It’s a familiar story. They are words we’ve heard many times year after year. A story depicted in countless paintings; gestures and words mimicked in devotional practices. It has settled into our memory like other stories that have shaped us—stories told in our families that seem to capture something of the essence of who we are and where we came from; stories of our nation, mythic stories that define us. Such stories are often so familiar, so beloved, their meaning so fixed in our memory that we rarely explore them more deeply.
There’s so much we don’t know about this story; so much more we want to know. We don’t know who Mary was, not really. We don’t know how old she was, although it’s likely she was a teenager. In first century Palestinian Judaism, girls were often betrothed at age 12 or so, and married no later than 19 or 20. We don’t know, can’t imagine, what this encounter, this new reality did to her. The gospels are largely silent about what she does later in life, about her response to her son. John tells us that she was present at the crucifixion; Luke says she was among the group of disciples that gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension, and presumably right through to Pentecost. Tradition has filled out the story. Theological reflection and devotional creativity have answered questions raised by Christians for 2000 years.
We have this story. A young woman, her life suddenly disrupted by the appearance of an angel; her world shattered and remade by events out of her control. That we know something about. So many of our certainties, so much of our lives have been disrupted over the last nine months; who could have imagined back in March that we would be here, the pandemic still raging, our lives on hold, fear, and weariness, and anger, still overwhelming us? Exhausted, fearful, the lives we led, the world we lived in nine months ago seem distant memories, faint whisps of dream we once had, with no connection to reality in which now live. Our hopes for the future cling by a slender thread. Oh, yes, we know what disrupted worlds and lives are like.
An angel came to Mary, saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her world upended, first by the very appearance of an angel.. And then came more, that she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.
I’m always fascinated by her response to the angel. First, when he appears to her and greets her, Luke she was perplexed and wondered what sort of greeting this might be—perplexed and wondering, not by the appearance of the angel to her, which would no doubt shock and surprise us, but by his greeting, by him calling her “Favored one.” And then when told the rest, she asks the question, “How can this be?”
The tradition of devotion and theology, and perhaps going back to Luke himself, has tended to portray Mary as a passive recipient of God’s grace and favor, as someone who accepted her fate quietly, submissively. Often she has served as a role model for passive, submissive femininity, and certainly in Luke’s gospel, she functions as something of the ideal disciple, one who follows meekly and obediently.
But here we see something else. Surprise, wonder, questions. Mary’s faith is not that passive, unquestioning faith. She wants to know more, she wants to understand. And then, in the midst of her disrupted world and disrupted life, something else. We know the scandal of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, of teenaged mothers left on their own with no resources, forced to struggle to provide for themselves and their little ones. We can imagine how hard it would have been for a teenager in first-century Palestine, with all of the shame and stigma, traces of which remain in the accounts of Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. We can, I think, imagine the fear, the future she imagined as she heard the angel’s words.
But can we imagine also the hope? In the middle of this disruption to her world and to her life, Mary visits her elderly cousin and during that visit, sings a song that has echoed throughout history down to our day:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
And while it has become a song of pious devotion, it is a profound prophecy of God’s power, justice, and mercy. It is a song of hope in the midst of fear, hope for justice in the midst of oppression, a cry of resistance against the forces of evil and inequality.
Mary is an example for us. In the midst of our disrupted and upended lives and world, nothing seems the same, and our wishes for a return to normalcy, to turn the clock back nine months or a year, or simply an exhausted desire to ignore what’s happening around us and get on with our lives, when we are beaten down, Mary is an example for us.
We can’t know what her life was like, what she thought or felt. But we know her faith, her hope. We know the God in whom she trusted. And the words she sang can become our own as we hope for a new world, a better future, for ourselves, our nation and world.
Into our disrupted world, into our disrupted lives, Christ is coming. The angel’s greeting comes to us and in that greeting, in Mary’s song, we may find strength and hope for the coming months. The world being brought into being by Christ’s coming, is a world disrupted by God’s justice and mercy, where the mighty have fallen, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.
Mary sings of and shows us the world as God intends it, a just and equitable world, not the old world of wishful thinking and faint memories. Mary points us toward the future, a future full of hope, a future where God reigns. May we raise our voices with Mary, in hope and faith that God is with us now and reigns in justice and mercy.