2 Samuel 7.1-11,16, Psalm 89.1-4, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word
The pious believer hears these words and waxes lyrical in praise of Mary. They praise her supernatural insight and laud her total submission.
I’m afraid I am not feeling very pious this morning.
This morning, I’d like to think about Mary as an embodied person, embedded in the tragic mess of history. I’d like us to imagine Mary as a Jewish women in late adolescence, in a patriarchal world, living under occupation in Judea. Her gender, her culture, her Jewish faith and the politics of her time shaped her fears and aspirations, and informed her reception of the angel’s message.
In Luke’s annunciation account, Mary is told that her son will grow into the stature of King David, and exceed it. He will be bathed in divine blessing and will bring glory and sovereignty back to a dejected and humiliated people. A future is coming when Judea will no longer be a vassal kingdom at the mercy of foreign powers, but it will command its own destiny.
As the mother of this coming king-greater-than-David, Mary, presumably, will go from being an anonymous adolescent in a backwater of Empire, to a women of Royal stature at the centre. Instead of being pushed around by others, she will command respect. She will play a critical role in the revolution that’s coming; a new golden age for her people.
If we view the annunciation scene in this way, is it any surprise that Mary responds with a resounding yes? I mean, who wouldn’t say yes to such a proposal?
It’s like a messenger appearing to teenage girl in a refugee camp in Northern Syria, offering to airlift her to the centre of power, there to successfully lobby for the return and restoration of her people. Or like a messenger addressing an intelligent girl in a food-bank dependent household anywhere in the UK, with news that a place awaits her at a prestigious University, followed by a political career by which she’ll reverse the dire inequities of this country.
My impious insight is that there’s no unique virtue in Mary saying yes at this, the beginning of the story. Mary agrees to play a role in ushering the restoration of Israel, by which she, and her people, will materially benefit.
The background of the annunciation scene in Luke Chapter 2 is a constellation of hopes, theological and political, for the Jewish people in the centuries before Christ.
During this time, the tiny territory of Judea had been absorbed into the Greek world, initially by Alexander the Great, and later annexed by Rome. And while there were economic and cultural benefits, the dangers were legion. For Jews, imposition of foreign power came with the possibility of persecution, temple desecration, cultural destruction, heavy taxation, and occasionally, devastating violence. There was a possibility that Jewish identity might disintegrate altogether as foreign powers played different factions off against each other, with some Jews tending toward assimilation, while others opting to fight to the death for freedom.
Amid all this, many looked back wistfully to a time when Israel enjoyed ‘rest from her enemies’, a time associated King David – God’s anointed – the one who rose from lowly shepherd, to be tribal chief, then dynastic King; the one made Jerusalem his royal and religious capital. They hoped that king like David would return.
I’d like to suggest that the reason we should praise Mary is not only because she said yes at the beginning of the story, but because she continued to say yes in the middle of the story, and at the end of the story too.
Mary continued to say ‘yes’ even when the realisation dawns that the angel’s promise was not materialising in anything like the way she might have first hoped. Many continued to say yes even as a sword of grief pierced her soul.
As the story unfolds we see points in Luke’s gospel were Mary ponders unexpected developments, and mulls over Jesus’ actions. She absorbs disappointment and confusion as her son goes his own way, remaining open to the possibility that God’s good grace was at work in unanticipated ways.
Mary moved from a conventional and –dare I say it –idealistic or naive ‘yes’, to a much deeper and clear-sighted affirmation of faith as the story goes on. Rather than losing her faith, the ‘yes’ to God only deepens as the story unfolds. It becomes the ‘yes’ echoed by every disciple who chooses to follow Christ, in life and in death, come what may.
Did Mary ever look back at the angel’s initial message with resentment, I wonder? On seeing the crown of thorns pressed down upon her son’s bloodied head, did she think back in bitterness to Gabriel’s promises about a coming king; that promise which rolled off the angelic tongue so easily and drew from her such eager assent?
When I think of Mary’s ‘yes’, I think of the moments at which we say ‘yes’ in ways that bind us irreversibly, determining the course of our lives. I think of the vows and promises we make to one another.
We might say ‘yes’ in marriage and partnership; we might say ‘yes’ to the Church in ordination or membership of a religious order; we might say ‘yes’ to a new career pathway, or ‘yes’ to raising children.
We say ‘yes’, and as it was for Mary, we’re not always entirely sure what we’re signing up to. We don’t always count the cost, because there’s no way we can foresee what the costs might be.
And sometimes we look back on the person that we once were, that person who said ‘yes’ at the beginning, and wonder: ‘who was that version myself making that life-changing decision?’ ‘Knowing all I now know, would I make the same commitment again?’
The question becomes acute as we face tragedies that seem to mock our former hopes: the loss of a child, the loss of a job, the loss of faith, or the breakdown of a relationship. These experiences cause desolation and tempt us to despair, but in many cases there’s grace despite the wounds.
Often the reasons we choose to remain faithful to our past commitments are not the same reasons that led us to make the commitments in the first place.
I think Mary understands all this. And I think, that given that Mary stands front and centre among the communion of saints alive in God’s presence now, she can help us navigate our struggles.
As Christians we honour Mary as the theotokos, the God-bearer, the temple of God’s glory, in whose finite womb the infinite found a home. ‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.’ We also honour her as a fellow disciple. Alongside and ahead of us, Mary urges us to keep the faith, and to keep seeking her Son, the promised King in whom all God’s promises find their ‘yes’.