A Battle Cry: Mary - Luke 1:26-40
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It has long been one of my favorite Christmas stories, first having read the book by Barbara Robinson back when I was in high school. I loved the story so much, that when I found out that it was playing at the Fayetteville Little Theater twenty-five years ago, there was no question as to where I was going to take Anita on our first date. I can’t remember if it works its way into the dialogue, but in the book Robinson writes (from the perspective of a young teenage girl):
…The script is standard (the inn, the stable, the shepherds, the star), and so are the costumes, and so is the casting.
Primary kids are angels; intermediate kids are shepherds; big boys are Wise Men; Elmer Hopkins, the minister’s son, has been Joseph for as long as I can remember; and my friend Alice Wendleken is Mary because she’s so smart, so neat and clean, and, most of all, so holy looking.
Isn’t that how we always picture Mary—neat and clean and, most of all, so holy looking. If you don’t think so, just do an image search with either “Bing” or “Google” for “Mary, Mother of Jesus.” In every image of Mary, whether it is of the visit from Gabriel or during her pregnancy, or even in the stable, after the long dusty journey to Bethlehem, and going through the pain of childbirth without an epidural, she is beautiful, radiant, and glowing—with a smile that would make Mona Lisa look like she is grimacing in pain.
And isn’t that how we should see Mary. After all, she is the mother of our Savior. If June Cleaver can cook, mop, and take care of all the household chores wearing her set of pearls with her hair just right, shouldn’t Mary look like she had an entourage of hairstylists, makeup artists, and wardrobe experts traveling with her at all times.
My brothers and sisters, we find ourselves in the second week of “A Battle Cry,” as we examine how the original Christmas Story, usually portrayed in bright and colorful pageantry, was actually a dark and challenging time for those who played a role in the birth of Christ, and that in contrast to our stories of peace breaking out in the midst of war during Christmas, that the first Christmas was actually God’s declaration of war on sin and evil. Last week we considered the darkness of Bethlehem with its history of death, violence, idolatry, prejudice, and grief—and as Christ entered into that history, he enters into our places of darkness, and that through the manger together with the cross and empty tomb, brings us the promise of victory and gives us reason to light the lights of Christmas.
So Mary, whom we always tend to look at through the glory of that victory, what would it have been like for her—as Chicago pastor Christopher Coon wrote for The Christian Century, would Mary have even wanted to be Mary. Rather than her eagerly responding to Gabriel’s message from God, like a school kid who knows the answer to the teacher’s question, can we hear some hesitancy in her, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary’s question to Gabriel, after being told that she would bear a child, of “How can this be since I am a virgin?” may have been more than simply a question of the biological process of becoming pregnant. Mary knew the culture that she lived in—it was a culture in which the issue of honor and shame ran deep. We live in a culture where the stigma of being pregnant outside the bonds of marriage have disappeared. That cultural shift began years ago, but has culminated in a society where I have been witness to conversations between teenage girls, still in high school, who were excited to find out that they were pregnant. That was not the case in Mary’s day. It was unheard of. It would have not only brought disgrace upon Mary, but also upon her mom and dad, in fact her entire family would have been disgraced. It would also have brought shame upon her betrothed, Joseph—for folks would either think that he and Mary had had sex before their marriage took place, or that she was unfaithful to him. The penalty for her unfaithfulness could be death by stoning, or at the least, being cut off from her family and the community. So that “How can it be, since I am a virgin” could be read as “how will this happen since it may cause me to become an outcast or even be put to death?”
That gives new light to Gabriel’s response that Mary would be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and that nothing will be impossible with God. His response exceeded that of biology to, giving Mary the assurance that with her role in God’s plan, He would give her the power to endure whatever she might face and that he would see her through. Even so, there may have been more fear, trembling, and even a bit of hesitancy, in her, “”let it be with me according to your word.”
What happens next seems to underscore the uneasiness…and with that we must take into account the Matthew account of all of this as well. First, from Luke, we read that immediately upon finding herself pregnant Mary took off to be with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also with child, not as a virgin, but as an older, formerly barren, wife of a priest who had been visited by an angel. Scholars disagree on whether or not Mary fled to be with Elizabeth before or after telling her parents that she was pregnant. Some suggest that Mary headed off to Elizabeth’s before telling her parents, knowing that Elizabeth, with her own miraculous conception, would understand, that that Elizabeth might help her, maybe even convince her parents that the story she would tell them was true. Other scholars suggest that she fled to the protective acceptance of Elizabeth because her parents would not accept her far-fetched tale and put her out of the home—in order to maintain the honor of the family. She could not remain wandering the small streets of Nazareth because, as small a town as it was, everyone would know her, and not only would she be treated as an outcast, there would be someone (or several someones) who would want to see that death penalty carried out.
The idea that Mary could not go back home is echoed in the fact that after Joseph’s (well look at Joseph next week) visit from an angel, who convinced Joseph not to turn away from Mary, Joseph immediately took her as his wife, well before she gave birth to Jesus. There would have been no need to do this had Mary’s family been accepting of her situation, and it would have been far easier for her to have had her mother, who had been through pregnancy, helping her through this time, that it would have been to be on her own with Joseph, especially considering that they would not consummate and bind their marriage until after Jesus’ was born.[i]
What of the war? We saw Bethlehem’s role in God’s war? Is Mary simply about her shame, or does she play a role in God’s battle cry? The famous Magnificat answers that…Mary’s song. Mary saw herself as the one who would give birth to God’s greatest instrument in the war…God’s own Son.
When it comes to the song of Mary, we often focus in on the first few words from which we derive the name we use, Magnificat. Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior….”[ii] However, it is not too long after that that the language Mary uses takes on the tones of God’s war.
As Mary sings her song of praise to God, the images she pulls from are images of familiar to God’s people…throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, primarily in the Psalms and Isaiah when God’s people reference God as “The Mighty One” it is almost always in reference to God coming with judgment upon the wicked, such as Isaiah 60:12-16: “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid to waste…Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever…and you shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
The war images continue as Mary sings of God’s arm reaching out. The image of God’s mighty outstretched arm flows from God’s rescue of his people from slavery in Egypt, as God said, “‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God….”[iii] to his redemption of those who had been scattered in exile, “I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….”[iv]
And with Mary’s song, we hear that God, as he wages war on the evil and sin of the world, will be scattering the proud and bringing down the powerful as he lifts up the lowly and forgotten…He will provide sustenance for hungry, while those who depend upon their wealth for fulfillment will find themselves empty and hungering…in this, God will fulfill His promise to Abraham to make Abraham’s descendants a blessing to the world.
So, as we continue to try and understand God’s War we call Christmas, as we asked what the darkness of Bethlehem meant to us, we must try and grasp the significance of Mary for us—for she not only is the bearer of the Savior, but she sets for us a model of response to God’s call to war. While God has already claimed the ultimate victory in this war through the Resurrection of His Son, there are battles yet to be fought until the victory party of God’s Banquet. As God asked Mary to be a vessel through which He would come into the world, God asks that He might continue to enter the world through us to wage war on sin and corruption. He asks whether we are willing to give birth to His Presence in this world—are we willing to look into the world and see the needs of the weak and lowly, the poor and hungry, and enduring shame and humiliation, take the role of a servant of those in need taking on the proud and powerful—and say to God, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.