~ Luke 1:26-38; 47-55 ~
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.”29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Wait! Stop! Did you catch that? Mary “pondered.” What sort of greeting might this be? The word “pondered” means she turned things over in her mind. Hers was not a passive, do-with-me-what-you-will mind. Hers was a let-me-carefully-consider-this mind. Everything that follows is in light of her “pondering” what this all means. We continue the reading:
30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”
So, that’s the invitation. Gabriel puts offer on the table. Mary has asked some questions of clarification (it is a rather audacious situation, after all). But this is not a forced situation. It would appear that God (and I use the masculine voice here intentionally) does not force himself on Mary. He does not abuse his power. Rather, it is an offer; an invitation. It appears that Mary is free to refuse this audacious offer if, in her pondering, she decides it’s just not for her. The choice is hers. We don’t know how long it took for her to decide – maybe a few seconds? A couple hours? Later that day? Maybe a few days? However long it took her to consider this offer it was hers to choose. We continue with our reading:
38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.”
Apparently, Gabriel, maybe somewhat relieved, had done his job, for it then says he “departed from her.” And there was Mary left to ponder some more about what had just happened. Evidently, she didn’t stay that way too long, for the story says that she went “with haste” up to a small village in the hill country of Galilee to visit her cousin Elizabeth. And so, two remarkable women celebrate their conditions – their pregnant conditions. Little did they know…
Christianity’s relationship with Mary over the centuries has been complicated. There is good evidence that early Christianity welcomed a significant role for women in the life and ministry of the church, regarding Mary as a prophetess. But as the church became patriarchically entrenched in the 4th century, Mary was more and more set apart, becoming almost “deified.” In time the Catholic Church adopted the concept of the “immaculate conception” of Mary, believing that for her to bore the Son of God she, too, must have been sinless. So, it was believed that God declared her sinless at the moment of her conception (although this dogma was not codified into Canon Law until 1854). In time, it became practice to pray to Mary to get to Jesus to ultimately get to God. In short, Mary’s humanity was diminished so to make her more spiritually separate from the rest of us humans.
By the time the Reformers came around, would have nothing to do with any of this. They rejected the “Mariology” of Catholic doctrine. But the Reformers were just as patriarchal as their Catholic brethren and, as a result, basically rendered Mary to a mere vessel – a virgin vessel, granted, but a mere vessel none the less. And so, through the centuries, Protestants haven’t really known what to do with Mary. She seems to have faded into the background. And, in many churches still today, women are not allowed to have a voice. For those churches, God only speaks in a male voice.
Yet, here in Luke’s gospel, at the very beginning of the Good News, God has chosen to speak through the women, through Mary and Elizabeth! Indeed, throughout the gospel women play an important role. Here at the very beginning, in various encounters with Jesus, and at the end the women who remained faithful while the men retreated into hiding.
Here, in Luke, a female voice begins the Jesus story. A woman decides all by herself whether the Jesus story will even happen. How subversive! Mary’s “let it be” gets everything started. A courageous, yet demure, female voice brings God more fully into the world. Can we hear God in a female voice? Can we hear God in Mary’s voice?
Today, I believe, is a good day to honor those female voices that too long have been ignored by the patriarchal power structure that is our society; that is, sadly, the church. Today is a good day to hear aloud the voices of women who have been too long muted by those who think only male voices should be heard.
In a most subversive manner, Luke turns the patriarchal world upside down. He places the women front and center right from the very start. Needless to say, Mary’s role is quite shocking, when only men made big decisions and women were mere property. Here, Mary decides all on her own without interference from the male voices in her world.
Even her betrothed husband-to-be, Joseph, is left out of the equation. In Luke’s birth story, Joseph is relegated to leading the donkey carrying his very pregnant Mary. Yes, it is true that in the other Christmas story, Joseph plays more of a part. But even there, the angel has to convince Joseph that it is OK for him to marry his already-pregnant fiancé. He won’t suffer loss of honor, he is assured. Indeed, this is Mary’s story. Can we hear God in Mary’s voice?
