Sermon: Women of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures: Mary, Mother of Jesus

2017 December 10
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

When it comes to Mary’s attention that she’s supposed to get pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that her future son is going to retake the throne on behalf of the Hebrew people, she has a number of options. One option, given that she’s a Jewish peasant living in a tiny, dirt-poor town in an occupied territory and she has never had sex, is to say to the angel Gabriel what Ebenezer Scrooge said to the ghost of Jacob Marley: “You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blob of mustard, a crumb of cheese. There’s more gravy than of grave about you.

 

Another option is just to be terrified – so terrified that maybe she would try to end this pregnancy that’s unplanned (at least by her) and will seem very suspicious to her fiancé. Yet another option would be to say, “Whatever.” Accept it passively but shrug off the prophecy about who her son will be.

 

This is the third in a sermon series I’m doing this year on women of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Here we see a key moment in the Christian tradition when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Mary has a vision or a visitation. She could have not believed it, she could have believed it but not accepted it, she could have believed it and accepted it but not let in the significance of Gabriel’s message. But none of these reactions is hers. Instead, she owns it.

 

At the end of the exchange with Gabriel, she says, “Here am I, the servant of God. Let it be with me according to your word.” She agrees right away. And this way of saying it, “Here am I,” echoes the language of the major Biblical protagonists like Abraham. When God calls them by name, they answer, “hineni” – here am I – meaning, yes, I’m showing up. I’m all in. I’m ready for whatever you’re calling me to do.

 

How often do we, when life calls us to do something important, when something unexpected shows up at our door, an opportunity comes up to serve in a big way that will mean a big change in our lives, how often do we immediately say yes, here am I, I’m ready, I’m in? Mary’s reaction provides a model for a kind of faith in the flow of life that leads to decisiveness.

 

Not only is she all in, Mary seems exhilarated. She’s full of radical fervor. She goes to her friend Elizabeth’s house and tells her the news, not like “OMG I’m having a baby and guess who the father is,” but in a long, prophetic, political interpretation of what’s going on. I won’t read the whole thing here, but here’s a piece of what she says, from the book of Luke:

 

The Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name…He has shown strength with 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 hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

This is prophetic language.

 

Now Mary is not labelled as a prophet in the Scripture, but all the clues are there in the text to indicate that that’s exactly how she’s understood. When the angel Gabriel first approaches her, he says, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” Then it says, “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The reason she’s perplexed is that the sort of greeting that this is is the sort of greeting God gives to prophets and to male protagonists like Abraham. It’s always some version of, “you’ve found favor with God; God is with you.” And now God is relaying this message to Mary, a woman.

 

So as a Jew who is obviously familiar with this tradition, Mary has a template in her head for what it means when an angel greets you like this. She recognizes this kind of mystical encounter and she paints herself into that narrative. This itself is a powerful move that requires belief in herself because women are not usually the “favored ones” of these stories.

 

But Mary takes it even a step further. She takes this encounter with Gabriel, this imprimatur from God, as a license to proclaim her own prophecy. Mary is sure that the fact that God tapped her and her son, poor villagers, nobodies from the middle of nowhere, means that God is going to overturn the entire social and political order. And she speaks as if that future had already arrived. She speaks in past tense of the miracles God will perform as if they had already happened. She is willing into being the time when her people will rise up against the oppression of the Roman empire and prevail. She speaks as a prophet who is birthing the revolution.

 

All Gabriel says to her about what’s going to happen with her future son is, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” But Mary takes that piece of information and goes on this whole interpretive adventure with it. She sees in his words class warfare, the overthrow of the proud and arrogant, the victory of the little guy, the abolition of poverty, and the righting of social wrongs. She says, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly;he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.

