Scripture can be found here…
One day when I was about 10 years old, a question formed in my head as I was walking out of church. What’s the big deal about Mary?
Something was bothering me. Growing up Catholic, and attending St. James Parochial School in Ventnor, NJ, I had been learning all about Jesus in my religion classes. At the time of my First Communion, I had been taught the significance of the Lord’s Supper, which is understood somewhat differently in Protestant churches, but still, of course, it has Jesus as its center. Every year at Christmastime we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Jesus, as far as I was being taught, was the big deal.
And yet, on quiet afternoons at home, I often came upon my mom praying the rosary, a repetitive and meditative prayer sequence that reflects on Jesus’ life through the lens of his mother’s experiences. And that day, on my way out of church, I’d noticed again something I’d seen many times: several older women, praying the rosary in the last couple of rows at church. In fact, this time I’d noticed that they never stopped throughout the mass. That really bothered me.
I complained to my mom about it. Why would they be saying prayers that would distract them from what was going on in church? I couldn’t understand it. What was the big deal about Mary?
This morning Mary is at the center of a very important story that we tell and re-tell, year after year. Mary, a young woman whom everyone agrees is a virgin, is pregnant! Immediately before our passage begins, we find the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will give birth to a son, and that the child will be amazing—a really big deal!—and the fact of his miraculous beginnings is just the beginning. Gabriel says, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). The angel makes it clear: The Holy Spirit will overshadow Mary, and the child will be “holy; he will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Ten-year-old me would like to interject at this point: OK, I will stipulate to all of the above: Holy Spirit, Virgin birth, Son of God. But the point of it all is still Jesus. Right?
Now here’s something interesting: no sooner does Gabriel depart from her, than Mary hurries away, to visit her relative Elizabeth, who, Mary has learned, is also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. This is where our passage begins today—Mary takes off. This is no leisurely stroll to another neighborhood. The “hill country of Judea” describes an area southwest of Jerusalem, and Mary sets out from Nazareth. This means Mary will travel between 80 and 100 miles. If she’s been doing this on foot, Mary could cover about 20 miles a day, making it a journey of 4 to 5 days. If she joins with a caravan, she can travel it in about 3. Given the risks of the road, and the danger to a young woman traveling alone that never seems to change, it’s truly difficult to imagine such an undertaking. But travel she does, and when Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, and opens the door, the older woman cries out,
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy…” ~Luke 1:42-44
And Mary, who has been told to expect a miracle in the form of a baby, at last has a witness… a sister in miraculous doings, who not only is six months pregnant with John the Baptist, but is filled to overflowing with hope and joy.
We spent some time in our bible study last Monday, wondering about the part that comes next, the passage we all sang together this morning for our Psalter. The song, which is also a prayer, is called the Magnificat, for the first word as it’s found in Greek, which reads something like, “Magnifying the Lord, my soul is.” It’s an astonishing piece of literature. We have so little in scripture in the way of women’s words, not to mention women’s poetry. But it’s astonishing for another reason. Its theme is liberation. The first part is much as we might expect: a very young woman marveling that God has intervened so dramatically in her life. She sings,
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
you, the Mighty One, have done great things for me
and holy is your name.
You have mercy on those who fear you,
from generation to generation. ~ Luke 1:46b-50
But then the Magnificat becomes a bold, startling song of praise to God for accomplishing the liberation of people who have been oppressed.
You have shown strength with your arm,
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
to remember the promise of mercy,
the promise made to our forebears,
to Abraham and his children for ever. ~ Luke 1:51-55
By any reasonable assessment of the situation, Mary becoming pregnant by anyone except Joseph is a pretty big problem for her. In fact, the law says that she should be stoned, she and the father, for this violation of the contract between her and Joseph. Let’s assume Mary believes the angel’s words. Let’s assume that she believes she can convince Joseph of what the angel revealed to her. These things still don’t entirely account for the words in this song. Words of victory over an enemy. Words that describe a world that is about to turn, with the powerful crashing down, and the powerless being raised up. What is she talking about?
Our best archaeological and theological minds agree that Jesus was most likely born in the year 4 BCE. That was a pretty significant year for the Jewish people in many ways. That’s the year Herod the Great died. Herod and his family were despised because they were collaborators with the Roman Empire. They were instrumental in keeping the Jewish people oppressed, poor, and powerless. As news of Herod’s death spread throughout Roman-occupied Judea, it became clear that rebellion was in the air. One such rebellion took place in a city called Sepphoris.
A rebel named Judas formed a small army and attacked Sepphoris, probably because it was the administrative center of Galilee. Stealing weapons and money, he armed his followers and they mounted an uprising against the dead king’s family (Herod the Great had several sons waiting in the wings). According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the rebellion was put down with incredible ferocity. Roman legions from Syria burned Sepphoris to the ground. Those who failed to hide or flee “were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived… lost everything.”[i]
Sepphoris was less than four miles from Nazareth. Mary and Joseph must have known about, if not witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities committed against their people. According to theologian Dr. Niveen Sarras, “The Jews believed that the only way to overcome the imperial power of Rome was through God’s intervention. The narrative of the Annunciation and Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s greeting reflect God’s intervention to rescue Israel from Rome.”[ii]
So, when Mary heard from the angel that Jesus would be Son of God, she recognized that he could be powerful enough to topple the Roman Emperor, who also claimed that title, Son of God. When the angel told her Jesus would sit on David’s throne, Mary understood that her son could be the one to overthrow Herod’s dynasty. In the Magnificat, Mary, like a prophet, is talking about seeing things that haven’t happened yet, but which now are inevitable. Mary understands herself to be the mother, not just of a baby, but of a revolution.
And yet… Mary is still, at this moment in the story, a young woman, hardly older than a girl, and one whose situation is still precarious. Her faith in this future seems so outlandish, don’t you think? Her unquestioning belief in the future and angel has described to her is startlingly faithful! What is it about Mary that enables her to look to ahead with such certain hope? How is she able to anticipate all this without fear?
In some ways, Mary is a stand-in for everyone who has learned they will be a parent. There is fear, of course, but long before a baby’s kicking can be felt, long before the adopted baby is placed in their parents’ eager arms for the first time… the new parent already loves that child. The hymns and carols that have been sung throughout the ages testify to this love. A carol composed in the first half of the 15th century tells us, “There is no rose of such virtue/ as is the rose that bears Jesu.” A carol comparing Mary to a rose might seem, initially, to be emphasizing beauty, or delicacy. Perhaps it is about her goodness or purity. But in medieval English, the word virtue actually means much more than that. It means “the quickening power of a flower or root; the life-sustaining force within a plant; the vegetative power of nature, divine power, divine might, and moral excellence, goodness.”[iii] The word virtue explains a kind of power is at work in Mary. Of course, we can assume it’s the power of the Hoy Spirit. I also believe it is the power of love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18).
These days I think about those women in the back pews of my childhood church very differently. I think about them finding in Mary a connection with a kind of hope they have not been able to find in their own lives, but which maybe, just maybe, still exists, because Mary is its witness.
One poet/ theologian writes:
A seed in the ground. A flame in the darkness. A hand outstretched. A child in the womb. Hope starts small and overtakes us, stretching the borders of what we have known.
One “yes” to an angel, and Mary becomes a revolutionary… Elizabeth blesses Mary for her hope, for her radical belief that God will fulfill the promise made by Gabriel. Elizabeth, pregnant in her advanced years, knows the power of hope. She, too, carries it in her womb.
Her ears ringing with Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary pours out a song, a cry of hope… The powerful brought down from their thrones! The lowly raised up! The hungry filled with good things! The rich sent away empty! But Mary sings about these things as though they have already happened! A child in her womb, and God has transformed the world? What sort of outrageous hope is this?
Mary knows, in her soul… that radical hope is found at the boundary where the outrageous gives way to the possible. A child given to her aged kinswoman? The courage to say yes to Gabriel’s invitation to her, an unwed woman? Well, then, God might as well have turned the world into one where all things are possible! Even justice. Even freedom. [iv]
The big deal about Mary is that she lives in a world in which she is supposed to have almost no agency, no power, but in which she is open to the limitless power that comes from opening herself to God. The big deal about Mary is that she says “yes” to God, and that yes teaches us how to hope in the unforeseeable and almost unbelievable. The big deal about Mary is that she shows us how to welcome God’s outrageous new life without fear, but with love, and that is, indeed, a very, very big deal. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2009),110.
[ii] Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45, (46-55), December 23, 2018,” WorkingPreacher.com.
[iii] A Clerk of Oxford, “Two Carols About Roses,” https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2012/12/two-carols-about-roses.html.
[iv] Jan Richardson, Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas (Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, 1998), 56-57.