If you walk into my office you’ll notice two things right off the bat.
First, it looks like a child has been in there. And they have. There are toys and tchotchkes all over the shelves. I’m often looking for something to occupy little hands while I try to work.
The second thing you’ll probably notice is my (growing) wall of icons. I know, I know, there’s a nasty little rumor being spread around Christianity (for at least the last 500 years) that suggests that Lutherans aren’t supposed to like icons. That they are idols. We don’t pray to saints after all, so why would we keep these pictures of them with little halos around?
Sometimes it feels like Protestants have an allergic reaction to icons. I even hear some people say, “That’s too Catholic…”
If we’ve had a bad experience in churches that displayed icons, I can certainly see the hesitation to have them around. In a similar way, I’ve had less than stellar experiences in churches with stages and bands, and have a generally negative reaction when I walk into a church and don’t see the things I associate with worship: a cross, an altar, a pulpit, paraments, etc.
But let me make the case for icons for a second, especially icons of Mary, because I think there’s some value to be found here for Lutherans.
We forget that Martin Luther was Catholic. He may have been excommunicated, but he was born and raised a Catholic, and he died trying to be a good Catholic (despite Rome’s best efforts).
And while he was willing to dispense of much of Catholic dogma and doctrine (justifiably, in my opinion), he kept Mary close to his heart. As he once wrote, she was “the Apostle to the Apostles.” He didn’t pray to Mary, as he was convinced that any of the faithful could approach Christ without an intermediary. But he lifted up her life as exemplary. He saw her as living a life that was intent on following God’s call, especially when doing so became uncomfortable, unpopular, and even dangerous.
My own interest in the figure of Mary has less to do with her saying yes to God, and more to the way she has said yes to other peoples and cultures over the ages. When her likeness appeared in Guadalupe to Juan Diego as a symbol that God stands with the indigenous marginalized in Mexico, hope was given to a people who desperately desired a sign that God was with them. I’m not saying whether this vision was reality or imagination, I’m just saying that whatever happened there has had a profound, and positive, impact on generations of Christians, and it seems like there was something about the historical person of Mary that made her the best conduit of that grace.
Mary’s song, The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), has become the song of liberation for oppressed people all over the world. When it is sung by people on the margins, her claim that “God has lifted up the lowly” becomes true in that very moment as the voices of those the world considers “lowly” are lifted up loudly in song. There’s something about a poor peasant girl being chosen by God to carry God into the world that just resonates with people on the margins. It encourages us to see God’s vessel as being anyone, anywhere. This truly lifts up the eyes of the lowly, to see new possibility, and casts down the eyes of the lofty, to look for God in those they would otherwise miss.
And she is a model of both staunch faith and crippling doubt. Throughout the scriptures she both has confidence in Jesus’ abilities (John 2:1-11) and questions if Jesus’ ministry is doing any good at all (Mark 3:20-35). Honest Christians vacillate between these two poles, sometimes all within twenty-four hours. There’s something about having that example of faith that can get you through the dark night of the soul…
Even in her struggle to make sense of it all, she continued to follow the Christ to the cross and then to the empty tomb. Can we, even as our faith wavers? Mary’s example says we can, and that there is blessing on the other side of the tomb.
This is one of the reasons I’m a big advocate for marking Mary’s feast day in the Lutheran church calendar (August 15th). She’s a great example for the Christian life: of saying yes to God’s call, of speaking across the barriers that divide us, of giving witness to how God is continually lifting up the lowly over and against the powerful, and of showing how faith and doubt can hold hands in this world.
Christmas in August, as we’ve come to call it here, is a really neat day. Not just because I love Christmas, but also because I love the Divine yes that both Christmas, and Mary’s witness, shows to our world.
Icons, at their best, remind us of the faithful example of the dead.
So bake your Christmas cookies (and share your recipes!), and bring in those school material gifts for the children of Raleigh this Sunday. There’s no need for St. Nick, we have another saint (and more importantly, Jesus) to be our guide.
Some may argue that she’s just like all the other saints, but I still think there’s something about Mary.