SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV'D DAPHNE B. NOYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
AUGUST 14, 2011, EVE OF THE FEAST OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY

I’d like to tell you about a hospital volunteer who serves as an “extraordinary minister of the eucharist,” a laywoman who faithfully brings the sacrament to Roman Catholic patients. Anna, as I shall call her, is truly a God-bearer.  She’s nearly 90 years old, maybe four feet tall, with an impish smile. She has been engaged in this ministry for about three decades – and recently cut back to three days a week from four. She has endured falls, problems with her vision, hospitalizations, and many of the other health issues that come with age — not to mention concern from family members who feel it’s time for her to retire from this ministry. Yet this God-bearer regularly slips on her pink volunteer jacket and name tag, puts her pyx in her pocket, and sets off through the gleaming halls of isolation, fear, and suffering to bring connection, comfort, and hope to patients who cannot help but struggle with their mortality. She offers far more than a consecrated host: she offers prayer, presence, and an inner strength and peace that many half her age envy.

I cannot help but think of Anna when I think of Mary. I know very little about Anna’s personal life. Likewise, the gospels reveal only scattered glimpses of Mary’s life. Yet Mary has become the source of connection, comfort, and hope to countless Christians throughout the ages.

Mary has inspired some of the most beautiful iconography, classic works of art, and stirring music. She is a woman of all times, and all places. Her image dangles from necklaces and rear-view mirrors, guards many an infant’s crib, and stands regally in the light of votive candles in many a church. Visions of Mary have appeared on a grilled cheese sandwich, a pretzel, a stone, a pancake, and an office building, among others. In the 20th century alone more than 300 sightings were reported.

The richness of Marian devotion includes the belief that she did not die, but rather fell asleep[1] and was assumed into Heaven, the feast we anticipate today. Of all the titles given Mary, one of the oldest is Our Lady, Help of Christians, first used by John Chrysostom in 345. As the saying goes, “If you can’t get Jesus’ attention, talk to his mother.”

We who have been redeemed by Christ, and are now his “eyes and hands,”[2] also need the assistance of his mother, who models for us the act of bringing Christ into the world. “Let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary…”[3]

What are the attributes of Mary that we can adopt to follow her example of giving life and succour to her son?

First, Listen. As a devout Jew, Mary would have twice daily recited the words of the Shema[4], the defining prayer of Israel drawn from Deuteronomy: Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. (“Listen, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and its twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment). It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night. So when approached by the angel Gabriel, what could Mary do but listen? How could she respond other than, “Be it unto me according to thy word”?

Second, Mary knows human suffering, having lived out the prophecy that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” Throughout her life, there were many occasions when she was in danger of being an outcast from society: Her pregnancy before marriage. The accusations that her son was an insurgent – “Are you the King of the Jews?”; the accusations that he was insane. Mark writes after the appointment of the twelve apostles, Jesus “went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”[5]

We may assume that Mary became a widow, having married an older man, and given that references to Joseph are not found in descriptions of Jesus’ adult life and ministry.  She must have known of the beheading of his cousin, John – a violent death in the family. Mary witnessed the death of her child – an unthinkable, heartbreaking, against-the-laws-of-nature event under any circumstances; in this case, agonizing, shameful, and public: the ultimate sorrow.

Third, ministry. At the crucifixion, Jesus entrusts Mary’s care to one of his disciples, as he utters the words that bind his survivors together: “Woman, here is your son” and to the disciple, “’Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”[6] The final reference to Mary in scripture places her and other “certain women” in the upper room with the apostles, where they  “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer…”[7]

There’s another aspect of Mary that appears to fill a fundamental human desire – the desire for balance and symmetry: “Male and female he created them.”[8] One commentator writes, “the adoration of a female figure is a vital psychological supplement to [many devotees] faith.”[9]

A vital psychological supplement? More than that, I believe. A vital theological presence; a necessary affirmation that woman and man both are created in God’s image, and are equally beloved of God.

