Advent IV,  December 21, 2014

Luke 1:26-38   /    Luke 1:47-55

There’s a Christmas card circulating on the Facebook that gave me a chuckle. It’s a simple holiday wish: “may you have less anxiety this Christmas season than an unwed Palestinian teenager pregnant with the Messiah.”  It kind of puts our Christmas stress into perspective, doesn’t it?  And it gives us a glimpse of some of the real anxiety and struggle and fear that must have been at the birth of our faith.

When we think of Mary, we tend to think of the stained-glass version, serene in her dress of blue, gentle and mild and placid. Or think of those paintings of the Annunciation, Mary sitting calmly in her room, a vase of lilies beside her, maybe a book or some sewing in her lap, meekly receiving the angel’s message. The reality was without doubt a bit more turbulent and conflicted.

First of all, she was young, probably much younger than we can imagine. In those days it was common for young women to be married shortly after puberty, possibly as young as 13 or 14. Perhaps Mary was a couple of years older; but a teenager, nonetheless. When we think of a girl that young pregnant, it shocks and upsets us, and well it should. This is not an age at which a young woman has the maturity to cope with the demands of motherhood, let alone being told she is to bear the Messiah.

And then we have to remember the society in which she lived. It would be difficult enough in our society, thinking back a generation or two, for an unwed teenager to find herself pregnant. In Mary’s day, the best she could hope for would be complete shame and ostracization by the neighbours, for herself and her family, a lifetime of being branded a fallen woman, who no decent person – certainly no decent man – would be seen with. At worst, she might fall into the hands of a self-righteous mob and be stoned.

No doubt she must have internalized a lot of the shame. And then there is the question of her fiancé – the shame and fear she must have felt towards him. Here too, the Bible suggests that the best she could have hoped for would be to be put away quietly.

It is important to remember something of the turmoil and pain and shame that must have been running through Mary’s head, to remember what it must have cost her to say yes to the angel’s announcement: “may it be unto me according to your word”. This is not just an automatic response, an easy pious gesture, a serene drifting onto the stage to take her part in the great story. It is an act of great courage, and of almost unbelievable faith. Of course we know how it all ended, we know that it all turns out for the best. But she did not have that luxury. Her response was needed at at time when she didn’t know how it would turn out, couldn’t in fact have imagined how this mess could ever turn out okay. And yet, still, she believed that this was of God.  That’s really all she had to hold onto. And she trusted God blindly and absolutely.

It must have been difficult. No doubt she had reason to fear the disapproval of the neighbours, perhaps of her own parents. We are told that she immediately – “with haste”, in fact – undertook the journey into the hill country to visit her cousin Elisabeth. That was surely not just a social call. She sought out the one person who gave her support and encouragement, an older woman relative. Perhaps Elisabeth was on the receiving end of some disapproving glances from the neighbours as well – “pregnant at her age, imagine”. In any case, she welcomed Mary, believed in her, fed her and supported her for three months, until she felt able to return home.

It is this meeting between Mary and Elisabeth that provides the setting for one of the most beloved, but also the most remarkable passages of Scripture. You remember how the story goes: when Elisabeth sees Mary, the child (who would be John the Baptist) leapt in her womb, in excitement and recognition of the presence of the Messiah. And Mary in turn bursts into song:

    My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour

The familiar words of the Magnificat, which we said today in place of the psalm.

When you think about it, the words we are hearing are the first act of Christian worship; that is, the praise of God in the presence of Jesus, in light of the fact that God has come into the world. At the same time, it is a profoundly Jewish prayer. As Mary prays, she is channelling her sisters in faith who have gone before, strong women who praised God in the light of God’s mighty deeds: Hannah, first of all, but also Deborah the warrior, and Miriam dancing at the overthrow of Pharaoh’s army.

The words she prays are powerful, and bold, and revolutionary:

    He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

These are not meek and mild words.  They are words that exult in what God is doing in the world, that look to the overthrowing of the powerful and proud, that claim the dignity and the rights of the poor.

Again and again the church tries to contain Mary, to depict her as a gentle, mild, otherworldly figure.  And every time these revolutionary words give the lie to our fantasies. That pregnant teen, struggling with fear and anxiety and shame, and responding with courage and faith – well, she turns out to be a formidable, powerful woman. If you’ll pardon the expression, Mary is one kick-ass girl!

It is important to hold onto both aspects of the story, of who Mary is. It is important to remember the fear and anxiety and courage that lay behind Mary’s decision. It is important to remember that our faith was born not in some fantasy world of serene pious certainty, but amidst confusion and anxiety and uncertainty and shame. Because that is where our faith often needs to prove itself. Not in the serene pious certainty of the long view, where we know it all turns out okay in the end, but more often it’s right in the middle of fear and uncertainty and anxiety, when we can’t even imagine how this could possibly turn out, that we need to trust God.

And it is important to me to remember the other side of Mary as well, that this scared teen was also a woman of confidence and vision, powerfully celebrating and claiming the power of God to change this world, to bring justice and salvation to the downtrodden. Too often – and perhaps especially around the sentimentality of the Christmas story – we can forget that our faith is about God changing this world. We are called not to meek and mild acquiescence in the injustice and exploitation of this world, but to join in Mary’s exulting celebration of God’s revolutionary justice.

So, this Christmas time, may you experience just a bit of the anxiety of an unwed Palestinian teenager pregnant with the Messiah; may you be strengthen by her trust in God to confront your own fears and struggles; and may you be infected by her joyous passion for God’s active, world-changing justice. Amen.