We seldom see paintings of Mary, the mother of Jesus pregnant. Doesnt that seem strange? From the narrative she plays a central role in the story and during most of that time she is pregnant. The story tells us that she is visited by a heavenly being, announces to her betrothed Joseph that she is pregnant; she visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, travels to Bethlehem and gives birth to her son. True, she does appear from time to time in the gospel story, but it is her pregnancy that is central to our image of Mary. And yet Christian art has tended to ignore that fact.
I suspect that Mary is not pictured as pregnant because very early in the history of the church there was a sanitizing of her image and somehow or other, being pregnant did seem to fit well with the emerging relationship between the Virgin Mary and sexuality in general. And thats a great pity because the legacy we are left with in the Christian faith has brought about an unhealthy division between sex and conception on one the hand and pregnancy and birth on the other. And that has left its indelible imprint on at least 1,500 years of Christian history and practice.
Mary should be seen as a major player in the Gospel narrative and not because she was pure or a passive receptacle of the Spirit of God, but because she was the mother of Jesus and she showed courage, faith and hopefulness in the face of family and societal pressure. Protestants have had an uncomfortable relationship with Mary. Perhaps what we see as the almost deification of the Blessed Virgin in some Christian traditions has made us reluctant to give her a central place. I recall a very devote Catholic woman at a retreat I was attending who saw her mission as convincing me that I must prayer to the Virgin Mary to bring about world peace. Umm. To her chagrin I resisted.
Regardless of our Protestant heritage we do need to recognize that she is an important player in the divine drama for Jesus birth. Now remember, it is very likely that this young woman was only 14 or 15 years old and she was like many woman of her day, living under the domination of a patriarchal society. She was not free to marry or even to associate with whom she pleased, but rather lived under the rule of her father and the males of her society. So into that social and political regime, she was to encounter the divine, the sacred and she responded with a moral strength and courage beyond her tender years.
Born of Woman
The earliest reference we have to the young woman we call Mary is found not in the gospels but in the writings of Paul the Apostle in the letter to the Churches of Galatia written about 50AD. However, Galatians 4:4 doesnt mention Mary by name but says:
When the time had fully come
Gods sent forth his Son
Born of a woman, born under the law,
To redeem those who were under the law,
So that we might receive adoption as sons.
Born of a woman. These words were written about 20 years after the death of Jesus and the Easter experience of his followers. For Paul and the fledgling Christian community it was important to make it clear that Jesus of Nazareth was a person, a human being who was like us. Remember these ancient believers lived in a world of demi-gods. Half god and half man but they had not experienced Jesus like that. He was a real person with a mother and a father (not often mentioned mind you,) he had brothers named James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas (not Iscariot) named in the gospels and sisters not named in the gospel narrative.
But this morning we look at Mary, the mother of Jesus. A woman who has had a significant role in the history of Christian faith but of which there is only a few references in the Gospel writings, nevertheless, they are big references. The passage we read this morning takes a prayer from the song of Hannah in the Book of Samuel and places it on the lips of Mary. A powerful and beautiful announcement of the reign of God:
My soul gives glory to the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One
has done great things for me - holy is his name.
Gods mercy extends to those who respect him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his strength; he has scattered those who are proud brought down rulers from their thrones but the humble he has exulted.
It probably goes without saying, but this declaration is preceded by the joy of her pregnancy not her virginity. Now the reason I say that is because the virgin birth, the Virgin Mary can at times eclipses the woman Mary who was a woman and mother to Jesus. It is true that in this case it is a response to the joy of pregnancy and the excitement of birth, and I am sure that that has something to do with a culture that prizes fertility and marks a woman by her ability to give birth, but I think there is in this prayer, a valuing of the woman in a culture that saw women more as possessions rather than fully liberated human beings like the freemen of the society.
The Reversal of Roles
As we observed recently in the parables that there is often in the central teachings of Jesus a reversal of the common wisdom; of what we all believed to be true without even thinking about it. The parable was to catch your attention and present an alternative view of life a reversal of Roles. This has always been the minor theme in the Christian religion, the back story that is often ignored in the pursuit of religious power. Its the story of justice for the oppressed and healing and wholeness for the distressed and is fundamental to the gospel message, filling the story with meaning.
for God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant
he has scattered those who are proud brought down rulers from their thrones but the humble he has exulted.
Again I want to put this prayer, this reading, back into the context that Mary was an unwed mother. She was pregnant and it was becoming obvious to her family, friends and neighbours that she was pregnant. We know how devastating this was in the ancient world. But of course we only need to look at places in our modern world where honour killings are carried out on young woman who become pregnant out of marriage. The text could read, God has been mindful of the humiliation of his servant. Even the story tells us this was a humiliation for Joseph her betrothed, who lived in a culture that ostracized those who broke with convention. So there is a scandalous aspect to this Christmas story. But the prayer takes us beyond this one pregnancy and helps us see life itself as pregnant with hope and meaning.
Gods mercy extends to those who respect him,
from generation to generation.
Like what Jill Edens, a United Church of Christ minister in the USA says about this story of Marys pregnancy:
When we invite Christ into our lives, we cannot hide it from the world any more than his mother could forever camouflage her swelling belly. Christ will reshape us, displacing our old lives for the new creation our friends and loved ones will soon learn that we are not in step with them but are in the business of fomenting a great displacement where the first will be last, and the last will be first.
A Pregnant Pause
So what I would like to say is that Advent is a time for a pregnant pause. As we journey toward Christmas these few weeks can have a sense of meaning beyond the Christmas lights and even the songs and carols. Too often we think that our culture is the keeper of the Christmas tradition, but it really is us, the church. We are the ones that hold this story as sacred and potentially life changing. But for that to happen, we have to be wary that the symbols and rituals of Christmas do not eclipse the essential narrative and meaning. The images we hold in our mind of a passive Virgin Mary serenely surrounded by shepherds and farm animals, is not necessarily the message of this season. The real picture may have been bleaker, but no doubt was more real.
To see what happened in the life of Mary we need the eyes of faith; that is we need to look beyond our celebrations of Christmas and even the story itself which is wrapped around the experiences of the early Christian believers. It may seem strange to us but perhaps the most starling aspect of this story is that Jesus, the one in whom his followers saw the face of God, was born like the rest of us. In the ancient world, where gods were born in magical ways, the fact that this child was birth in humble surroundings takes our humanity to a new level.
While church history attempted to purify this whole birth process, concluding in the 19th century with the peculiar step to elevate of Mary to perpetual virginity, a far deeper and more authentic understanding is that Mary the mother of Jesus encountered the presence of the living God in the conception, pregnancy and birth of Jesus; and that the scandal of the conception of Jesus was dealt with by Joseph showing courage and compassion. He didnt reject this woman as the culture said he should, but took her to be his wife. Thats redemption. So this young woman can become for us a saintly person, not primarily because of what was done to her, but because of how she responded to the bewildering experience of God coming into her life in ways she could never have predicted.