mary. Which made me stop and think: Why do I picture Mary like the church people do anyway? Drive to the gospels. Drive to the word. What does it tell us about her anyway, and how does our tradition hold up?

Many scholars believe that Luke, the gospel writer, met and spoke directly with Mary in order to record the story of Jesus' birth. Perhaps she also even described herself and her relatives for him.

It's interesting to note that before telling us Jesus is on his way, we get the word that Zechariah and Elizabeth are finally having a baby, the one who will be John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. Zechariah and Elizabeth get introduced as the people who will be the parents of the herald in this way: "And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord."

Why, they sound just like the church people in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! I'll bet they volunteered to hold the church bazaar every year, and always showed up with their shoes shined for church, and could bake an enviable applesauce cake. Walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Zechariah and Elizabeth really looked good. Just the kind of people that God ought to choose to parent the unique individual who would herald his own coming, right? Just the kind of people you and I would want representing us in our Christmas drama.

But after a bit, we meet her. Mary. And does it say that Mary "was righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord"? Doesn't it? Doesn't it say that she was mild and prim, well-coifed, demure, gentle in nature, obedient to her parents?

Sometimes what is NOT there is not there for a reason. And after such an explanation about the righteous character of Zechariah and Elizabeth prior to their selection by God to bear the one who would proclaim the need for repentance before the coming of the Savior of the entire world, I kind of expected something similar to be said about the one chosen to bear that God himself.

But it isn't there. There is no mention of Mary as righteous, blameless, obedient, walking well in submission to God's laws. It isn't there.

All we know is that she is as of yet unmarried, betrothed to Joseph, and her name is Mary. (It means "bitter," by the way.)

Now I know I am going out on a limb of intense speculation here. I admit it. And I know that with some, any suggestion even of Mary's normal humanity is a hot-button topic. But really, when we think about the humans God chooses, how many of us were wise? How many of us were good? How many of us were influential?

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." -- 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31

Suppose nothing is said about Mary's righteousness and blamelessness because she had no such claims to make? Is it possible that Mary really was more like Imogene Herdman than we have ever stopped to consider? Is it possible that the reason she was greatly troubled by the angel's saying (despite the fact that, come on, an ANGEL is talking to her in the first place--again, it doesn't even say she was troubled by seeing an angel, but troubled by what he said to her), is because she had absolutely no reason to expect him to lead off with the words "O favored one"?

Elizabeth, it says, took relief and pleasure in the knowledge that finally, by being pregnant, she would no longer have to fear other people's reproach. Finally, those who looked at her with skepticism for her barrenness would know: She really was righteous. God was not punishing her with childlessness. (It was the belief in those days that children were a reward from God for obedience. A woman who was barren feared the reproach of others, as if she was living in a state of unrepentance and missing out on blessing specifically because of it.) But Mary seemed to have no reason at all to be considered "favored." Nothing in the passage suggests that Mary was anything special in terms of right conduct or obedience.

Perhaps (again, I admit to my possibly ridiculous level of speculation), in a culture in which sexual immorality was punishable by extreme measures (the Old Testament even allows for stoning, though the Pax Romana looked unfavorably upon such harsh punishment), Joseph's initial decision to simply put her away quietly may have suggested that no one was all that surprised by the word that she was expecting before she was married.

Mary's speech when she arrives at Elizabeth's has a fullness of appreciation in it that seems unlikely for a young girl who had never experienced soul-longing, identity crisis, grief. I think of the woman of whom much was forgiven. It was she who, in return, loved God much. I hear in Mary's words the song of one who has been forgiven much, and is responding with apt awe, adoration, astonishment: Rather than saying, "What in the world am I going to do, an unwed mother? People are going to hate me, they are going to despise me, ostracize me. I don't deserve this! I've been good all my life! I walk in righteousness and this is the thanks I get? Scandal and suspicion?"

No, instead she is floored by the fact that she has been given God's favor, and she, undeserving, is being used as his instrument. He will bring down the proud who would judge. He will fill the empty (perhaps even the emptiness of a teen girl, searching for self in the normal "rebellious" ways most of us have known in our own lives?), and empty the "filled," he is full of mercy--mercy is mentioned twice. She rejoices--her spirit "leaps" within her.

Imogene Herdman wept as she sat by the manger, cradling the doll in her arms, the words of the gospel being read over her. In today's play, her tears were so real that the children afterward asked the director not once but three times if the actress was really crying, and why.

The Apostle Paul called himself the worst of sinners. And yet, he is the vessel chosen by the holy God to carry the word of the good news to the world. He was not the most righteous, but the worst of sinners.

Why then, should we insist that the vessel chosen to carry the Word Made Flesh into the world would be someone particularly blameless and righteous--one who earned her favor?

And what of our role today? He calls us his Body. Jesus took his body and left this place. He left us to take him with us as we go. We are how he chooses now to image himself to others. Can I claim to have earned that favor? When I heard the description of what the child chosen to play Mary should be like, I had to cringe. Because I believed it too, and I knew, it certainly wasn't me. No, I am much more like Imogene than the idealized Mary we envision.

But if the gospel is true, perhaps Mary is more like Imogene than I've ever considered before either. And in that, I find hope. And my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices within me, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

He has helped his servant Israel, the one who wrestles with God--wrestles and strives, tumbles and struggles--in remembrance of his MERCY. So that no one can boast--but only, he or she who boasts, may boast in the Lord.

1 comment:

Tammi T. said...

I love the message of this post. I will have a different perspective when later today, I watch our church's annual Christmas cantata (that almost always features a nativity scene). Thanks for sharing this insight. Definitely some food for thought.