I recently read an article in National Geographic magazine about how we in the West have treated Mary down the years, removing her from her roots: in our desire to give her honour and prestige as the Mother of God, we see her in blue, serene and calm, obedient and accepting…and perhaps, just maybe, some of these characteristics did apply to her…
But Mary lived in Nazareth, in Galilee. And Galilee was occupied by the forces of Rome and subdued by force. Just as an illustration of the level of this force, when Jesus was a young boy, the capital of Galilee, Sepphoris, a few miles north of Nazareth, was the scene of a violent rebellion, which the Romans put down- or so we read in an account from the time- with the force of over 20,000 crack troops, burning Sepphoris and abducting many occupants into slavery. No doubt the nearby villages – of which Nazareth was one - took their share of brutality in that pogrom,
Mary had to cope with living in that tension and with that risk – a young woman with at least one small child. She was probably much tougher than history has painted her: indeed, when we look afresh at the words of her great song of praise, the Magnificat, we can see the signs of those courageous, confident characteristics which saw her through the anxiety and the hard times in which she lived, and which were yet to come.
And her courage and confidence was founded on God.
Luke is the Gospel Writer who tells of the women in the narrative of Jesus’s birth. The announcement from the Angel Gabriel to Mary is there, the news of Elizabeth being pregnant when she was old and her husband Zechariah’s response is recounted and the visit of Mary to Elizabeth and their friendship is found in Luke too, and in no other Gospel.
Luke’s account draws out the links between Abraham and Sarah- the founders of the nation of Israel – and Elizabeth and Zechariah, two childless couples, until God intervened in their old age and through each of their children did great things.
Abraham was the Founder of Israel, the great patriarch, but now the child John who will be born to the older mother, Elizabeth, will be the last of the Old Testament prophets, and after him will come the greater one, the thong of whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, Jesus, born of a young virgin.
‘The age of fulfilment is beginning’, says Luke.
In Luke, angels make announcements, but though the words of the angel to Zechariah are similar to the words spoken to Mary when the Angel Gabriel visits her and tells her God has chosen her, Mary’s response to God is very different from Zechariah’s.
Zechariah, we are told, didn’t believe the angel and so, as a sign, he was temporarily struck dumb until after John was born.
Mary on the other hand, even though she asked how her news could possibly be true, graciously accepted God’s message and became a willing participant in His plan. And hearing the good news of her cousin Elizabeth, she sets off straightaway to visit her.
When Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home, in a remote, unnamed hill-side village, far away from the centres of worldly power, Elizabeth prophesies: she is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims what Mary has not yet told her, and what is not yet visible to the eye: Mary is pregnant. Furthermore, through the Spirit she knows who Mary’s child will be, for she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” Her prophecy will soon be fulfilled when her own son, John, prepares the way for Him.
And Elizabeth blesses Mary for her trust and acceptance of God’s will for her: and in so doing, she begins a series of blessings that weave through Luke’s birth narrative and intensify all the joy, delight, and praise in the story. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon will all add their blessings to this chain of blessing, praising God for what God is doing at this moment in history.
Mary is blessed not only for her status as the mother of the Lord, but also for her trust in God’s promise. Mary is blessed because despite all expectations her social status has been reversed: she will be honoured, says Elizabeth, rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy because she has believed that God is able to do what God promises to do.
And so we hear the Song of Mary, a song which speaks of the topsy-turvey nature of God’s kingdom, already being shown in her, and which her Son will go on to expound in his ministry.
Mary sings praise to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, who chooses her, an ordinary woman through whom extraordinary things will take place. This is the God of reversals, the one who regularly shows up where we least expect God to be – in a manger, on a cross, vulnerable, suffering - in order to scatter the proud, exalt the lowly, satisfy the hungry, and send the rich away empty. Mary's God is a God of justice and compassion, the One who hears the cry of the oppressed and the despondent of all generations, and responds, and so also deserves our attention; the God of Israel, the One who has been siding with the oppressed and downtrodden since the days of Egypt, the One who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.
This is no shy or retiring Mary – she is courageous, confident and well-aware of the suffering of her people.
And Luke’s birth stories are full of joyful song: the song of Mary- which we call the Magnificat - followed by the song of Zechariah, the Benedictus. Then there is the song of the angels heard by the shepherds out in the fields and the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon, when he recognises Jesus at his presentation in the Temple. The joy of this special birth fills those around with the desire to sing praise to God.
And why? Because Luke understands, as did the Psalmists of Israel, that songs are powerful. Laments express our grief and fear so as to respect our deep and difficult emotions and at the same time strip them of their power to harm or incapacitate us.
Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices. And hymns of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being, just as Mary’s song did, all those years ago.
Whatever your views about hymns- what you like to sing and what you don’t, know that when we gather together and sing to God, the hope and consolation of all nations, we, like Mary, are swept into God's divine activity to save and redeem our world. A few voices drawn together in song in late December may seem a small thing in the face of the wars and worries of the age, but surely no smaller than those two voices joined in the Judean hill country twenty centuries ago. Mary's God, we should remember, delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things. So it has been, is, and ever shall be "according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
In a moment I’m going to ask Robert to play us a version of Mary’s song – you have the words on the sheet you were hopefully given when you arrived…it’s a chance to enter into Mary’s song of praise and joy at the prospect of God fulfilling his word in her.
Mary’s song and Elizabeth’s words and actions invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today? Where is God at work through people whom we and our neighbours often exclude or treat as shameful? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting to respond when the outcast and despised, the disapproved –of and those on the edges of our comfort-zone show up on our doorstep? I don’t know…May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us. May we, like them, give thanks that God has taken away our shame and then respond to God’s love by welcoming with open hearts those considered by the world as shameful. May we, like them, become a community of expansive love with support for each other as we hope and wait for his coming.