It feels odd not to be fasting on Great and Holy Friday. But, it's one of those once in a lifetime occurrences when the Feast of the Annunciation falls on this somber day. And in the Eastern Church, we don't move dates. So, tonight we commemorated both the beginning of God's finite form and its end with the only Divine Liturgy served on Holy Friday since 1931 as well as the traditional vespers service complete with procession and burial of Christ's icon shroud. The combined liturgies lasted for three hours. Ample time to contrast the joy of God becoming Immanuel -- God with us -- and the suffering such empathy entailed.
The Feast of the Annunciation is an important feast day that always breaks the fasting of Lent, and even though Holy Friday is usually one of few days of strict fasting in the Church calendar, we broke it to celebrate the wonderful news that Mary would carry the Son of God. For our particular parish, it's an even more special feast for it was on this feast day five years ago we first celebrated Divine Liturgy in our new church.
Growing up Evangelical Protestant, the idea that a feast day honoring Mary would be considered important enough to celebrate while commemorating the death of Christ was unimaginable. Mary was simply a footnote at Christmas. Someone forgotten about after the manger scene has been packed away along with the Santa ornaments.
Looking back, I can't help but feel it reflects a bit of misogyny. I do appreciate the argument that no one should take away the focus from Christ. Yet, no one seemed to be disturbed about using men from St. Paul to born again NFL players to demonstrate the glory of Christ.
And not that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches don't have histories of misogyny either where Mary becomes the proto-type for women being "saved through motherhood" as St. Paul suggests (or at least interpreted/translated as suggesting). But, it was radically different for me to have a woman held in such high esteem. A woman about whom whole liturgies are written and chanted, like the Akathist hymn chanted during Lent with its remarkable metaphors. Mary becomes the palace of God. The ark of the new covenant. The mercy seat. The heavenly bridge. The one carrying the earth's foundation. The living paradise in which is planted the Tree of Life. The Bride of God who carried the healer of the human race. The birthgiver of the world's salvation.
Indeed, men are left out of the process in which God becomes flesh. There is Mary, who does not become pregnant through a man, but is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, traditionally the feminine form of God. The only male involved is the fetal Christ.
Mary is the first Christian. The first to believe in Jesus, as we see in the wedding at Qana where she asks him to change water to wine. And from that miracle we learn, as my godfather often quotes his old Maronite priest, if you want to get Jesus to do something, get his mom to ask.
My Evangelical friends and relatives still adjusting to my Catholicism often ask me why we pray to Mary. I explain by first asking them a question: why do you ask someone to pray for you? At some point, St. James' admonition that the prayers of a righteous man availeth much comes up and I then ask why not ask someone close to Christ? And who closer than his mother?
And she's not just his mother. On this day, as he hung on the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his mother and said to John, "behold your mother." And to Mary he said, "woman, behold your son." He gave us Mary and gave Mary us. As I thought about this tonight while we sang "the spotless Virgin wept with maternal tenderness," I started to tear up. The same thing that happens whenever I sing the last line of the Paraklesis hymn -- "oh unexplainable wonder, how do you nurse the Master?" Mary becomes the nurturing mother who comforts us at her breast. Who bothers her Son on our behalf, just as she did for the wedding host in Qana all those years ago.
Yes, such boldness suggests that she was not a meek, passive woman. While she was willing to be used by God -- "behold the handmaid of the Lord; may it be to me as you have said" -- she must have had nerves of steel to allow herself to be impregnated without a husband. To withstand all the gossip. Maybe even trouble with the religious authorities. Or to raise the Son of God. I mean, what do you say when your son disappears for a couple of days and when you find him, he simply seems to shrug and say "well, don't you know I'd be in my father's house?" And certainly she doesn't mince words in the Magnificat about the relationship between the powerful and the poor that the one in her womb would seek to overturn. "He has shown might with is arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
Rich Mullins, my favorite singer and an Evangelical Protestant who was in the process of becoming Catholic when he died, once talked about how evangelicals always have this problem with Catholics revering Mary, but that perhaps the problem is that we don't revere each other enough. If Holy Friday shows us anything, whether we believe Jesus to be divine or not, it is that we most certainly do not revere each other enough.
So, maybe then a few Hail Marys would not a bad thing.