Hanging on the wall, downstairs in my study, are two hand-painted Icons that I brought back with me from a trip to Romania many years ago. They have made every move with me and are usually the first things I hang on the wall when I move to a new church. They are Icons of Jesus and his Mother Mary. It might sound strange that a minister of a Reformed/Protestant theological tradition would have icons hanging on the wall of his study, but for me, they are a constant reminder of why I do what I do.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I am a believer in the Reformed theological understanding of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and his mother’s role in all of that. However, I am also critical of Mary’s seeming removal from the theological understanding of the story of Christmas. Mary is not just a player in the story. She is the beginning of the story and, if we take her out or reduce her to some meek and mild participant, we lose a large part, if not the central part of the story.
I say a central part because if this young girl, from a backwater part of the Roman Empire, had not said yes to the Angel when he visited her, we would not have the rest of the story. This may shock you, but Mary had to say yes, she had to give her consent to God for the rest of the story to unfold, and by doing so, she repaired a breach in the relationship between God and humanity that goes back to the time of Adam and Eve. God gave us free will at creation, and it is that free will that allows us, and Mary to say no.
I know we like the sweet story of two people, naked and afraid, in the Garden of Eden looking for something to eat. God comes along and tells them that they can eat from any tree or plant they want, except this one, so naturally, that is precisely what they do. Now I know we also like to blame Eve for what happens next, but Adam, like Mary, was a willing participant. Eve did not hold him down and force-feed him whatever it was they ate. I don’t think food had anything to do with the story; it came down to the arrogance that humanity knew better than God. A sin, if you will, society is still guilty of.
Along comes Mary, and she says yes and changes it all.
What about Mary, and why should we care about her or this passage that has been described as boring? For starters, Mary is the Mother of God.
Since the third century, Mary has been called the Theotokos, the Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus in AD 431 decreed that Mary is the Theotokos because her Son Jesus is both God and man: one divine person with two natures (divine and human) intimately and hypostatically united. That is theological speak that means because of our Trinitarian theological understanding of the nature of God, Jesus is God, and therefore Mary gave birth to God in human flesh. As it says in the opening verses of the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
So, we honor Mary because she is the mother of Jesus, but we also admire her for what she did in saying yes to God.
Mary bursts on the scene in the opening passage of the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s Gospel is the only one that contains the story of the Angel coming to Mary. Tradition tells us that Mary, since she was the only one present, told the story herself to the writer of the Gospel. We do not get much of a glimpse into her life other than what tradition tells us. Mary was the only child of Joachim and Anna, an older couple who prayed to God for a child. We are told that she was raised in the temple and at a certain age was set to be married as young girls would have been. She was not more than a teenager of 13 or 14 years when the Angel came to her.
Mary was from Galilee, which has been described as the armpit of the Roman Empire. As a female, she would have been considered property, first of her father and then her husband. She had no say in what happened to her or whom she would marry. She could own no property and had no money of her own. She was utterly dependent on others for her care and wellbeing, and this is what makes this story so extraordinary.
We know the story, the Angel comes to Mary and tells her that God has favored her and that God has chosen her to bring his Son, the Savior of humanity, into the world. At first, she is confused, as I am sure any of us would be, and she asks how this is possible. How is it that she is going to give birth since she “knows not a man?” The Angel proceeds to tell her that it is the Holy Spirit’s power, which I am sure, does not make the situation any more comfortable. For the sake of space, the story is condensed and seems only like a few moments in time, but I imagine that this was not a quick or easy decision for Mary.
Mary knew the consequences of what she was contemplating. Mary knew the fate of a woman who found herself “in the family way” and did not have a husband. The Jewish law of her day would have seen her stoned in the center of the city while her parents watched or maybe even participated. This was a death sentence for Mary, and she knew full well what would happen to her. Scripture tells us that when she told Joseph he was “going to send her away quietly” to spare her life but also spare him any embracement. Everyone knew they were engaged, and everyone knew that he would have been the father. Of course, he would not meet the same fate as Mary; only the woman was killed for adultery.
