Mary–Perplexed, Pondering, Prophetic: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year A

What comes to mind for you when you think of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ? Do you think of a painting of her, perhaps a masterpiece from the Renaissance depicting her as a young woman, clothed in a beautiful blue dress, sitting demurely as the angel announces to her, “Hail Mary, full of grace!” Do you think of her at the foot of the cross, or holding the dead body of her son? Do you think of the theological and doctrinal debates surrounding her virginity or immaculate conception?

Mary has been a focus of devotion, fascination, and theological reflection from the earliest period of Christianity. Over the centuries, an almost infinite amount of speculation has centered on this one woman, about whom there is relatively little said in the biblical texts. But what is said in scripture has fascinated Christians since the very beginning.

And rightly so. Who among us can imagine ourselves in her place—visited by an angel, told that she would become pregnant miraculously, and not only that, give birth to the Son of God? That’s inconceivable, what’s closer to our experience is her experience, watching her son die, killed by a brutal colonial and imperial power. Whether we’ve experienced it ourselves; it’s something that is within the experience of too many mothers, across the world and here in the US.

So to wonder about Mary is well within the scope of what it means to be human. To wonder about a mother, told she would give birth to the Son of God, to wonder about a mother forced to witness her son’s execution. To wonder about all of that is human. And it’s not just a matter of curiosity. To wonder about Mary is to wonder about God.

Reading Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus gives us much to wonder about. His story is filled with language and imagery that reminds the reader of Hebrew Scripture. In a way, the whole of Luke’s nativity story is a retelling of the Hebrew Bible.

This is most apparent here, in the story of the angel coming to Mary. Miraculous births are common in Hebrew scriptures, beginning with the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. That story begins with a divine appearance, in fact a series of divine appearances to the aged couple. The first time, God tells Abraham that he will have a son; the second time, God tells both of them that Sarah will have a son. Each time, the response from Abraham and Sarah are disbelief and laughter. When Sarah laughs, God asks Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Another story of an elderly, barren mother who receives a miraculous child is that of Hannah, who gave birth to Samuel. The resonance of that story in Luke is even deeper than the story of Sarah, for Luke adapts part of Hannah’s song of praise and puts it in Mary’s mouth. We read it this morning: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Even as Luke draws on Hannah’s song he transforms it. It is no longer the song of praise sung by an elderly woman who has heard her prayers answered. Now it is the song of a young woman, a girl really, who is responding not to the words of an angel promising her a child, but to another elderly woman, to Elizabeth.

While there are loud echoes of birth narratives from Hebrew scripture in the story of Mary, there are also resonances here from another type of narrative, that of prophetic call. Many of the elements are the same. I won’t go into all of the details, but if you were to go back and look at the stories of the call of Moses, Isaiah, or even Samuel, you would see many similar features, from the startled response of the one called, their resistance, to the commission, and the final acceptance. Mary’s response at the end, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord,” recalls Samuel’s response to God.

Luke is weaving a rich tapestry for us that reshapes the narrative of the Hebrew Bible to tell us about the coming of Jesus Christ. In his use of that traditional imagery, he is making connections with what has gone before, but he is also transforming it into a new episode, the culmination of God’s salvation history. By careful attention to this detail, we learn not only about Mary and Jesus Christ, we also learn something about what it means to be someone who proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord.

The magnificat is one part of the picture of Mary painted by Luke; and it has shaped how Christians have thought of her over the centuries. But there is another part of Luke’s story. Mary is usually depicted in visual images of the annunciation, for that matter, in most of popular devotion as a young woman who passively accepts this fate that is thrust upon her. She is shown with her head bowed, sitting serenely as the angel Gabriel speaks to her. That depiction has become fixed in our religious and cultural consciousness, for better or for worse. Mary has often been shown to us as a model of the Christian life, passive, receptive, docile. While that model has worked powerfully over the centuries for all Christians, it has been even more important in the way our tradition has thought about women. Mary was, and is for many the ideal woman, passive, submissive, quiet.

That is only part of the story. It begins with a rather different response. When the Angel Gabriel first announces to Mary that she is to bear a son, she replies to him, “How can this be?” Not exactly resistance, but disbelief, uncertainty. Luke says she was perplexed.

One of the dominant strands of the traditional interpretation of Mary is to interpret Gabriel’s words to her, “Hail, favored one” or in the traditional rendering, “Hail Mary, full of grace” and Elizabeth’s response to her after the magnificat, “Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb” to suggest that in some sense she was deserving of the honor of bearing the Christ Child. That wasn’t Luke’s point. He wasn’t interested in the question “Why Mary?” Indeed the biblical tradition on which he builds was rarely interested in making a connection between God’s choice, of Abraham and Sarah, of Israel for that matter, as a deserved reward for faith.

Luke’s depiction of Mary emphasizes not just her passive acceptance of the role God has given her. From the beginning of the story, we see her challenging Gabriel’s message. We also see her proclaiming the good news in the words of the Magnificat. In fact, she is reworking and transforming scripture for a new purpose. Adapting the song of Hannah from I Samuel, Mary casts a vision of a world shaped by God’s mighty acts. She invites us to look at history with new eyes. She imagines for us a world re-created by God, a world turned upside-down.

We are so accustomed to thinking of Jesus Christ saving us from our sins, that we rarely consider the political ramifications of anyone in the New Testament referring to Jesus Christ as Savior. I’ve said before that Savior was one of the titles given the Roman emperor; so to give it to Jesus is say something about empire.

When Mary sings of God her savior; when she sings that “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” These phrases are not primarily describing spiritual states, but rather political and economic conditions. The empire introduced by Jesus Christ is a profound challenge to the Roman empire, a challenge that would end with Jesus crucified as “king of the Jews” a political revolutionary.

Political, revolutionary, a world turned upside down, that’s part of Mary’s response to her God. But there is another part of that response. I remind you again of Sarah’s response when Yahweh told her that she would bear a child. Sarah, and her husband Abraham before her, laughed. Mary, in contrast, was perplexed and wondered “How can this be?” Yahweh chided Sarah with the words, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” In response to Mary’s query, Gabriel responded, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

We don’t know, we can’t know how Mary responded to these words. We do know that Luke presents her as something like the first Christian. She is a model of faith, not in her docility and passivity, but in her acceptance, her choice to receive the words from Gabriel. She is also a model of faith in her proclamation of the good news.

We may pray with the collect for today, “Purify our conscience by your daily visitation” seeing ourselves, like Mary, a receptacle for the coming of Christ into our lives; but with Mary we should also proclaim to the world the coming of Christ, and the coming of God’s reign, that will cast down the mighty from their thrones and fill the hungry with good things.


1 thought on “Mary–Perplexed, Pondering, Prophetic: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year A

  1. Once again, Jonathan, you have given us a very succinct and thoughtful explication of the scriptures. As you say, ” with Mary we should also proclaim to the world the coming of Christ, and the coming of God’s reign, that will cast down the mighty from their thrones and fill the hungry with good things.” But Mary concludes her beautiful song with a cry for justice that also deserves to be emphasized … “and the rich he has sent away empty!” In the America of 2015, which has just chosen to turn over the power of the state to the largest Republican majority since the days of Herbert Hoover, that particular prophecy should inspire serious reflection..

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