Scripture: Luke 1:39-57
When you think of Mary the Mother of Jesus, what is the first word that comes to your mind. I’ll bet that many of you the word was “virgin.” As Protestants we do not speak much of Mary, we feel awkward with all this blessed virgin language and she can seem lost to us in the mythology of the perpetual virgin who has given birth. For some this is essential article of faith, proving that Christ is truly the Son of God. For others, it sounds absurd and archaic, or even a patriarchal plot to keep women subservient.
Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor said, how we talk about the Virgin Birth limits our understanding of Mary role and importance. Taylor writes, “Mary is the perpetual virgin. How absurd. The Holy Spirit enters Mary, apparently through her ear, Jesus is born without any screams of agony, utters not a cry, wails not a tear. Mary’s anatomy is not altered in the slightest by giving birth, she stays a size 3. And her marriage to Joseph remains chaste. These assertions do not bring much honor to the labor of mothers and wives, nor does it make Christianity any easier for the 21st century seeker to believe.”
If our focus is on the question of a biological miracle, we might miss what is really important in the Gospels. How the egg was fertilized in Mary’s womb is really none of my business. If a woman is pregnant, I don’t ask who the father is. If she says she became pregnant through in-vitro fertilization, I don’t ask for details of the process. I’m just happy for them. Let’s show Mary some respect. Where does this theology come from? It is possible something was lost in the translation in Isaiah 11 from Hebrew into the Greek Septuagint, where “virgin” merely meant young woman. It’s also possible Matthew and Luke believed this to be true, much like Greek and Roman myths of the gods consorting with humans, and our biological questions never occurred to them.
Not every Gospel even talks about the birth of Jesus. Mark starts with Jesus as an adult, being baptized by John. John’s Gospel starts at the beginning of time itself, “in the beginning was the Word,” then moves straight to John the Baptist as well. It is the mission and ministry of Jesus, and his impact on the world that matters most to them. We can be faithful to this text without being literal about it. If we want a theological debate, let’s make sure we get who Jesus is. And you know who has perspective on Jesus-Mary, his mother! What did she think of all this? We get a glimpse in the song she sings in Luke, the Magnificat. I propose a different role for Mary. She is a prophet, a young woman of strong opinions, great hopes, who believes God will act in the world for good, and will change things through the son in her womb.
Our Christmas pageants often do a disservice to Mary. (And I love Christmas pageants, and we work at making ours inclusive in many ways. We are careful to not to put a lily-white, blond-haired baby Jesus doll in the manger; and I think one year, Ann and Donna were Mary and Joseph.) But we should probably add the Magnificat, and make Mary a speaking part. In the Washington Post this week, a writer described her childhood experience of being Mary, at age 15, with a pillow stuffed under her dress to look pregnant, silently marching around while others had all the speaking parts. The message to her was that Mary was merely the obedient vehicle Jesus’s birth, and nothing else.
That is close to how Matthew’s Gospel tells her story. Joseph is the primary actor, his dreams drive all the action, and Mary never says a word in the whole Gospel. Luke’s version is very different. For one thing, women are everywhere. Not only does an angel visit Mary and tell her she will give birth to the messiah, an angel also visits Elizabeth to tell her she will give birth to John the Baptist. Then the two of them meet and rejoice and spend three months of their pregnancy together.
When the angel first speaks to Mary, the story follows a similar pattern to the calling of all the great leaders of the Old Testament. First, there is a voice that calls her at an unexpected time and place. She is startled, just as Moses was at the burning bush, like Samuel, or Isaiah suddenly hearing God. She is then told her vocation, to be mother to the Messiah. She asks a question, like every prophet asks one question to understand their role. “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She receives an answer, and finally adopts God’s vision as her own, saying, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” She is given the dignity of a true calling from God, then has the chance to speak. The Magnificat is the longest speech by a woman in the entire Bible:
“God has shown the strength in his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the poor with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
We see this in Jesus life. The Magnificat echoes throughout his ministry in Luke’s Gospel. Remember the woman caught in adultery, judged for being pregnant outside the bounds of custom? Surely Jesus was informed by his mother’s experience of unusual pregnancy. When he said it is harder for a camel through eye of a needle, than a rich man to enter heaven-sound like the Magnificat. Mary did more than changed his diapers and nursed him from her breast. She was also his teacher, and she likely taught him with the values of the Magnificat. Wasn’t God working through her, guiding his whole life. Maybe God chose someone like Mary for a reason-because she wasn’t docile, and she didn’t teach her son Jesus to go along to get along, or curry favor with the rich and powerful.
No wonder the Magnificat is not playing at the Mall, and may not even make it into our Advent liturgies. She is a trouble maker. If you do a search on Spotify for the Magnificat, the most popular version is by an acapella group called Zoe. They do a beautiful four-part round, focusing on the phrase, “My soul magnifies the Lord” and “God has done might deeds.” But never once do they say, “For God has filled the poor with good things and sent the rich away empty. God has lifted up the lowly and throne the mighty down from their thrones.” Apparently, the real Mary is a little too edgy for Christmas.
You know who really gets understands the power of the Magnificat? The rich and powerful totally get it. During British colonial rule of India, the Magnificat was banned. The British East India company prohibited the recitation during evensong in Advent in Anglican churches. On the final day of British rule over India, as English flags were lowered in unison, Gandhi asked that the Magnificat be recited at each site as the flags came down. In Argentina, the mothers of people who disappeared, whose family members were secretly tortured and murdered, organized protests at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with the Magnificat written on their protest signs. The military junta banned the Magnificat. https://www.stmarysforpeace.org/blog/2017/4/9/a-song-for-change
It’s a song for change. I spent an hour all over Youtube looking for a version of the Magnificat that bring the words to life. There is Bach’s great oratorio, its very grand, but not really edgy or socially engaged. It should feel more like “We shall overcome.” Its like Dillon singing, “Times they are a changing” or Helen Reddy singing “I am Woman hear me roar.” Maybe the Neild sisters could write something that would fit.
We often hear about putting Christ back into Christmas, and not let the holiday be too cutesy. But perhaps we really need is to put Mary back into Christmas. After all, she is doing all the hard work. Jesus will get his time. She has much to tell us about how to celebrate Christmas, more to offer than an example of being a good, nurturing mother and obedient to God. Her witness isn’t simply to be more kind, generous and thoughtful in the new year. Mary embodies hope, real hope, the birth of something new, that through the kicks in her womb, and the labor pains, blood and sweat, life and hope emerge. Much is wrong in the world, I don’t need to give you a laundry list. You know! Mary is our witness that God loves not only our souls but the world we live in, and desires justice, dignity, shalom, the place where justice and peace kiss.
Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, wrote:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself. And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us. (Meditation with Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, pp.74, 81.)