Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hail Mary Full of Grace

"Hail Mary Full of Grace."

It's a phrase I've heard many times.  I am not Catholic, but have many Catholic friends and co-workers.  Even though I was raised in protestant churches and am now a Lutheran, I have been to more than one mass.  Even without all this, I have certainly seen more than one movie where someone is in a life-threatening situation.  "Hail Mary full of grace" is the devotional of the desperate, frantically recited through trembling teeth, as sweaty, nervous fingers massage wooden prayer beads.
Hail Mary,
Full of grace.
The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women.
Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Even hearing these words over and over and knowing the story of Jesus birth, I have never really understood why Mary was said to be so "full of grace."  What in the world does that mean?  Is she really FULL of grace?  I mean, I know she is pregnant with Jesus and he brought grace to the world through his death, so is that what that phrase means?  Some protestants would say this prayer is just one more way that Catholics overemphasize the importance of Mary by stuffing her full of undeserved grace and honor.   I wasn't sure. Fortunately, this past May, Minister Peter J. Gomes cleared this all up for me.

Gomes served as the minister at Harvard University's Memorial Church from 1974 until he passed away just a little over a year ago.  His sermon entitled "Hail Mary, Full of Grace" was a life changer for me. In fact, after I finished reading it in a small paperback collection of his sermons, I wrote "life changing" at the top of the page, I was so moved by it.  (You can get the book here:Sermons & Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living or check your local library. Or if you're my neighbor or friend, ask to borrow it!)

Gomes says in the opening words of his sermon:
"We children of the reformation simply do not know what to do with Mary."
I know I don't.  I know I can place her as the Mother of God, but other than that I have no idea of her significance.  I don't pray to her.  I don't think about her.  My mind goes straight to Jesus.  I think most protestants are like this.  We think of Mary as being special simply because she "happened" to be the Mother of Jesus, God's Son.  Could of been me, we think, if I had lived at that time.  Could have been anyone.  She's not sinless for goodness sake.  We don't need to hail her.  These are all typical sentiments thrown about by a lot of protestants who wish to "put Mary in her place" after they feel she has been far too esteemed by the Catholic church.  When I read Gomes sermon, I had a whole new appreciation for Mary and realized I had pushed her too far away from "Hail Mary" to "just the girl next door who finds favor."

Gomes explains Mary's "special-ness" like this:
Mary was not chosen by God because she was special.  She was special because she was chosen by God.
In fact, Mary can't believe God thinks she is special.  See Luke 1:38 where she calls herself "the handmaid of the Lord."  She may not think of herself as anything special, but God has plans.  He tells her these plans through the Holy Spirit and she accepts them. She was not expecting to be expecting.  She was not the Bethelehem "Virgin of the Year."  We really don't know much about her.  That is the point.  Her life turned special; it became extraordinary when she submitted it to God.  We know about her NOW because of what God did THEN - He used her to bring Jesus to the world.  Ah, correct me if I'm wrong, but that is pretty darn special.

Gomes goes on to use the example of Mary to question his audience.  Do we think God will only use the special, those with unique qualities?  Nope. God chooses who he chooses.  He can make great leaders out of the lowly.  God takes nobodies and makes them somebodies.  Not somebodies as in "sensational celebrities", but somebodies as in "amazing contributors to God's kingdom." He can do this with anyone, anytime.  He is God, after all.
"Any god can make good out of the exceptional and the extraordinary.  It is our God who makes something out of nothing, who takes nowhere and makes it somewhere, who takes nobody and makes them somebody."

So how is Mary FULL OF GRACE? 

Here is how Gomes beautifully defines it:
"To be full of grace is to be both disposed to the will of God and enabled to perform that will.  Such grace is never earned, never prepared for, it is always the gift - the unmerited and frequently unexpected gift--of God.  Hail Mary, gifted and enabled one."
And for those who find Mary's submissiveness to be so "old-school" so "anti-feminist" Gomes explains:
"Mary is no more submissive in the perjorative sense than it is for Bach to write the music he was given to write, for Rembrandt to paint with the gift that was given him or for Mother Teresa to do the work she was called to do...It was the triumph of the divine vocation within her, not submission and resignation but willingness to discover how God could and would her her life in fulfillment of the divine plan of which she was so vital a part."

Mary is full of grace because she knows her place in the universe.  She is full of grace because she serves God's purposes.  She heard and believed the wonderful gracious voice of God that said, "Mary, I have something special I need for you to do."  God works through her and does so powerfully. She literally becomes full of and bares God's grace!  She may not have thought SHE was special, but she knew God was.  Some of us write music. Some of us paint.  Some of us have a mind for math.  Some are extraordinarily patient.  God can use us all. When we submit our talents, treasure and time to him, he will use it all for His purposes -- no matter how insignificant we feel or ill-timed it seems.  HIS GRACE gives us our significance and makes the timing work out all right in the end. 

Gomes closing thought to his congregation is this:
"We dare not confine Mary to a passive role in the annual Christmas display...for in her call from God and her response to that call, she becomes the mother of not only Jesus, but of our vocation, of our calling as well..."

With that, Gomes really drives it home, doesn't he?  I can honestly say that this sermon made me cry. And remember, I was READING it! (It must have been amazing to hear it preached.) I was actually in a public park when I was reading this sermon so it was not a real convenient place to cry.  I had to use a dirty fast food napkin I had in an old book bag to control my tears, but I didn't care.  God's words were flowing through Gomes.  His preaching was an act of God's grace that was extended to me that day, just as Mary's birth of Christ was a gift that was extended to us all.  It was a truly beautiful spiritual moment in my life, that beautiful, warm sunny day in the park, when I realized that I too, could be full of grace, simply by submitting to God's will for my life.  Wow. 
Hail Mary,
Full of grace.
The Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women.
Blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

RIP Rev. Peter J. Gomes (1942-2011). See you in heaven my brother in Christ.
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