I don’t think you will find any United Reformed Church named after Mary –though you can find the odd St Columba’s or St Andrew’s. Christians in our kind of tradition have tended to see Mary as the saint who, above all, we need to put back in her place, and whose statues we like to remove. We worry that some people make the mistake of worshipping her or praying to her. And many have said that as a model for women she presents the impossible ideal of a virgin mother – which no real women of course can ever achieve.
But today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to listen to her voice, and Rowan Williams says that if we side-line Mary completely then we are in danger of not taking the humanity of Jesus as seriously as we should. She was his mother, and she, partly at least, made him what he was and became. She is the one who reveals to us the truth that Jesus, even while he was God with us, is fully and completely human too. And she is the one who sang, according to Luke, a song that says so much about what her son would later live and proclaim.
And so I find myself wanting to go back and look at her story and ask what good news we can draw from it for today. If we were to go by all those statues that you find of Mary, or all those picture on the internet, then she was always dressed in delicate materials that never got dirty, she was always serene and calm, and hardly ever moved, and had the kind of demure look that we associate with Princess Diana. But of course, we know if we think about it for a moment that she wasn’t like that at all, and that all those images come from much, much later in Christian history – and that they are not true to her. So if she never was like all those statues, if she never really was the serene, idealised, blond girl in the blue dress (and she surely wasn’t!) then who was she and who might she be for us?
We meet her most in Luke’s account of the birth stories (Mark doesn’t have them at all and Matthew is much more interested in Joseph). We know, from Luke, that she is a young girl, not yet married but about to be, and living in Nazareth – a small backwater Palestinian village (can anything good ever come out of Nazareth?) where people lived in modest houses or even sometimes in caves hewn from the rocks. She would probably have been in her early teens – girls then were married very young, much younger than we would think wise today. So we have to imagine a teenager from a Northern village. She’s also the kind of girl who can talk back to an angel. He’s told her that she will conceive and bear a son. And her first response is simply, ‘How can this be?’. The biblical equivalent of ‘Don’t be daft!’. Then, after the angel has gone she goes, on her own, into the hills to visit her relative Elizabeth – a journey that was brave in itself – not just an afternoon stroll but about 70 miles distance. And there was, it seems, no-one with her; no Joseph and as far as we know no donkey. We don’t see her walking alone or scrambling over rocks in the Christmas cards, but maybe we should. This is what the story says.
It’s only when she’s with Elizabeth that she sings the song for which she is famous; the Magnificat. And then she stays with Elizabeth for three months, perhaps, we might think, until those early months of pregnancy are over, the sickness gone and the journey home a bit easier. So she sings her famous song in the Judean hills, while she is with Elizabeth. But what does it mean?
She says that she knows that she will be called blessed in the future (and she was right about that), and maybe she knew too that right then she was anything but blessed as far as many people would judge her; potentially disgraced and alone. Then she says lots of things about the proud being scattered, the powerful brought down and the rich sent away empty, as well as the lowly being lifted up and the hungry fed. These are all things that might make us all cheer and rally to the barricades. So we begin to imagine Mary as someone at a protest march; Black Lives Matter, Stop the War or some kind of rebellion. Perhaps she might have been there tearing down the statue of a slave trader in Bristol, or blocking the roads in Bristol to save the planet, or marching against nuclear weapons somewhere in the world. This sounds like a revolutionary text and there’s no doubt that it has inspired many Christians to believe in the God who will change the world. And from what we know of Jesus, this was his message too. The kingdom of God is coming, and it is coming to turn the world as we know it upside down, so that the poor will be blessed, the grieving will be comforted, the hungry will be filled and the rich will be emptied out. The beatitudes and woes that Jesus preaches himself only a few chapters later in the same Gospel exactly mirror the song of Mary.
But what strikes me so much this time as I read this Magnificat text is that Mary has so much to say about the strength of God. God is a ‘mighty One’ who does great things. He has strong arms, strength enough to scatter the proud and bring down the powerful, but also strength to lift up the lowly and to feed the hungry. This God is a strong God, a God who remembers his promises and stands beside his people. If Mary ever went to anything like Sunday school (Shabbat school) she would have sung songs like ‘Our God is a great big God’. I think this is really significant. And perhaps I noticed it this time because I need it – and maybe you do too.
Most of the songs we sing about Mary, even the ones in our hymn book, have words like ‘gentle’ and ‘mild’ in them. It’s hard to find a song about Mary that really gives honour to the person she is in this song or the trust in God that she had and that she, we might imagine, passed on to her son. Remember that Mary was a teenager in trouble; in her own body certainly, but also in terms of the politics of the day. Her people were poor, living under occupation. She was a woman in a world where women were treated like property, to be owned and used. And the people were hungry, many even destitute. And yet she trusted in God and believed in a strong God who would come, who will come, and put things right. She had a strong faith in a strong God.
If this song had any kind of origin in Mary herself then it comes from a Palestinian girl, pregnant before marriage, in actual danger of being punished by the people in her village. And maybe, who knows, that’s why she ran away 70 miles or so to visit Elizabeth her cousin. She was lowly, ordinary, in danger – and she would be again. But she was also ‘strong’ in grace, in wisdom, and in faith. And we see that strength later in the Gospel stories too. She is present in the Gospel story in so many ways; at the cross, the tomb and even with the apostles at the coming of the Holy Spirit. She was even named by the early Christians in their very early creeds. She was a strong woman with a strong God.
I’ve realised that Christians tend to have strong views about Mary, much stronger than they have about say James and John or even that other Mary and Martha. There are those who like only the Palestinian peasant girl, the lowly, exploited young woman who was basically abused by an angel, given no choice, a tragic figure. And there are those who like the Mary who is the model disciple, who makes a real choice to accept God’s call on her life, and who becomes one honoured even in the company of heaven. But notice that neither of those is the demure, silent figure in the blue dress. There is a strength about Mary and her faith that, I think, the church has tried to snuff out. But it emerges every time we sing her song.
I don’t know about you, but there are times in all our lives when the flame of faith can burn low, when we even begin to wonder whether God is there at all. We might then turn to some of the Psalms that sing about the pain of life and the sorrow and the days when hope runs out. Mary did something different. According to Luke’s story, at the very moment when she had been made vulnerable to disapproval, criticism and even violence for being who she was, and even recognising how low she might become, she set off on a long walk and sang about the strength of God, the God with the strong arms that are everlasting, the God who is coming to turn life round.
I imagine there are days in all our lives when we need to sing this song too. We all have times when we know our own weakness and our own strength is tested. We know that our friends saying ‘Stay strong’ is just not enough and that, unlike Gloria Gaynor, we can’t just rely on our own resources to ‘survive’. Then perhaps we can be like Mary and sing about the strength of God, the one has the strongest arms and the firmest promises. We all need more than we can find in ourselves.
So I think that Mary is someone who bears witness to the very heart of the Gospel. In Jesus Christ, God’s strength assumed human flesh and hallowed it, redeeming the world and offering life to us. In all of this Mary was God’s servant. She was the Christ bearer, the mother of the divine presence, and in this she is also the first true disciple, offering her soul and body in God’s service – with a strong voice too.
May we all know the strength of God in our lives and carry it to others, as Mary did. Amen.