Young Mary Brave Mary Obedient Mary Praying Mary Justice-minded Mary
A central figure in our stories leading up to Christmas is Jesus’ mother Mary. We read the announcement, by the angel, to her, of his coming birth, just about every Advent season, since this is the season of anticipating that birth.
Today we are going to look at some pictures of Mary, some snapshots, some characteristics, to understand a little better who she is, and to see what qualities she has that we might like to aspire to, as we prepare for the birthday this year. In what ways might she be our model?
There are five such pictures today; each one will have a short meditation, followed by a verse of a carol that I’ll ask you to join me in singing. So please keep a hymnal nearby or be ready to watch the screens; and you can remain seated for those songs. Each picture also has a title, you’ll see in your bulletin: “Young Mary,” “Brave Mary,” and so on. I tried to get one of them to be “Proud Mary,” but that really was too much of a stretch. We’ll begin, instead, with “Young Mary.
There have been so many depictions of Mary over the year, so many paintings, statues, artists’ renderings, that one thing we often overlook when we picture Mary is that at this point in her story, when Gabriel came to her, she was probably a teenager, perhaps as young as fourteen or fifteen years old. That was the usual age at which a young woman got engaged, in a Jewish village, at this time in history: 14, 15, 16. And she was probably not wealthy, probably poor—because her engagement was to a carpenter, one of the less prosperous occupations, not to the son of a wealthy family.
So when you picture Mary, thank first of a peasant girl. Think of someone the age of a tenth-grader, just a little older than my Sunday School class. Not an experienced, worldly-wise, has-seen-and-handled-much woman; not a Mother Superior, or any other nun-type person with twenty or thirty years of spiritual reflection under her belt. A small-town peasant teenage girl. That is the first thing to bear in mind, as we picture this person who will be asked to take on this most special, most unique preparation for the coming of Christ.
Please sing with me hymn no. 171, verse 1.
Now it may not do most of us much good to aspire to be young like Mary, at this point in our lives, but one thing we can admire about her is her bravery, her willingness to take risks to do what God has asked her to do. I was surprised to see, in some of the Advent devotionals I reviewed this week, writings that said, “Well Mary was just asked to do what she wanted to do anyway—marry Joseph, have a child. It was really no big deal.” Because that’s just not true.
In first century Palestine, a girl who was engaged had already entered into a binding legal contract with the groom. The wedding was just a formality, a ceremony, down the road sometime; legally, they were a couple already. Among other things, that meant that if she were unfaithful during the engagement, it was already considered adultery. And the law then said, following the book of Deuteronomy, that a woman’s punishment for adultery was to be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house.
Well Mary’s engaged; she’s legally contractually committed. And now Mary’s pregnant. And Mary’s fiancé knows he’s not the father. So guess what situation this announcement puts her in. Mary, by saying “yes” to God, must be brave enough to face Joseph’s reaction, brave enough to face the possible penalty of stoning; or brave enough to face losing Joseph and go through life as a disgraced unwed mother; brave enough to bear the village’s reaction—the gossip, the scandal, the rejection. And her family’s rejection.
One devotional spoke from the likely point-of-view of Mary’s father: “Shame! That is what she has brought upon this household; my household. Shame! With stories of angel visitors and fanciful visions, of heavenly messages and serving God. She is pregnant! That’s what I see! That is the truth! Bearing the truth in her belly and parading it about town for all to see. What shame she has brought upon this house.”
No wonder the angel encouraged her, “Do not be afraid.” Afraid or not, she said “Yes.” What risks are we willing to take to do what God asks us to do?
Let’s sing Hymn no. 172, verse 1.
“How would a modern woman in her teens respond to Gabriel?” another Advent devotional speculates. “Perhaps ‘Help! Police!’ would be the mildest answer.”
“Mary is confronted with a seemingly-impossible situation,” adds another. “She is being asked to be the mother of a king, without ever having been intimate with a man. She cannot understand or explain what is happening to her. Gabriel does not provide her with a full explanation. He’s been tossing around words like ‘holy’ and ‘Son of God’; and ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you’”, whatever that means.
Yet after just this short, and not very clear conversation, Mary says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” If that’s what God wants, OK, that’s what we’ll do. Mary doesn’t pull a Jonah, and run off as far as she can in the opposite direction. She doesn’t say, “Thank you for the honor, but I think I’ll pass.” Mary is a model of obedience to God’s wishes. Mary immediately says, “Yes.”
Obedience, not of weakness or capitulation; we’ve already seen the bravery this answer takes. Obedience, out of faithfulness to God. When God approaches us with requests not quite this mysterious or complicated or hard, how do we do? Mary is a picture of obedience.
Our next hymn is no. 190, verse 2.
So Gabriel goes away, and ten minutes later Mary starts to shake and panic and say, “What have I done? Gabriel, get back here!”, right? Well we’re not told about ten minutes after the announcement, but the one picture we do have a little later is not a picture of panic, but a picture of prayer and praise. Mary’s next words in Scripture are a song of praise, Luke 1: 46-55, called the Magnificat.
“It reflects no resistance or resentment,” a devotional by Vera White says, “no self-centeredness or whining—only a deep joy in doing the work of God, whatever that might be. There is no sense of resignation or defeat. Instead, her song is one of triumph, a celebration of God’s mercy. No wonder Mary’s song has been a model of discipleship through the ages.”
“It is an astonishing example of beauty and inspiration,” a commentary adds, “a response of faith and trust. It speaks of God’s greatness, and acknowledges her own blessedness only as a function of God’s work through her.” It praises God’s strength, and mercy, and compassion, and keeping of promises. In the face of whatever hardships are to come, Mary is a person of prayer and praise, not anxiety or self-pity. How well do we do emulating this quality of hers?
Let’s go back to hymn 172, verse 3 this time.
Finally, Mary sees the big picture. That this isn’t just about her and God, or her and her baby: Not: “My personal Lord and savior, my salvation, my going to heaven.” In Mary’s song, we see that she sees this is about God lifting the lowly – the lowly of the world; God filling the hungry; God bringing deliverance to those who have suffered; God reversing injustice. This is about God turning the unfair world upside-down.
What’s in the best interests of everyone, Mary asks, of all people, not just me? What will this mean for all humanity, for all time – not how will I feel about it, tomorrow? What is for the good of all Israel, the good of future generations, the good of the lowly, the hungry, the poor?
What would have been most comfortable for Mary’s immediate future would be to let some other teenager in the next village over give birth to the Messiah, so Mary could keep her fiancé, her reputation, her plans in place. But thinking instead of all people, for all generations, and of God’s plan, she not only accepted the challenge, but in her song celebrates it. When we make our plans, our choices, our responses to God, do we think as well about what’s in the interests of everyone?
Let’s sing 172, verse 2.
I hope that now, she’s not just the peaceful woman in the blue robe, the statue in the bathtub, the empty child-bearing vessel. This young woman, Scripture reveals already—before we get to several other stories about her later—shows the qualities of bravery, of obedience, of prayerfulness, of justice, and altruism. To the degree we can imitate her in these ways, we are much better prepared, not only for Christmas, but for all God might call us to do.
Let’s pray: God we thank you not only for your coming into this world for us, but also today for Mary’s willingness to be a part of that coming. Help us, when you call us to help bring Jesus into other people’s worlds, to show her faithfulness and courage and love. Amen.