However, after wrestling with the question, Mary says to the Angel, be it done according to your will, a sentence her Son would utter the night before his crucifixion. Mary agrees, gives the Angel the go-ahead, and trusting in God, an unbelievable amount of trust; she is entrusting her very life to God. God has, in one sense, asked her to sacrifice her very life, and Mary, this young girl, said yes.
Besides the brief mention of what happens next, the only other thing we know is that the same Angel came and visited Joseph and told him all would be well. He is asked to risk a lot by taking her as his wife and raising this child. But not as much as Mary.
Then we come to today’s beautiful Song from the Gospel of Luke. This is a song of praise, it is a song of defiance, and it is a call to action. This is the statement of a young girl, with no voice in her society, that a moral, social, and economic, as well as a spiritual revolution is about to begin, and the world will never be the same. The voice of a young, Palestinian woman is calling for a new way to live.
Mary, now “great with child,” goes off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the soon to be the mother of John the Baptist. Scripture tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, her baby leaped in her womb with joy. She encounters Elizabeth and recites the passage of Scripture we listened to this morning.
She beings with praise:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior.”
Mary does not complain about any of it; her first words are to praise God for the gift that has been bestowed upon her. She is joyous that God has chosen her, and she wants to tell the world about it.
“for he was looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant.”
As I have already said, Mary was from the back of beyond. Forget for a moment, her gender and all that came with that she was the poor of the poor. God did not choose the daughter of the King or even the daughter of some middle-class person; he chose the poorest of the poor. He came to Mary, just as she was and found favor with her. God has come to the worst place and found his servant. The message for us is God loves us just as we are.
She then tells Elizabeth that “surely, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.” Not because of anything that she has done, other than saying yes, but because of what God has done to her and through her, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and Holy is his name.” It has never been about Mary; it is always about Jesus. In the icon I mentioned earlier, Mary is not depicted on her own; in fact, Mary is never depicted on her own because it is not about her, and it is always about her Son. In the icon, Jesus is sitting on her lap. Mary is pointing to him, just as a prophet points the way, Mary, who in some ways is a prophet, is pointing toward Jesus. We honor Mary not for what she has done but because she pointed the way to Jesus.
She goes on to say why this is happening, “His mercy is for those who fear him.” A better word would be awe but let’s stick with fear for now. Then the revolutionary statement begins.
“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”
I already mentioned the link between Eve and Mary, who is also called the Second Eve. The sin of Adam and Eve was arrogance and pride. Arrogance and pride are the roots of all sinful behavior and what Mary is saying is that it has been reversed. If we set our lives besides that of Christ, our last vestige of pride will be taken away. Christ enables us to see ourselves, and that is a deathblow to pride. Through these words, Mary is announcing that the moral revolution has begun.
“He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.”
Christianity has, or at least it is supposed to have, put an end to the world’s labels and prestige. The problem is we do not honestly believe this. Some have taken Christianity and held it so tight they refuse to let others in. The message of Christmas and Mary’s Song is that Jesus was born for all of humanity, not just a particular sector of it. Remember, Jesus was born in the worst place on earth, he was born with no roof over his head, he had to flee persecution to another country, and he was unjustly convicted of a crime and killed for political reasons. Mary is announcing that a social revolution is beginning.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
In the world of the first century, Palestine was not unlike our society today. The message our world sends is it all about the stuff we have, the big car, the big house, etc. The very way we have chosen, as a society, to celebrate the birth of Jesus is by giving gifts and going into a massive amount of debt to show our loved ones how much we love them. Mary has come to tell us that a change is coming, an economic revolution is upon us when all will have what they need; some of us are still waiting for that revolution to begin.
The point of this is to remind us that the Christmas story is not only about the birth of a tiny baby that would change the world, but it is also the story of a defiant young girl standing in the public square and shaking her fist and saying, “no more.” This person who was considered no more than property has just announced to a world that would be happy to see her stoned to death for adultery that the world as they know it is about to change.
The story of Christmas begins with a young girl saying yes. The story of Christmas continues with that same young girl announcing to the world that change is coming, and we better be ready for it. The story of Christmas is about a baby being born so poorly that he has no place to lay his head other than a place where animals get their food, which indicates that he will feed us spiritually with his very life. So, the story of Christmas ends with the reassurance that no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, Christ was born for you, just as you are.
Oh, and yes, Mary did know.