As Protestants, we tend not to spend too much time talking about Mary. Sure, she gets a spot in the nativity play, but she usually doesn’t say much. The focus is always on the new born baby and those who have come to praise him.
Yet Mary is a remarkable person in her own right. She shows a faith and courage that few other people in the Bible manage.
We have to remember that, she was likely between the ages of ten and fourteen at the time that the angel comes to her. Women married as soon as they could have children in those days and she was already betrothed. So when we talk about Mary in these Christmas stories, we have to remember that we are talking about a likely thirteen year old girl making this decisions and taking these risk.
Thirteen. Do you remember what you were like at thirteen? Do you remember the kinds of decisions you made at 13? Would you have been able to say yes so easily to this great responsibility that God asks of her? I’m thirty-four and I don’t think I would be ready now, let alone when I was a teen.
And we can’t forget what saying yes to God meant for Mary. She is not yet married, and so there was no legitimate reason for her to be with child, for this community. “God gave me a child” will seem like an excuse, not an explanation. Now, in our day this might be a small scandal, but in Mary’s day it would have been earth shattering.
Part of the problem is that Jewish law took engagement seriously. The Jewish law said that if Joseph died, Mary would be a widow. If he died, she would be a widower. If they separated, it was called a divorce.A pregnancy outside of marriage could result in a charge for adultery and the penalty for adultery is death by stoning. Saying yes, could very well have been a death sentence for Mary.
This is largely because at that time law protected male interests. Conversely, a husband’s infidelity is punished only if he takes another man’s wife. But a wife who commits adultery commits a “great sin”. She would be severely punished. Her husband could forgive her, but he could then divorce her leaving her penniless and disgraced.
Now in Luke’s version of the nativity story, the angel never tells Joseph what is going on so he doesn’t know about the divine purpose his future bride has been given. Joseph doesn’t come onto the scene until later. In Luke’s version, Mary is alone after she says yes, knowing that if Joseph doesn’t like it, it could very well be her life on the line.
And yet she still said yes to God. Without hesitation. Without questioning. I can only imagine the kind of courage that would have taken this young girl.
Her pregnancy would be a disappointment to everyone in her hometown. Most of all, her parents, her betrothed, her rabbi. Even if Joseph forgave her when she told him, she still would likely to have been shamed in the community.
Given that, it isn’t surprising that she left shortly after agreeing to God’s request. She leaves and travels to her cousin Elizabeth. That would have taken great courage too, as she travels quite some distance as a lone young girl through some dangerous countryside. But she leaves to go to Elizabeth.
Because Elizabeth would have known what it would have been like to be shunned by the community. In her culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. Elizabeth’s response to her own miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” At long last, in her old age, she is an honorable married woman, pregnant with her husband’s son.
By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectations. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. She might expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older kinswoman. Yet Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded, and God reversed that in her own life.
Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. Because of Elizabeth, the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to sinners and tax collectors. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.
But there is more going on here. Because John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is also filled with the Holy Spirit knows who is coming. She tells Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Mary, you have been given a great honor, to bear the Savior of the world.
Elizabeth even uses her own life to contrast Mary’s. When she says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning when they were told they would have a baby in their old age. Zechariah asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent.
Zechariah, a priest, the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the peasant girl believed, and her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.
And then, despite everything she is facing, Mary sings this song of celebration to God. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings despite an unknown future. She sings of the changes God will make and of a world turned upside down. It is not the most reassuring song perhaps for a soon-to-be mother, but it is a song that glorifies God. And that is how Mary lives, for God first and then herself.
This week we are given two extraordinary women who set these incredible examples for us. First we have Mary’s amazing willingness to say yes to God, regardless of the potential consequences to her own life. How many of us say yes to God first without hesitating? Without questioning the details and the consequences to our own lives? At the end of the day, we often find ourselves looking a lot more like Zechariah and asking for proof than we do Mary in her complete trust.
Then we have Elizabeth who shows us what welcome can really be. She welcomes her cousin who she could have by all rights disgraced with open arms and loving words. Her position as the wife of the priest meant that her welcoming and affirming Mary could have very well saved her life. How many of us practice that sort of inclusive love with others? Who do we welcome with open arms?
Today’s scripture uses these women to show how powerful faith can be, in a time when women were still little more than property. None of us is asked to do something as momentous as Mary was, and yet God still calls us to bear Christ into the world in our own ways. We are called to say yes. We are called to welcome the stranger and the outcast. And most of all, we are called to love.
After all, it is love that motivates these women. Mary’s love of God and her future child. Elizabeth’s love of her kinswoman and her God. As we look towards Christmas, can you think of a better motivation than love?
Let us pray:
Holy and most gracious God, help us to say yes when you call us. Help us to welcome the outcasts. Help us to sing your praises even when it is hard to do so. Help us to be like Mary and Elizabeth were, your true and faithful servants. In your name we pray, Amen.