A sermon delivered to the First United Methodist Church of Schenectady, NY
December 11, 2016
Rev. Sara E. Baron
It has been said about Mary, “No woman in scripture is more honored, blessed as she was ‘above all women’ (Luke 1:42), and she holds an iconic status shared by no other woman in Christianity. Through the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, Mary is one of the first biblical characters many children encounter. Along with Eve, Mary is integral to shaping how Christians understand the nature of womanhood and motherhood.”1 What is said is true. Mary, along with Eve, has both shaped how women are understood in Christianity AND the inverse: perceptions of Mary (and Eve) are indicators of how Christianity is understanding women. How Mary is seen is a bell-weather for how women are seen. Cary Gibson, the author of the opening quote, also says, “Mary is a container into which we pour ideas of what it means to be a woman. In turn we then draw from her image ideas about our own womanhood.”2
Most commonly, Mary is said to be meek and mild. Usually, it is her subservience that sets her up as the ideal woman. The pedestal of womanhood that Mary most frequently occupies as the ideal woman is the pedestal of the selfless mother, the one who exists simply so her son can exist. She’s faithful, sweet, and biddable. There is, however, one issue with this common perception Mary: it completely ignores the words of Mary found in the Gospel of Luke.
Now, I’m not saying that I really think some literate scribe was following Mary around during her pregnancy to record her insights for posterity. However, I am saying we have a rather long monologue attributed to Mary that defies the way she is most commonly defined. The meek and mild ideal does not match the actual Gospel. The myths around her are more about what Christian women have been told to be than they are about the actual stories about and words of Mary.
Therefore, it seems worth exploring the words attributed to Mary. Whether the words are what Mary said, or something Mary could have said, or simply what it made sense to someone that the Mother of Jesus WOULD have said, they are attributed to her. Since the general perception of Mary is based on 20 centenaries of trying to put women in their place, and I’d prefer to get to know Mary as presented in the Gospel. It may be that we can take a look at Mary-the-ideal-woman and get a different answer about what it means to be an ideal woman.
For starters, these words are not meek, nor mild. In fact, Cary Gibson says Mary, “voiced a defiant and righteous hope in the face of violence and injustice.”3 It is true. These words express a HARDCORE faith and a great ideal for women to seek to live up to. Men too. This is the sort of faith we can all aspire to!
First of all, Mary’s song is deeply rooted in her faith tradition. It echoes Hannah’s song of celebration after Hannah fulfilled her promise and brought her son Samuel to Eli to serve him as a priest. It also echoes with phrases from the Psalms. The version of this song that we have is a work of theological and scriptural brilliance and sophistication. Hannah’s song is powerful, but reflects a less mature faith. Hannah yearns for God to smash the powerful, deride her enemies, and break the mighty. In her mind the powerless are lifted up BY making the powerful small. There is violence in her imagery, even as there is celebration of the goodness of God and of her sense of becoming more significant in the world.
Mary’s song, though, is not vengeful. She also speaks of lifting up the poor and lonely. Like Hannah she speaks about God’s power, but she also adds God’s mercy. Mary speaks of lowering the mighty, but the lowering isn’t violent or dangerous for them: the proud are “scattered in the thoughts of their hearts” which sounds like a way to be more humble; the powerful step down from their thrones (but she doesn’t suggest they’re harmed afterward); the rich are sent away empty – as if they don’t need any more. Hannah had the the formerly “full” “hire themselves out for bread.” Mary is interested in lifting up the lowly and removing their oppression, not in oppressing the oppressors. She is a actually meeker and milder than Hannah, Hannah’s is pretty rough. Mary is simply less violent!
Hannah speaks of her victory, Mary speaks of being treated with God’s favor. While both are grateful for the child they are able to nurture, and while both express incredible gratitude to God and deep theological reflections, they have different energies. The insertion of material from the Psalms into Hannah’s original poem changes it into a more gracious piece. One scholar found that in addition to the source material of Hannah’s poem, the song of Mary includes 7 pieces of different Psalms, as well as a quote each from Deuteronomy, Job, Micah, and Isaiah. By that scholar’s reckoning all of the words of Mary’s song are attributable to Hebrew Bible quotations.4
Mary’s song starts in the specific. She is grateful to be useful to God, humbly aware of her status as a poor woman in her society, and attentive to the change of her status because of God’s favor. She attributes her life change to God’s greatness, and she praises God. She expresses who God is: merciful, consistent, strong, and powerful. She talks about a God who cares about the lowly, and feeds the hungry with GOOD food. Her song makes another journey outward, celebrating God’s care for all of the Jews and then attributing God’s care to God’s merciful nature and God’s promises. She moves from celebrating God’s work for her, to celebrating God’s work for the vulnerable, to celebrating God’s work for all her people. It is as if she is expanding her gratitude in increasingly wide circles.
