If I was to ask you what words come to mind when we think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, I wonder what you might say.
The words most Christians use when asked to describe Mary are words like: humble, obedient, meek, mild, virgin. Mary is frequently depicted as a most faithful and obedient Christian role model. Indeed, obedience is seen as her crowning trait, one we should all be striving to emulate.
For centuries, the church has painted a portrait of Mary as submissive, obedient and meek. She has been held up as the role model for women. Just to digress for a moment here, on the subject of Christian role models, have you ever thought about the nature of female saints? That most of them are virgins and/or martyrs? I don’t know how you ladies here today feel about this, but I find emulating virgin and martyr pretty much impossible.
Given the role of virgin mother was not open to normal women, the church over the years has emphasised that Mary represents the true model of feminine obedience, and that all women should likewise show their obedience to the will of God by being just like her. This meant obeying the male leaders of the church who claimed to represent God and being forbidden to take on leadership roles themselves.
So while it is OK that Mary should stand as a model of obedience and servant hood for all, she was particularly useful in the early church centuries as a way of insisting that women should be submissive. This leads us into some interesting questions. Is Mary really as submissive and meek as tradition has portrayed her? And is this really what it means to obey the will of God? How do we know what the will of God is?
This is the question that is in my mind this week, especially in relation to the church. How do we know what the will of God is? How are we to be obedient to the will of God, especially when things seem to be caught up in transitions?
As a biblical scholar, I always think the best place to start in answering such questions is the text.
We have just listened to the Magnificat – this name is from the first word of the text in the Latin translation called the Vulgate – my soul magnifies. Hearing this hymn once more, I have to say that the early church fathers seem to have misunderstood Mary completely. Firstly, their archetype of Mary as meek, submissive and obedient mother completely misrepresents motherhood, especially in the time that this passage would have been written.
Mothers in this time faced many dangers, and were charged with the protection, nurturing and education of their children. Their homes or tents were not like ours. They walked miles for water, they ground their own grain, they spun and wove wool and made all their garments of the household, a household which they ran with pride and power and competency.
The church tradition of Mary has also been reinforced by the pale faced, blue veiled, blue eyed portraits that invariably portray Mary. Her fierceness has been tamed, her passion domesticated, her will subsumed. Are these the characteristics that really portray someone obedient to the will of God? Or do we see something different emerging from the portrait of Mary and the Magnificat?
Mary’s song follows her astonishing encounter with the angel Gabriel, and her joyous encounter with her relative Elizabeth, where she shares the good news.
For a moment, consider the content of this news. Firstly, Mary’s pregnancy is rather unique – it dispenses with the need for a man in the process of having a baby. In a patriarchal world, this must have been considered profoundly unsettling news, even if God is named as responsible. From the start of her story, Mary simply isn’t going to be following the accepted social norms. From the beginning, the character of Mary in Luke’s gospel is dangerously full of the Spirit and impregnated with the impossible.
Next, she goes on to prophesy the overturning of the entire social order, proclaiming that the lowly will be lifted up, the powerful will be brought down from their thrones, the rich turned away empty while the hungry are filled. This teenage mother to be has just stepped into an unprecedented and dangerous arena. She has established herself as seditious in her intent, for any talk of a new Davidic line would have been considered treasonable in the then Roman-occupied Palestine.
Mary has established herself as a radical prophet and stands firmly in the tradition of her culture known for its uncompromising fierceness. She echoes the scriptures which speak of God acting to uphold the people of Israel: Miriam’s song (Exodus 15), Hannah’s song (Samuel 2), and the words of the prophetess Huldah (2 Kings). It would appear that Mary’s education was not focused on just keeping a proper Jewish home, but rather on radical study of scripture. Mary sings her own anthem of revolution, and in doing so, sings the whole world upside down.
Humble? Meek? Submissive? Certainly not as we understand these words. But Mary is obedient to what she understands the will of God to mean. How then does this relate to us?
Our modern Western society largely revolves around the principle of individual gratification. Just think of some modern ‘buzz words’ – self-awareness, self-improvement, self-esteem, self-help. Look at the advertisements that surround us this Christmas season – ‘spoil yourself’; ‘you’re worth it’; ‘create your own wish list’ etc. Using Google, I found nearly 509,000 websites featuring “you’re worth it” and 615,000 ones on ‘spoil yourself’ in relation to this Christmas.
We talk about ‘being true to yourself,’ ‘standing up for yourself,’ and ‘charity begins at home’. This idea of self, socially defined, and targeted by those who want your money or allegiance, has flowed into Christianity and centres on individual salvation, rather than a relationship with God through the community of God. Such theology has evolved from the commercial market forces that heavily influence our secular lives.
We hear of such cases in the news regularly. Impatient for wealth, people go debt into debt and try to buy influence through money and favours. The meek will not inherit the world we have created, which clearly belongs to the powerful. In our consumerist society, people can even shop around for churches now, and choose their own tailor-made religious beliefs. We rationalize our own sins away rather than surrendering ourselves and our possessions to God.
Mary’s obedience to God isn’t about individualism or herself, and the blessing that she asks for isn’t the kind of blessing most of us might ask for when we pray. She has said ‘yes’ to God without knowing what God will do. She is potentially submitting to humiliation, physical pain, dislocation, terror, and loss. She is prepared to lose herself to become the bearer of the one who brings salvation and justice. Mary knows just what is at stake when she gives birth to the Messiah – she knows what it means for herself, her nation, and for the whole world.
Mary’s submission to God isn’t passive, and it is not without doubt. Mary has chosen a perilous path – that of someone who dares, who questions the status quo, who is prepared to step out and take risks. To do the will of God means to live dangerously, to put community before individual, to choose justice rather than what is easy and comfortable.
Furthermore, there is a risk in accepting the blessing of God. Mary just states she will be called blessed, but this blessing is presumably is not one she would choose. The blessing Mary receives will be agonizing, as it means seeing her child tortured and killed on the cross. Could we bear such a blessing as this?
Whatever our answers might be to these questions, like Mary, we should not be passive in this process of obedience to God’s will. We need to work and to pray and to dream and to prophesy and to act as bravely and intelligently and faithfully as she did. And we must also be prepared to risk and step into the unknown, and like Mary, say yes to God’s plan without necessarily knowing what will happen next.
Are we prepared to take such risks? Do we dare to be prophetic and question the existing order? Do we dare accept the blessing of God?
Mary’s Magnificat is a song of joy and shared rejoicing. In this season of hope and despair, peace and anxiety, Mary’s joyous outburst also reassures us that God can and does shine through humanity. It reminds us of God’s mercy, strength, and love. It rings true to us, because at times we have been the hungry who have been filled, as well as the proud who have been cast down.
And Mary’s song also points to the very heart of Christianity, the passion of Jesus. It is the closest we get in Advent to the darkest, most frightening, most transcendent moment found in all of the Gospels – the moment on the cross, when Jesus surrenders his will, his hope, his very life, and puts everything in God’s hands. Like his mother Mary, Jesus’ actions did not come from passive obedience but are a passionate surrender to the will of God.
So, like Mary, let us pray this week for the Spirit of God to possess us, to inspire us, and to move us forward. Let us pray for the courage to submit to God’s will and blessings. Let us share the good news with our friends and our communities of what can happen when the world is turned upside down. And let us dare to follow the way proclaimed by Mary’s song, a way that leads to new life, to the cross, and paradoxically, to the hope, peace, joy and love that characterizes this season.
That we may also say yes to life in the face of death.
That we may too give birth to a miracle.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine