Portrayals of Mary tend to the aristocratic, the submissive, the vapid; but the gospel reveals an intelligent young woman who stands in the prophetic tradition. (Listen.)
When you think of Mary, how do you imagine her? I don’t know about you, but I was raised in the Western artistic tradition. When I think of Mary, the first thing that usually comes to mind are images from the Italian Renaissance. That is, I see an elegant, pale woman in a royal blue dress.
Her skin is white; her hands are soft; her face is unlined; her hair is carefully done; her serene mouth is gently closed. Often, she sits in a cool, tiled Italian room, with perhaps a beautiful garden or a hilltop town visible through the window. The angel Gabriel is handing her a pure white lily.
Or else I think of pictures which portray her as the queen of heaven, effectively a goddess. Again, she is dressed in a royal blue gown; again, she is beautiful and has all the physical advantages of wealth. In these paintings, she is not seated in a luxurious room, but floats instead among the clouds and wears a crown of stars.
A picture tells a thousand words, they say: and these pictures are very telling. They suggest that Mary is white and wealthy and moves in the upper echelons of society. Certainly, she has never engaged in manual labour. She is innocent, meek, submissive; untroubled and passive to the point of emotional blankness; and utterly silent: which makes her, in a patriarchal society, the perfect woman. And it’s interesting to me how often men preach this image of Mary and claim she’s the model for all women.
But it’s more interesting to me how, if we set aside these representations, remove our patriarchal blinkers, and go back to the text, we discover somebody very different, a much truer role model. So let’s take a closer look at Mary; for perhaps we can learn something from her about being god-bearers in this world.
The first and most obvious thing to note is that she was not a European aristocrat. Mary was a first century Jewish peasant girl; betrothed and so probably about twelve years old. She was certainly not pale, tall or elegant; nor was she wealthy. When we think of her, we should think small, stocky or scrawny, olive-skinned, deeply tanned. Her hands would have been hardened by fieldwork and by grinding grain each morning between two stones; the heels of her feet were probably callused and dry.
The second thing to note is that she was not unquestioning nor completely submissive. In fact, Mary was curious. When the angel comes to her, the story follows a formula we see again and again in the Bible. It’s called an angelophany, and what happens is this: an angel, or messenger from God, appears to someone, and that someone is terrified. The angel says, “Don’t be afraid!”, then speaks the message. The person objects; the angel responds; the angel leaves.
But in Luke chapter 1, Mary does not seem afraid at all. Instead, we are told, she is puzzled by the angel’s greeting, and she debates what it might mean. We often hear that she ‘pondered’, a nice silent private ‘feminine’ act; but the word is διελογίζετο: from which we get the word ‘dialogue.’ It means to reason, discuss, consider, or debate. In other words, Mary isn’t quietly wondering to herself in her heart. Instead, she is intellectualy engaged as she discusses aloud what it all means; and then she follows up the angel’s pronouncement with a biological question. “How can this be?” she says, “I have never known a man.” So when we think of Mary, we need to be thinking of someone who is smart and unafraid, who exercises her faculty of reason even when a terrifying angel visits, and who asks good questions.
When Mary asks, the angel reassures her that the Spirit of God will overshadow her, and that with God all things are possible. We know that Mary’s kinswoman, Elizabeth, is married to a priest; and we also know that people back then almost always married within kin groups; so it is very likely that Mary was a member of the priestly clan, too. And for a girl from the priestly clan, the usual consequence of pregnancy outside marriage was particularly gory and far-reaching. It was death, more precisely, strangulation by her own father at the door of the family home, followed by the burning of her body so she could not be raised up at the end times. It was not simply disgrace, as many commentators would have it. For most women and for the people who loved them, the consequences were beyond devastating.
Therefore, I suspect the angel’s reassurance speaks not only to Elizabeth’s surprising fertility, but to the possibility of Mary surviving pregnancy out of wedlock: “for with God,” says the angel, “all things are possible.” Hearing these words, Mary replies, “Let it be with me according to your word.” So she is not a passive person, swept along by whatever befalls her. She listens, she reasons, she questions, she considers; and then she consents to God’s action within her. “Let it be with me according to your word,” she says, as she agrees to become God’s co-creator and agent.
