Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Luke 1:39-55 ~
Did she, or didn’t she? Say “yes” I mean. Depending on whom you ask (or read), Mary either consented to being “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit to become pregnant with Jesus, or she didn’t.
And it matters.
Of course, you probably know the Nativity Story appears in only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, the versions differ, and only in Luke do we read of the Annunciation, or moment when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she’s been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. Only in Luke do we hear the Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic song to the world.
So, which is it? Was Mary a freely consenting young woman, strong and brave enough to choose and bear the societal condemnation for being unmarried and pregnant that would surely come her way? Or did have no choice? And was still strong and brave enough to bear the societal condemnation for being unmarried and pregnant that surely came her way…?
The truth is: we can’t know. If we look at the story through an historical lens, we’d have to say Mary had very little choice about anything. I’m sure we’re all clear that women in the time of Jesus, certainly poor Jewish women under Caesar, had zero authority over their own bodies and lives. #Marytoo.
But this story wasn’t written as history or even biography. It was written to make a point about the salvific identity of Jesus. It is, in academic terms, an “origin myth.” Thus, I’m not interested in looking at the Annunciation through an historical lens. What I want to explore is the way Mary is depicted by Luke and the way this Marion story has been disseminated by Christian tradition through time.
From my perspective, Luke’s message is mixed. On the one hand, the angel Gabriel tells Mary the conception of Jesus is going to happen. Of course, he flatters and tells her how wonderful she is, “Hail Mary, full of grace…” But the language is commanding: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” On the other hand, Mary does agree and say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
So, which is it? Did or did Luke not give Mary a choice? Well, my opinion is: he didn’t. He chose to have God choose her. But before we get too upset about this, let’s understand the biblical tradition out of which Luke wrote. In the Hebrew Bible, God always chooses prophets. In fact, God calls them, and they’re not always thrilled about being called! Moses, Ezekiel, Jonah and so on were all chosen by God. Thus, if anything, Luke honors Mary by placing her right in the midst of this prophetic tradition.
The problem is Christianity has rarely interpreted the story this way. But the author of Luke (often called the “social justice” gospel) portrays Mary has a prophet. Not as some demure, submissive maiden, as so many artists have done (including da Vinci, per the front of your worship bulletin). Luke sees her as powerful. And she is powerful. Even her acceptance of God’s choice is powerful! She doesn’t winge and whine or become drunk with power like some of the other “chosen.” She hears what Gabriel (God’s emissary) has to say, realizes it is what it is, and says, “Let it be.” Meaning, she puts her own stamp on it. In a situation where her choice is not even a card on the table, she gives consent. She claims the power to say, “yes.”
And then she prophecies, for the Magnificat is a prophetic pronouncement, not a song. In it, she hits all the big themes of the Hebrew prophets: God is great, humans should feel awe in the presence of God, God turns human hierarchies upside down and prioritizes those in need, and God is faithful to promises made over generations. Mary expresses more of her Jewish prophetic tradition than any other character in the New Testament except Jesus! And she’s a woman.
Mind you, after the Nativity Story, we don’t hear much of anything about her until the death of Jesus. Though we hear plenty about the male disciples! But she must have been there, throughout, for she’s certainly there at the end. Mary had to have known (just as Jesus did) where her son’s path would likely take him…
“Hail Mary, full of grace.” Her grace is grit. And this is what I want young girls to know: we don’t always get to choose what happens to us (and often this isn’t okay), but we do get to choose our response. And Mary is an awesome role model. Living in Nazareth, a conservative little backwater of Palestine, she found herself in an untenable situation and claimed it. Claimed it and used it as an opportunity to speak truth to power (which is what biblical prophecy almost always is).
She was so strong! According to the story (and remember, it’s a story), she rode on a donkey, pregnant, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She gave birth in a barn. Without an epidural. And when Herod threatened them, she rode said donkey (with a newborn, no less) to Egypt! Where she knew no one. And stayed for an unspecified period of time.
If we’re looking for New Testament heroes, Mary is our woman. Unlike the bumbling band of Jesus’ male followers, she was savvy. She was gritty. She was prepared to “do this hard thing,” because it had to do with God, and with her child.
So, I wonder. How would Christianity be different if Mary had been portrayed as a powerful Mama instead of a submissive maiden? Why do we insist on calling her the “Virgin” Mary? I mean, who cares? Jesus was pretty clear about the irrelevance of purity laws!
I’ll answer both these questions, but first, a quick aside:
When I was in fourth grade in Lawton, Oklahoma, my family attended the only Episcopal Church in town. Meaning, we weren’t Baptist or Pentecostal… And I still remember that Sunday School class, because it finally occurred to me to ask: why is Jesus’s mom called the “Virgin” Mary? Well… cue awkward silence from my teachers and then: “you should probably ask your mother.” Agh! And I’m guessing this is what too many of us experienced. It’s what too many children still experience: shame for asking, even having, questions. Shame about sexuality. The belief that “virgin” is another word for good.
From my perspective, this is where Luke messed up: well, this and not giving Mary an actual choice. Mary didn’t need to be a virgin in order to be an acceptable mother for Jesus. I understand one of the reasons Luke used this trope was to make it clear to the reader this was a special birth. But, you know, I think we could have figured it out from the way Jesus lived…
We can’t change the course of history. But we can change the present. How might Christianity be different today if we chose to see Mary as a powerful Mama instead of a demure maiden? I challenge us to find out! This Advent. This Christmas. As Art Historian, Carol Strickland writes: If Barbie can be an astronaut, surely the Madonna can be seen as more than a mother and icon of purity. Why not a warrior Princess of Peace? Our modern Mary could do her own announcing, eliciting a new form of address: “Hail Mary full of grit.”
That’s a hashtag I’d be willing to get behind.