Mary and Elizabeth
I finally got around to putting out my Nativity set this year. As I place each of the characters in the arrangement, I try to think about their role and how they got there . Because, of course, no one in this story knew what they were getting into at first. Each person was given a message about what God asking them to do. Joseph’s comes in a dream. The shepherds get a sky full of angels singing. The wise men (who come later) follow a star.
And then there’s Mary. Today we focus on her story. Her story – or at least the part we hear in the Bible – begins when the angel Gabriel shows up on her doorstep with some startling news. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…”
That news was surprising enough. She wasn’t yet married. To be pregnant without being married could get her killed. It would almost certainly make her an object of scorn. If Joseph abandons her, she will be without the protection and provision that marriage offered in the ancient world.
And this baby wouldn’t be just any baby. This baby is the Son of God, the Son of the Most High, the one who will inherit the throne of David.
Usually in the Bible when God asks people to do incredible things, the first thing we hear are a bunch of excuses. Moses says, “Who’s going to believe that I’m a leader? Besides, I don’t do public speaking very well. You’d better pick somebody else.” The prophet Jeremiah says, “I’m just a kid. I’m too young for this.” Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh, where God is sending him, that he tries to run away from God by hopping on a boat. And that lands him in the belly of a fish.
Mary simply asks a question: How can this be? A completely valid question, given the circumstances. And upon hearing that nothing is impossible with God, she answers: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Here am I. I’ll do it. Whatever the consequences, I’ll do it.
Mary says yes to this extraordinary plan, which is one of many reasons I get so frustrated when the stereotypes of Mary across the centuries have depicted her as meek and mild, subservient to the point of having no identity of her own. That’s not what I see here. I see a young woman saying yes to the call of God with a courage beyond what most of us possess.
The biblical Mary is not meek or mild. It doesn’t take long for her to find her voice as a prophet. Mary travels to be with her relative Elizabeth, for whom God was also doing some impossible things, and Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s courage when she says: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary responds with the speech that has come to be known as the Magnificat. It’s the longest speech that we hear from any woman in the New Testament. In it Mary speaks of the ways that God has given mercy to God’s people generation after generation. She proclaims how God turns the world upside down, bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Filling the hungry with good things. Sending the rich away empty.
This speech by Mary has in certain times and places been considered so dangerous that powerful people have forbidden it.[i] When the British ruled India, the Magnificat was prohibited from being sung in churches. During the “Dirty War” in Argentina, when the mothers of disappeared children used the words of the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital, the military banned public displays of the song. The powerful people didn’t want folks to hear that God is always on the side of the oppressed.
Long before Jesus will flip the script in the Beatitudes by saying: Blessed are the poor…Blessed are the hungry…Mary says it first: “God has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”
One of our choir’s favorite anthems at this time of year is “Mary, Did You Know?” It’s a beautiful piece, but like clockwork, each December there emerges in theological circles a controversy about the lyrics to “Mary, Did You Know?” As you may recall, the song asks Mary questions about whether she knew all that Jesus would grow up to do and to be, as in this opening verse:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you
On one side of the debate people say, “Well, of course she knew. And it’s insulting and condescending to ask Mary these questions as if she had no idea what she was getting into or who Jesus would become. The angel tells her who her child will be. How could she not know?”
And then others will argue that while Mary agrees to be the mother of Jesus, she couldn’t possibly have known all that she would witness in the life of her son – the ways he would walk on water and heal a blind man and die for the sake of the world. Does any mother know at the beginning everything her child will do? No. So the questions in the song seem authentic.
The truth is we don’t know for sure what Mary knew. The biblical account only tells us what she said. She said yes. She said yes, not only to being the mother of Jesus, but also to being a participant in God’s cosmic plan for justice.
God invites us to participate in that story as well. I pray that we, like Mary, will say yes. Yes to the gift of Jesus. Yes to the unexpected places to which God summons us. Yes to lifting up the lowly and feeding the hungry.
I pray that we will not just say yes, but that we will sing it. Trusting that nothing will be impossible with God. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