Think of Mary, saved from being stoned to death for pregnancy outside wedlock by the fact that Joseph was an “honorable man.” In the United States, the number of women in prison has increased by over 800 percent in the last three decades. There are now more women behind bars than at any other point in history. Of the 40,000 women incarcerated each year, 5 percent arrive pregnant. The majority of state prisons fail to provide adequate prenatal care. Thirty-six states do not limit the use of restraints, including leg irons or waist chains, on pregnant women, even during childbirth. Thirty-eight states do not offer any prison nursery programs. Of the 13 that do offer such programs, only two allow children to stay past the age of 2 years.[10]  What happens to these children?

Think of Mary and Joseph, seeing all the children ages 2 and under in and around Bethlehem killed, and heeding the angel’s warning to flee for their lives.[11] On any given night, approximately 750,000 men, women, and children are homeless in the US.[12] Over the course of a year, between 2.5 and 3.5 million people will live either on the streets or in an emergency shelter.[13]

Think of Mary, the young mother. She calls us to educate and guide the young women age 15 to 19 who in 2009 gave birth to nearly 410,000 babies.[14]

Think of Mary, as she and Joseph desperately search for their missing young son. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 797,500 children younger than 18 were reported missing in a one-year period -- an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.[15] Mary, the anxious and loving mother, calls us to do everything in our power to ensure the safety and security of society’s most vulnerable citizens.

Think of Mary, the widow. Women the age of Anna, the Eucharistic minister, outnumber men nearly three to one. Women aged 65 and older are four times more likely to be widowed than their male counterparts.[16] Elderly widows are three times as likely to live in poverty as older married people.[17] Mary, the widow, calls us to enter into the homes and institutional rooms of widows, bringing the power of connection, comfort, and hope.

Think of Mary, entrusted to the disciples by her Son. More than half the 37 million Americans living in poverty today are women. Elderly women are far more likely to be poor than elderly men. Thirteen percent of women over 75 years old are poor, compared to 6 percent of men.[18] Mary calls us to bring comfort, compassion, and hope to those who know only hunger, want, and loneliness.

Mary carried the seed of God inside herself and brought the Word into the world. Her son’s body was washed first by the waters of her womb; last, by the water of her tears. She nurtured him and taught him to listen and to pray. She accompanied Jesus along the paths of this desperate world and into his dangerous ministry.

She asks us to do the same. And so we pray:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among 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.


[1] Hence, the Feast of the Dormition

[2] Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

[3] Hymn 475

[4] Deut 6:4

[5] Mk 3:21

[6] Jn 19:25b-27

[7] Acts 1:13-14

[8] Gn 5:2

[9] Valerie Abrahamsen, in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p 500

[10] http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/mothersbehindbars2010.pdf

[11] Mt 2:16-21

[12] Cunningham, Mary and Meghan Henry. 2007. Homelessness Counts. Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness.

[13] Homelessness in the United States of America. Prepared by the National Alliance to End Homelessness

[14] http://www.cdc.gov/TeenPregnancy/AboutTeenPreg.htm

[15] Andrea J. Sedlak, David Finkelhor, Heather Hammer, and Dana J. Schultz. U.S. Department of Justice. "National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview" in National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, October 2002, page 5.

[16] Women and Men in the United States: Population Characteristics, issued March 2003; US Census Bureau

[17] McGarry, Kathleen, UCLA, and Robert F. Schoeni, University of Michigan: Widow Poverty and Out-of-Pocket Medical Expenditures at the End of Life, 2001. “On average, out-of-pocket medical expenditures in the final two years of life are equal to 30 percent of the couple’s annual income. For couples in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, these expenditures are 70 percent of their income…the purchase of healthcare services for a dying spouse does drive some surviving spouses into poverty.”

[18] Alexandra Cawthorne: The Straight Facts on Women in Poverty. Center for American Progress, October 2008.