Mary’s voice brings us one of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture – the magnificent Magnificat which Deb read for us. As Deb noted, the title of this song suggests the notion of Mary’s soul magnifying God. How odd that a young pregnant unwed teenager has the capacity for magnifying God—making God appear even bigger than God already is!
It is also one of the most powerful witnesses to God’s agenda of justice. Mary prays: “You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” God has Mary voice God’s agenda of justice. Can we hear God in Mary’s voice?
Unfortunately, many can’t or just refuse to hear God in Mary’s voice. God only speaks in the masculine voice, they would say. “When I hear God speak,” one has opined, “I hear a male voice!” Of course, those “many” are predominantly men. And it’s been that way for centuries.
The men who took control of the church early on marginalized women, something, I think, Jesus would find appalling. They dishonestly portrayed Mary of Magdala as a prostitute. Jesus’ mother was limited to the role of the “Virgin Mary” instead of the courageous, let-it-be Mary who changed everything all by herself.
Today, many faith communities bar women from speaking from the pulpit and telling about their own personal experiences of God, of expounding theologically on how God works in the world from their feminine perspective. Gladly, we are not they. Be that as it may, too often, women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago. It appears that male prerogative still rules the day.
Now, I am quite aware that as I speak of these matters I am my own significant contradiction. I am a man. I am a big man. I am a big man with a big voice – or so I’ve been told. And I have a platform from which use my big voice. It could be said, I am the male prerogative. I can, without thinking (which usually gets me into trouble), express myself in male prerogative ways. Indeed, I have lived in this world my entire life. It is very much with me.
However, I try. I try to understand. I try to give respect. I try not to default to a male prerogative way of living. As a result, I try to pay attention to how women’s voices have been muted and are muted. It pains me that our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. That a man’s shifting, slippery denial is given more credibility than the witness of many women’s accusations.
This is why I am quite intrigued and encouraged by the #metoo movement. That Time Magazine’s Person of the Year are “The Silence Breakers.” That maybe a tipping point has been reached when it comes to women’s stories of sexual abuse and harassment being heard and believed. I would believe you are encouraged as well.
A friend of mine created a website several years ago called “The Coldline Project.” The idea was that women who had kept sexual abuse encounters hidden away for many years – 20, 30, 40 years – could go to this site to write about their experiences anonymously as sort of a cathartic exercise. So, as opposed to a hotline which deals with emergency-type situations, this site would be a safe place for women to talk about seemingly long dead issues but for which they still lived with every day.
Suddenly, however, anonymity is no longer a prerequisite for telling one’s story. Women, courageously, are telling their stories in public and men, lots of men, are paying the price for their misogynistic and abusive attitudes and behaviors toward women. True, some men seem to get away with such attitudes and behaviors with impunity. I guess it depends on who your constituency is. If a man’s constituency cares about such things, such as a company’s bottom line or a political party wanting to take the high road, then, yes, those men will go down. If a man’s constituency doesn’t care about such things, well, then….
Unfortunately, there is one segment of our society that has not dealt with the issue of sexual harassment and abuse very well – the church, even our own denomination. I think Christians have this bias toward believing ministers to be such men of God that, of course, they wouldn’t or if they did, it’s understandable, or some other justification. Because the church generally has been so scared to talk about sex at all, when it comes to sexual abuse the church is kind of afraid to address it head on. We must do better.
You may be thinking that on this day before Christmas we shouldn’t be talking about such things. But I believe Mary inspires us to be real and, although we sing carols of peace and joy on this Christmas Eve, it isn’t out of bounds to aspire to such hopes and ideals by taking on the messy reality of our world. Mary’s world was messy. Our world is very messy. No sense shrinking back from the messiness.
But, more importantly, I believe this is a God thing. Just as God spoke through that young maiden 2000 years ago to change the world, so I believe God is speaking through the courageous women of today, speaking truth to power, speaking God’s justice. Can we hear God in the voices of the women? May it be so. Amen.