 

Where does she get all this stuff? Is this divine inspiration? Maybe. But she also gets it, again, from her tradition. In the book of Samuel, which is part of the Hebrew Bible, there’s a story of a woman named Channa, who is barren and prays to God for a child (you’ve probably noticed that fertility and infertility is a theme in these stories). When God answers her prayers and gives her a son, she gives her son over to the service of God, and speaks a long, interpretive poem. Here’s part of it – it may sound familiar:

 

There is no Holy One like the Lord,no one besides you;there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly,let not arrogance come from your mouth… The bows of the mighty are broken,but the feeble gird on strength.Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”

 

So again here, Mary’s faith is grounded in a template of prophecy from her tradition and she interprets the workings of God politically as the force of a revolution. In both of these poems, God inverts the economic and social order. The powerful are brought down, the powerless rise up; the rich become working class and hire themselves out for food, the poor are well fed. So Mary is drawing from the deep well of her tradition, entering herself into the stream of Jewish prophecy, and specifically Jewish women’s prophecy. With this consciousness, not only does she envision that through her child, her people will overthrow their Roman oppressors, but that the entire economic structure will be overturned.

 

It would not be too great a leap, in my opinion, to imagine that Mary passes this all on to her son – the class consciousness, the radical politics, the faith that God will work through the powerless to perform miracles. It would not be too great a leap to imagine that she helps him find his own prophetic voice and raises him to be exactly the kind of revolutionary that he turns out to be. Jesus was the original red diaper baby.So later in his life when Jesus says things like, “the meek shall inherit the earth” and “you cannot serve both God and money” and “it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and people are asking, “Who is this guy? Where did he get all this stuff?” You know what? He got it from his mother!

 

Now conservative Christianity and the secular Christmas industry has literally whitewashed all of this. Mary and Jesus were poor Semitic people resisting their wealthy European occupiers. But in the received tradition, Mary is so often painted as mild and pale, docile and gentle, maternal and feminine. We celebrate her in the Christmas story through saccharine nativity scenes but she barely makes a cameo in the major Christmas carols. She’s painted as being utterly devoted to her son in the way that mothers are devoted to their children, but not, as she probably was, like the corner man in a boxing match. Mary’s words are ignored and she is told, like so many women today are told, you’re just a womb. You’re just the FedEx delivery system for a really important package.

 

Women are still fighting today to be seen as more than just a womb. From the battlegrounds over reproductive rights to the #metoo movement to the fight for greater representation in politics and business, women are fighting to be seen as leaders and prophets in our traditions. For women of color, it’s exponentially harder. And ironically, those who are the greatest proponents of national “Merry Christmas” and national Christmas trees, are often the ones most invested in keeping women like the mother of Jesus down.

 

So, we need Mary’s story. We need the full story of her catching the prophetic spark, speaking her truth, and passing it forward through the generations. If you celebrate Christmas and even if you don’t, I invite you to spend some time this year contemplating what the birth of Jesus might have actually meant to his mother and to his community. I guarantee you it was not a white Christmas in any sense of the word. There was no Santa Clause and no reindeer and any gift-giving was purely symbolic, not material.

 

But one true thread has been passed down through all the iterations of this story. It is the thread of hope – the faith that God or the mysterious forces of the universe, working through human beings like us, can overcome injustice, feed the hungry, and transform the systems of our world. This is where the political gets really personal: There are times in each of our lives, sometimes many times, when some form of the angel Gabriel shows up and propositions us. And when that happens, the future of the world in some small way hangs on what we do next.

 

So many of us have been told over and over that we cannot be prophets. Whether it’s because we’re a woman or because we’re a person of color or because we have a disability or because we’re poor or just because we were raised to think we don’t have much to contribute to the world. The story of Mary teaches us that this is not true. The story of Mary teaches us that, however unspecial we might feel, however much the world is telling us that we have no voice, however much we feel like a nobody living in the middle of nowhere, we are called to be prophets.

 

I want to invite each of us to take the leap of faith that Mary took and say yes. We see the ways our world is broken, we can envision the world that ought to be. So when we feel our own Gabriel tapping us on the shoulder, calling us to speak, calling us to teach our children to speak, may we be unafraid to answer, “Yes. Here am I. I’m ready to serve. I’m all in.”   

 

 

 

 

One Response
  1. Rachel permalink
    December 13, 2017

    Please post the text if possible. Thank you.

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