What else do we discover from the text? She’s highly active. When Mary accepts the angel’s commission to bear God’s son, she doesn’t shut her newly pregnant self in a quiet room, put up her feet and put on the whale music. Instead, she rushes to a Judean town in the hill country, travelling by foot on dusty roads bristling with wild animals and bandits.
There, she visits her cousin Elizabeth and finds refuge until, no doubt, her older kinswoman can negotiate a safe return home. But she is not silent. Instead, she sings a song we now call the Magnificat or The Canticle of the Turning: a hymn to justice which proclaims God’s intention for Israel. In this song, the proud, the rich, and the powerful are thrown down, and the poor, the lowly and the hungry are raised up. It’s a song of revolution, which is why it has been banned at times from being sung or spoken aloud (for example, during the British rule in India, by an oppressive government in Guatemala, and by the military junta in Argentina).
Putting this all together, we see that Mary is no passive silent aristocrat, nor is she a little lady in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. Instead, she looks a lot like other people in the Hebrew tradition: the people that we call prophets.
For example, she reminds me of Jonah. Jonah was given a word from God. He questioned, he pondered, he went on a journey, and then he proclaimed the word to the people.
She reminds me of Gideon. He was visited by an angel. He questioned his commission, then accepted it, and he proclaimed God’s word to the people.
She reminds me of Elijah. He received a word from God; he went on a journey; then he proclaimed God’s word to Ahab. And when Mary sings of the great reversal, she reminds me of Elijah stopping the rain and so ending Ahab’s rule; or of Samuel removing his anointing from Saul and transferring it to David, the new king.
Like Jonah, Gideon, Elijah, and the rest, Mary, too, is a prophet. The way her story is told places her firmly in Israel’s prophetic tradition; and the Magnificat is her prophetic word from God.
Many portrayals of Mary show her in a domestic scene, often a bedroom; or else they show her in some sort of infinite cosmic nowheresville. But this is not the gospel. The gospel doesn’t show us a domesticated Mary, nor a heavenly queen. Instead, we are shown an intelligent woman, a prophet, who is, quite literally, on the road.
We see her walking into the Judean hills, visiting with cousins, and giving birth not at home but in a stable in another town. We see her fleeing to Egypt, and on the road to Jerusalem, and outside a house where Jesus is. We see her at a wedding, at the cross, and visiting the garden tomb. But what we don’t see is Mary at home, engaged in domestic duties.
She was a mother; she washed nappies; she baked bread; but this is not what we need to know about her. Unlike many other women in the Bible, Mary is not described as cooking or sweeping or sewing or fetching water. Instead, like the prophets of old, she is out and about in public places. She is not a passive receptacle who is lucky enough to be carrying baby Jesus, but an intelligent woman who debates with an angel then assents to God’s call; a holy poet who bears God’s love in her womb, and in her words, and in her song.
This is all rather interesting, you’re probably thinking by now, but what does it have to do with us?
Well, some of us have been sold a model of womanhood based on Mary the perfect passive submissive woman or Mary the virginal heavenly queen: but these are impossible ideals. None of us can be as obedient, as submissive, as vacuous, as fundamentally BORING, as the image of Mary handed down from too many pulpits and sold in too many gift shops and seen on too many church, school and gallery walls.
But Mary the prophetic god-bearer opens up all sorts of possibilities, and not just for straight cisgender women but for all people. For we can all be prophetic god-bearers. We can all let God’s word be written on our hearts; we can all debate over how God is at work in our lives; we can all assent to the Holy Spirit working in us to bring life where this seems impossible; we can all carry God’s love and longing for justice wherever we go.
So let us be like the Mary we encounter in the gospel: intelligent, prophetic, unafraid. Let us welcome God in and allow the Holy Spirit to overshadow and shape us, body, mind and spirit. Let us be god-bearers in this time and place, growing and birthing love into the world. Let us speak out in public spaces; let our hearts be filled with song.
And with Mary, let us now dare to pray: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Your culture come; your will be done. Amen. Ω
Reflect: What images spring to mind when you think of Mary? Are they consistent with her portrayal in the gospel? Based on this reflection and your own insights, how would you depict Mary?
A reflection on Luke 1:26-38ff (off lectionary) by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 12 December 2021. (Reading is for Year B Advent 4) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Agnieszka Kowalczyk on Unsplash. Obviously this young woman from Sri Lanka is not a Middle Eastern Jewish girl, but I love her intelligent, self-contained demeanour.
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