Luke 1: 26-38
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Our reading from Luke’s gospel introduces us to the Mother of Jesus, at the beginning of his story, when she is given the news that she is to bear a child.
I start this morning with some reservations, about the way the story of Mary, and particularly as she is introduced here, has been used to shape the role of women in Western culture. In one sense my questions are unfair to Luke – I doubt they would have occurred to him. The gap at this point between how the text was written and how it is received today is wide.
Firstly, the young Mary to whom the angel speaks has been used as a symbol of purity. Specifically female purity, portrayed in terms of being without sin and protected from sexual activity; a purity easily and irretrievably lost – or stolen. It is a particular, gendered definition. When Jesus talks about purity, he talks about the heart and a way of seeing. So I contrast two understandings of purity: one constraining, the other liberating, one contingent, the other woven into all human identity, if we would recognise it.
And secondly, the Mary portrayed here has been used to define women as passive, with the associated virtues of gentleness and modesty. She is portrayed as a recipient, a rule-taker with a pleasant smile and limited agency. This contrasts again, with the teaching of Jesus about life in all its fullness, for all.
Much more could be said about Mary and gender, including about her unique position as the mother of Jesus. But I want to move on. Partly because I am not qualified to say even this much, partly because I am drawn to other insights in Mary’s life as we glimpse it in the gospels. For the next few minutes I want to talk about Mary without reference to gender – indulge me, if you will.
Mary enters the gospel story as family and a parent. And Jesus was, by the conventions of the day, a troublesome son. In those times family was the dominant institution, economically as well as socially. A son who survived childhood was expected to learn their father’s trade at his side and then take over, providing for his parents and, if necessary aunts and uncles as well, in retirement or ill health. His earnings were vital to the family budget. Who he married was decided by them, he lived either with them or somewhere arranged by them.
For Jesus to have walked away from his family as a young adult to become an itinerant teacher broke this tight code. We see ripples from this breach in the disapproval of him in his home-town, and in his own words, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
If there was a rift, we might have expected Mary to stay with the family. But Mary chose instead to go with Jesus, among the disciples: more confident perhaps, 30 years on, than as a young teenager. Here, then in this decision is perhaps a glimpse into Mary the person, the echo of a distinctive voice.
In the gospel retelling of Jesus and his followers the spotlight is focussed on the 12 apostles. We catch sight of Mary from time to time amongst those pushed to the shadows, part of a group who arranged food and shelter for the travelling band.
And then we see Mary attending the crucifixion of Jesus, with another Mary the parent of Clopas, and also their friend Mary Magdalene. I find it distressing even to try and imagine this picture, Mary supported by two close friends, insisting on being present, on not looking away.
From these and other references, and the gaps between them, we can perhaps reconstruct, partly in imagination, a person rather than a symbol, someone with a significant role through the gospel story, not just at its outset.
It starts to make sense why Luke, perhaps influenced by the testimony of those who travelled with the group, attributed to Mary the revolutionary words of the Magnificat, with their defiant assertion of the powerful brought down, the rich sent away empty, and the lowly lifted up.
So a picture is discernible of Mary the unremarkable, powerless teenager, who yet came to chart a distinctive course, who found, and grasped, life in all its fullness, mixed with tragedy: faith, companionship, strength, assurance of hope. In these Mary can be understood alongside the other disciples whose lives were similarly transformed so that together they became the leaders of the church.
And I also see in this picture of Mary a truer idea of what it means to be pure: openness of heart to the spirit, to follow with confidence wherever truth led, not convention; purity of friendship, within the group of Jesus’ followers, and purity of courage, going towards the cross rather than running away: a solidarity, in faith and in relationship, which proved stronger than death.
May we draw inspiration from her life. Amen
Richard Young (Rector)