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Journeys With Mary, a Pastor's Christmas Story

I grew up in England. My father was a Church of England priest; the “C of E.” I did, do and probably always will appreciate the structure of organized religion. It provides rhythm in my life.

C of E churches were either high or low. High churches were almost indistinguishable from Roman Catholic churches, low churches tended to be plainer and simpler. One’s first clue that one was in a high church (if you couldn’t smell incense) was the likely presence of a statue of Mary the mother of Jesus.

My father’s churches were definitely on the low side: no pongs and gongs (incense and bells) and no statues of Mary. In fact, with typical British elitism we tended to stare down our noses at the fripperies of high churches. Mary, at best, was a rank and file saint, whose role was limited to conceiving, riding on a donkey and giving birth in a manger.

I now love the fourth Sunday in Advent (the one before Christmas) because it talks all about Mary.  In fact, I think we learn more about God’s intent through Mary than any other character, save Jesus, in the Christian corpus of scripture. More so, I think the story of Mary has much to say to people of all faiths, and no faiths.

Let me chart my conversion. As a first year seminarian in Berkeley, California, I listened to a classmate who had previously run a shelter for victims of domestic violence. One victim, beaten with a baseball bat had come within an inch of her life. Yet, after a stay at the shelter, she went back to her abusive male partner. Why? I wondered. I became a jail chaplain. Irate male inmates yelled at unseen women, via collect calls from the prison, telling them to put money on their commissary books … or else. Why would the unseen woman cooperate? I wondered. The answer came when I discussed a project with one of my professors at my next adventure in graduate school.

“So,” she said, “You are seeking an empowerment model, rather than a ‘men are jerks model.’” That was exactly it. I had by this time become driven to educate and eliminate domestic violence. Some shelters that I visited and some seminars that I attended had embraced the “men are jerks” model wholeheartedly and saw domestic violence as nothing more than gender warfare.

The model that I came to develop rejected the necessity for yet another tribal war, in favor of the Mary model. Recall Mary’s story. First, she was a very young country lass, who minding her own business, was suddenly approached by the angel of the Lord. The said angel noted that she had become uniquely blessed. Mary might not have seen it that way, because she was in the cultural context of being poor, young, unwed and pregnant. Here was someone who held no cards. However, the angel said that she was empowered – favored. She was empowered to overcome each and every factor that might see as being systemically oppressed – though I don’t think that she ever became not poor.

The way that God empowered Mary, more affectionately known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, tells the story of the way that God dignifies human being by exalting the lowly: giving them the power; empowering them to be children of God. This is why no woman deserves to be hit, no child to be hungry, and no one to be homeless. It is children of God who suffer such indignities, and thereby God’s holy self.

The Holy Family went back home a different way after Christmas to avoid persecution. They could choose to do that as they were empowered, so they did.

Anthony Stephens is Pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Croton-on-Hudson. He is a licensed mental health counselor and attorney, his interests converge on the advancement of women victims' rights.

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