Advent IV: About Mary, I’m Contrary
Here’s my meditation for the fourth week of Advent, based on the gospel text for Sunday, December 23.
“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1: 39: 45)
Up to this point Luke’s carefully crafted narrative has had two separate stories. One of Zechariah and Elizabeth (parents of John the Baptist), the other of Mary (mother of Jesus). Now the two stories come together and intertwine as Mary goes to visit her also — inexplicably — pregnant cousin, Elizabeth.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are very much a reprise of the Old Testament figures, Abraham and Sarah. Ancient and childless, until something strange, unexpected and gracious happens.
(Incidentally, I’ve always thought the real reason for a “virgin birth” in the New Testament is that the Old Testament had already done miraculous conception on the part of the barren and childless. So if you’re going to up the ante, so to speak, what’s next? A “virgin” birth, of course.)
But back to the scene at hand: Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Don’t read this in isolation. First, read the story of Gabriel’s annunciation to Zechariah, who is struck dumb by the impossibility of it all. That is followed by Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, who while stunned is more trusting than Zechariah. This brings us to today’s scene, the two pregnant women, one old, one young, come together to share their joy.
From “the visitation,” we move to Mary’s song of praise (the Magnificat). This is followed by John’s birth, and then the birth of Jesus. Luke gives us a carefully crafted, beautiful literary work in his opening chapters.
What is her story? Her significance? Her role?
Annually in December, we attend the winter concert of Seattle’s “Medieval Women’s Choir,” at St. James Cathedral (Roman Catholic). We were there last Saturday evening. The setting is stunning, the music beautiful.
And mostly the music is about Mary.
Post-concert, I spoke with one of the musicians. I asked about the lyrics, printed in translation in the program. She confessed that the Choir and musicians paid insufficient attention to the words or the theology they expressed. Their focus is the music.
Well, I love the music. The theology? Not so much.
Here’s the problem. And stay with me, as this does bear directly on this week’s text and sermons on the same.
The theology of a good deal of these medieval texts extols Mary for her “purity.” Meaning “purity,” in a sexual sense. No sex, not her. She merits God’s choice, it is implied, because of her virginal purity. Only through one so pure can God work God’s redemption. Changes on this theme are rung again and again in the medieval texts.
And then you’re off and running. From Mary’s virginal purity you go to sex and the body being bad and the REAL problem that God needs to deal with is sex (and women).
And now you’re only a hop, skip and a jump (if that) from a the ancient heresy of Docetism, which held that Jesus wasn’t really human but only appeared to be. And ironically, given this is Christmas, you’re into a denial of the incarnation, the doctrine of the word made flesh and God fully human. Instead, you deny flesh, body, history. Enter gnosticism.
In other words, if the thing about Mary is her sexual “purity,” it is a slippery slope. Virginity = purity = sex is bad and body suspect = being ‘spiritual’ means being otherworldly = many problems and confusions.
Today’s passage, which simply in narrative and human terms, is a delightful story of two “soul sisters” connecting in amazement and joy, is also concerned with Mary and with the question of why God has chosen her. “Why me?” Mary asks Gabriel. Elizabeth even asks this in relation to Mary’s visit. “Why is the mother of my Lord visiting me?”
The text says nothing about Mary meriting God’s choice because of her “purity” or “virginity.” Like all the rest of Scripture this is not a hero story or a virtue story. Such a story would tell us that God chose Mary because she was so very good, pure, heroic. Then, as I say, you’re off and running with an anti-sex, anti-b0dy, anti-world Christianity.
But no, this is not a virtue story, not a hero or a shero story.
This is a grace story. It’s not about Mary (or us), so much as it is about God, who loves extravagantly and freely and chooses the most unlikely of people to carry forward his project. Luke 1 and 2, the nativity story, is a beautiful story of God’s bold initiative, taken among the least likely people.
Who knows why God chose Mary — Mary certainly doesn’t. She is stunned. She does not say, “Golly, yes, I deserve this role in the Christmas pageant because I am the most beautiful and virtuous young women of them all.” No! (Check out Barbara Robinson’s little book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, for a hilarious riff on all this.)
God’s choice of Mary? It is grace. God’s surprising and bewildering intrusion. A gift. God’s initiative.
Even in pregnancies and births that occur by the traditional method, there is still a huge sense of such grace, of inexplicable gift, beyond what any of us “deserves.” (Which is one of the reasons that “designer children” is pernicious.)
So the emphasis here is not on Mary’s virtue, or her sexual purity. (Purity of heart, see Matthew 5: 8, is another thing altogether.) The “virgin birth” isn’t about sex being bad or dirty. It’s about impossibility and that with this God “all things are possible.” (Luke 1:37)
What is clear is that Mary responds to this grace with faith and trust. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Like Abraham long ago, she believed God’s promise — against all odds. She too, like Abraham and Sarah, “set out in faith.” Mary took a great risk.
And where does this lead preachers, and the rest of us, on the fourth Sunday of Advent? In many homes at this time of the year people are trying to stage the “perfect Christmas.” Children are admonished to be really good so Santa will come. But God does not come to us because we are really good or get everything right or achieve perfection. God comes to us because that’s the nature of this God, to seek us, even when we are lost and stumbling in the dark, especially when we are lost or imperfect or have otherwise screwed things up.
It’s a grace story. Preach that.