While it is unlikely to be factual, this text suggests that Mary knew her scriptures well enough to combine them creatively into a truly beautiful and majestic song celebrating God WITHOUT demeaning anyone else. It suggests that her humility was real, but it wasn’t a form of self-deprecation. It says she was genuinely honored to be able to serve God and be useful in forming the world in God’s kindom of shalom. She was delighted and amazed to be chosen. She recognized the depth of the blessing she received, seemingly without thinking that it made her more important than others. She said she was blessed, and was amazed that people would remember her as blessed. That indicates she didn’t think she’d done anything right or worthy, it was God’s choice not her worthiness that mattered. Her gratitude was expansive and celebratory and still focused on lifting up the lowly and attentive to the hungry. She kept her head!
The Mary of this song is wise, strong, compassionate, creative, humble, and grateful. She knows and celebrates a God who is a fierce advocate of justice. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book “The First Christmas” point out that each of the Gospels start with a “Gospel in miniature” (with the possible exception of Mark which starts at a gallop and just keeps going!). Luke 1 and 2, which likely do NOT represent authentic memories of things that really happened, DO represent themes of the Gospel, understanding of Jesus, foreshadowing of things to come, and ways to see how God is known in the Gospel. Luke pays particular attention to women – as we can see here where Mary gets a prolonged monologue – as well as to the poor and vulnerable. We can also see that here in the words Mary speaks. The writer of Luke, and/or the Christian tradition, and/or the editors who came later attribute these words to Mary largely to help those of us who came later to understand her son.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m disparaging Hannah’s song. Her song is FIERCE and profound, and reflects an era one whole millennia before Mary’s. Hannah, as well, sought justice. She sought it for herself and she sought it for all of God’s people. She understood God to be one who cares about the poor, the hungry, the feeble, the barren, the low, and the needy. That is a reflection of the unique tradition of Judaism, from a pretty early time. Other ancient peoples believed in god and goddesses. The Israelites were unique, however, in believing in a God who cared about how they treated each other, and in a God who cared about the people who had the least power and influence. There is a constant tension in the Bible between this belief – in a God who cares for the poor and lowly – and the human tendency to prefer the rich and powerful. Hannah reflects the God who cares for the poor and lowly without being pulled toward the rich and powerful at all. Then Mary manages to take it a step further and acknowledge a God who cares for everyone. They sought justice, and believed in a God who wanted justice. This is our radical tradition. This is the wonder of worshiping a God of compassion.
Those sons of those women took their justice-seeking natures and their understandings of the God of Compassion, and changed the world. We mostly know about the mothers because of the sons. Samuel anointed kings. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with sinners, and told parables that still confound us today. Both sons changed the world. Both mothers are presented as sources of wisdom for their sons. Their stories are preludes to their sons stories, and yet I am so grateful that the Bible gives them voices and songs and stories! They are not ONLY vessels through which their sons come to be, they are interesting in their own right.
I do wish for all of us to be able to be a bit like these justice seeking mothers. And if we are going to hold up Mary as the ideal, then I hope it takes the form of being moved to sing our gratitude to God and celebrating the wonder of God’s good work in the world. I hope we can become so steeped in our faith tradition that we can use it in creative ways that bring more caring, compassion, and justice to our tradition. I hope that we can see and name the goodness of our lives without taking ourselves too seriously. And I do hope that when push comes to shove we are more like Mary than like Hannah, and that we can hope for the transformation of oppressors – not the oppression of them. I hope we too can always remember the people of God who are struggling the most, and find ways to help lift them up. I hope we can be part of our tradition that remembers God as a God of compassion for the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.
If Mary is the ideal, and she seems to be well set up to be the ideal, then let’s seek to be like her: fierce, grateful, and brilliant. Amen.
1 Cary Gibson, “Mary, Jesus’ Mother” in an email from The Common English Bible send by Abingdon Press on December 2nd, 2016.
4Joseph A. Fitzmeyer “The Gospel According to Luke I-IX” in the The Anchor Bible Series (Doubleday and Co.: Garden City, NY, 1981) p 356-357.