December 21, 2014
“Mary, did you know?” This is both the title and the question of a popular, contemporary Christmas carol. “Mary, did you know your baby boy would one day walk on water?” “Mary, did you know your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” And so it goes, asking if Mary knew the true nature of the baby, her baby, that she held in her arms.
I like this song. I have a version of it on a Christmas album by Kathy Mattea, and I listen to it regularly throughout this season. But I also know that there are others, some in my own family, who don’t like it. Of course Mary knew. That was the purpose of the annunciation – the story that we read from Luke’s gospel this day. The angel, Gabriel, shows up on Mary’s doorstep and announces that she will bear the Son of God. His actual words are, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Mary is understandably confused by his words. She is a young woman. She does not have an exalted family lineage. She comes from a nondescript little town. She is not rich nor is she royalty. She is just Mary. But here this angel of God comes to her and calls her favored. He announces to her that the Lord is with her. Not only is the Lord with her, but she has found favor with God. God has sought her out to bear a son who will be named Jesus. This child will not be just any child, but the Child of the Most High. He will sit on the throne of David. “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
This is incredible news. It’s strange and confusing news. Mary is one of the lowly, but she is greeted by an angel who calls her “favored.” I won’t say that she argues with Gabriel, but she does question the news she is given.
“How can this be?” Her reason for why the angel’s words are impossible is sound. She is a virgin. She is betrothed to Joseph, but they aren’t living fully as a married couple yet. While the word, “virgin,” in Greek can also be translated as “young girl,” it does not detract from the reality that Mary should not have the ability to physically conceive a child at this moment in time. The angel’s explanation of how this will happen is confusing and vague as well. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy.” Okay?
Perhaps in order to convince her of the reality of what is about to happen, Gabriel tells Mary the news of another unlikely, improbable, and seemingly impossible pregnancy. Her cousin, Elizabeth, who is an old woman and has been barren for years, is also pregnant with a son. Then Gabriel echoes the words spoken by other divine messengers to Abraham that his wife Sarah would have a child in her old age. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary hears this, and without any apparent hesitation, accepts this strange and impossible news. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary, did you know? I’m not sure what she knew at that moment. The angel didn’t give specifics about what it would mean for this child she would bear to be the Son of the Most High God. She isn’t told how he will rule or what that reign will look like. She is only told that she is favored by the Lord, that the Lord is with her, and that she will bring God into the world.
So I guess she knew, but she also didn’t know. I think the song’s question emphasizes the struggle that we Protestants have with Mary. Mary is highly regarded. She is the mother of Jesus, the human and the divine. But we don’t venerate her, pray to her, or invoke her name as holy. Whatever she knew and understood, or didn’t, what do we do with Mary?
I know that in my own sermons I’ve often portrayed her as a scared, young girl, who’s given some terrifying and overwhelming news. It has always seemed somewhat scandalous to me that a girl who was younger than my own young daughter would be told by God that she was going to have a baby. But on the other side of that spectrum, Mary is sentimentalized. She is portrayed in art and in our nativity sets as serene and peaceful. Her gaze is beatific and for her child and him alone. Sometimes her hands are clasped in prayer, adding the finishing touch to this perfect picture of a young woman favored by God.
But I wonder if the real Mary isn’t somewhere between those two understandings. A commentator, whose blog I read this week, wrote that we need to take Mary out of our context and put her firmly back in hers. In her context, being betrothed was much more than being engaged as we understand it. For all intents and purposes, Mary and Joseph were married. They weren’t sharing a household yet. But they were married. She may have been young, but life expectancy was approximately 40-years-old. So no one, including Mary, would have been shocked that she was betrothed as a teenager. The concept of a teenager would have been foreign as well. She definitely was not a teenager as we know them. Perhaps the most surprising fact that I learned was one this scholar learned from a rabbi. In her context, Mary’s pregnancy would not have been seen as scandalous. It would have been understood as a good omen for her marriage and her future well-being.
Mary, did you know? She may not have understood the full implications of God’s message to her through Gabriel. We will hear at least twice more in Luke that she would ponder in her heart the events surrounding the birth of her son, and the events that followed. She didn’t hesitate to question Gabriel about the news he brought her; again not as argument. It seems to me what she was really questioning was that all this would happen through her. Who am I? I’m just Mary, one of the lowly ones. Why would the Lord work through me? Why am I favored?
But in those brief moments in her encounter with Gabriel, Mary believes. She may not have fully understood or known what all of it would mean – for her, for her child, for the world. Yet she believed.
It seems to me that her belief is too often seen as passive, as though she were merely a vessel without a mind and heart of her own. She is understood to be mild-mannered and obedient to what she is told. But I think the real Mary, the real flesh and blood Mary who did have a heart and mind of her own, wasn’t passively obedient. She was perplexed. She questioned. She pondered and wondered. But she was faithful. She believed. She believed that God favored her. She believed that the Lord was indeed with her. She believed that God was working his purposes – whatever those would be – through her. She was just a lowly, young woman of humble birth, humble circumstances, humble everything. But she believed.
What do we believe? No, we’re not Mary. We won’t be told we’re carrying the Son of the Most High. But does that mean that God isn’t with us? Isn’t one of the reasons we observe Advent and celebrate Christmas year after year is because we believe that God is still working in the world? We believe that God’s purposes for us and for all creation are still coming to fruition. Do we believe that we are also favored? I don’t mean favored as in given special privilege or made superior to others. But are we also favored? Are we also called to believe that we are called, that God is working through us? It seems to me that we are. We are here because at some point, at some time, we heard God’s call, we recognized God’s hand print in our lives, and we answered. We may not always know what that call is or where it will lead us. Nor do we know what it will ask of us. Our belief may be shaky, faltering and hesitant at best, but we still believe.
Mary may not have known the specifics, but she believed. She heard the angel’s words and she believed. She took that proverbial leap of faith, accepted what she could not understand, believed what should have been impossible, and her life and the world and our lives as well were changed forever. Mary may not have known, but she believed. She believed. May we believe as well. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.