Luke 1:26-38 (and 39-56) Who is Mary to us?

A reflection by Dan Spragg

Different streams of Christianity make different things of Mary. In the Catholic church, she is Holy. Mary the mother of God. An intermediary between us and God. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…” The tradition I grew up in didn’t make much of Mary. Probably, I suspect, in rejecting the Catholic extreme most protestant traditions have probably thrown ‘the mother of the baby out with the bathwater.’ Mary these days is gaining more attention. She is often seen as a symbol of feminine value and power in many parts of our world and society where women are still overlooked and ignored. Mary birthing Jesus highlights the humanness of the situation and the power of women to hear the voice of God and to do the hard work of bringing Christ into the world – literally in Mary’s case and metaphorically for all women everywhere. After all, had it not been for Mary, would we have the name and face of God in the world that we have come to know? And so, isn’t this the task of all of us? We are to do the work of making Christ visible in the world? It is work for all of us and the perspectives and capabilities of women, who have often been sidelined, is a gift to us. Here’s a piece that was written to grab hold of the grittiness of the situation and to give voice to women who struggle to be seen and heard especially in some churches. We would hope in our community that it is less of an issue but for many, it sadly isn’t.

”sometimes I wonder

if Mary breastfed Jesus.

if she cried out when he bit her

or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder

if this is all too vulgar

to ask in a church

full of men

without milk stains on their shirts

or coconut oil on their breasts

preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,

birthing Jesus,

the expulsion of blood

and smell of sweat,

the salt of a mother’s tears

onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,

feeling lonely

and tired

hungry

annoyed

overwhelmed

loving

and i think,

if the vulgarity of birth is not

honestly preached

by men who carry power but not burden,

who carry privilege but not labor,

who carry authority but not submission,

then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God

lies in the cracked nipples of a

14 year old

and not in the sermons of ministers

who say women

are too delicate

to lead.”

A poem by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, https://www.facebook.com/kaitlinhardyshetler/posts/215504116651151

Our reading today was the story of Mary having an unusual conversation with an Angel with some significant news. Shortly after this Mary heads off to see Elizabeth who senses that something important is going on. It is in this scene that Mary shares her praise for God, the ‘song of Mary’, ‘Mary’s Magnificat’ as it has become to be known. In this she shares who she understands her child to be. ‘And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for God has looked with favour on the lowliness of the Almighty’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’ (Luke 46-56) Here’s what one author has written about this: “The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation whose political, economic, and social dimensions cannot be blunted. People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded: all are encompassed in the hope Mary proclaims.”

(Sister Elizabeth Johnson, 2012. I found this here – Mary’s Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55 | Kairos )

There is power in Mary’s understanding.

“The Magnificat was banned [from] being sung or read in India under British rule. In the 1980s, it was banned in Guatemala. In addition, after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo—whose children all disappeared during the Dirty War (1976-1983)—placed the Magnificat’s words on posters throughout the capital plaza, the military junta of Argentina outlawed any public display of Mary’s song.”

( The Subversive Magnificat: Mary’s Expectations Of The Messiah )

Under the weight of this power, under the weight of what she understood, Mary sings her praise, courageously in the face of an unknown and frightening situation.

A famous song asks the question, ‘Mary did you know?’ 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? Mary, did you know? Oh I think you did, I think she did know… Here are some Beautiful alternative words to “Mary, did you know…”

Mary did you know,

that your ancient words

would still leap off our pages?

Mary did you know,

that your spirit song

would echo through the ages?

Did you know that your holy cry

would be subversive word,

that the tyrants would be trembling

when they know your truth is heard?

Mary did you know,

that your lullaby

would stir your own Child’s passion?

Mary did you know,

that your song inspires

the work of liberation?

Did you know that your Jubilee

is hope within the heart

of all who dream of justice,

who yearn for it to start?

The truth will teach, the drum will sound, healing for the pain

The poor will rise, the rich will fall. Hope will live again

Mary did you know,

that we hear your voice

for the healing of the nations?

Mary did you know,

your unsettling cry

can help renew creation?

Do you know, that we need your faith,

the confidence of you,

May the God that you believe in,

be so true.

(Lyrics by Jennifer Henry (inspired by the popular song of the same name))

What is in this for us? We, after all, are a good bunch of privileged middle class people who would be quick to say that we do look out for those in need, that we do honour the voices, encourage the leadership and willingly follow women in our midst. It is easy for us to sit here and not feel the weight of oppression, to not be under the threat of being silenced. Of course it is exactly from our position of privilege that we have a duty to those who are less fortunate, and of course from this place of privilege we have to ask what we are not seeing? So, what is in Mary’s story for us? My absolute favourite part of Mary’s encounter with the angel is the line: “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Followed by Mary’s response near the end. “Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” I love the sense of curiosity –  the indication that she was open to this mysterious occurrence. I love the sense of her stepping into what was ahead. I love the trust that she has. I wonder how many of us would react the same way?

The season of Advent encourages us to remember that the presence of God is with us. And it encourages us to be expectant for Christ to come again… and I would add, to come again, and again, and again, and always… Speaking for myself I know that I more often than not take a long time to be present to God’s activity. How often do we simply not notice God’s presence? What can we learn from Mary? Mary was awake enough to notice God’s activity. Yes, I know an angel coming seems quite dramatic – how could one not notice? But maybe we are in the presence of “angels” more than we know. Are we expectant for Christ to become visible? Again, and again, and again? Are we willing to step into whatever the invitation that comes with that is? Do we trust in the activity of God? That as we take notice and step in to become partners in the work with Christ, do we trust in the hope, the peace, the joy, the love that this is a part of? Mary in fact teaches us an example of what it means to live as Christian people. To live expectantly in this beautiful, amazing, yet broken world that God will come and that as we live in God’s way, liberation and healing will be made known.

Mary, did you know? Yes, she did. The question is, do we?