A sermon by Alison Sampson on Luke 1:38-55
When you think of Mary, how do you imagine her? I don’t know about you, but I have been steeped in the Western artistic tradition. And so when I think of Mary, images from the Italian Renaissance come to mind. I usually 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. Many of the paintings I’ve seen show her in a cool, tiled Italian room, with perhaps a beautiful garden or a lovely hilltop town visible through a window. The angel, Gabriel, is often seen handing her a pure white lily.
Or else I think of pictures which portray her as the queen of heaven, or as some sort of goddess. Again, she is dressed in a royal blue gown; again, she is young and beautiful and has all the physical advantages of wealth. Sometimes she is wearing a golden crown. In these paintings, she is not seated in a luxurious room, but instead she floats among clouds or stars.
These images are very powerful. Many of us carry similar images in the backs of our minds; and they shape the ways we hear the gospel. More, they shape the way we understand what it means to be the god-bearer, which is one of the ancient names for Mary.
In tonight’s readings, we hear of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. We hear the blessing Elizabeth bestowed upon Mary, and the song of joy that Mary sang. If we weren’t paying attention, it would all be rather lovely: two pure and pious pregnant women feeling rather happy for one another. If we don’t think about the images of Mary that most of us carry with us, we will miss the deep political significance of her song; because if we imagine a rich woman, the queen of heaven, with soft hands and manicured feet, then we will hear the Magnificat – Mary’s song – as nothing more than lip service to faith.
Of course, this is the sort of faith that many of us have grown up with, and which many of us see around us today, living as we do in a wealthy country at the tail end of Christendom. For many people, faith is about what we think and say; it is not something that we live out with our bodies. And so rich women like me can stand up and sing the Magnificat without flinching, without allowing it to write itself upon our bodies or to radically change our lives.
But Mary’s song is not the song of a rich woman, and her faith is much more than what she thinks. She sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” – and these are not empty words. So I would like to take another look at this Mary of the gospel, and see what we can learn from her about being god-bearers in this world.
The first and most obvious thing we should notice is that she was not royalty. Mary was not tall, or pale, or elegant; and she was certainly not wealthy. She was a peasant from a tiny hamlet. When we think of her, we should think small, scrawny, olive-skinned, deeply tanned. Her hands would have been rough; the heels of her feet probably dry and cracked.
She was a walker. In the verses immediately before tonight’s reading, Mary accepts the angel’s commission to bear God’s son into the world. She didn’t then shut her newly pregnant self in a clean and quiet room. Instead, she went out “with haste to a Judean town in the hill country”, to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Now, Elizabeth lived with her husband, Zechariah, who was a prominent priest at the temple. Earlier in the gospel, he had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe that God would give Elizabeth a son, and that this son would prepare the way for the coming Messiah. It is to this household that Mary travels, and it is in this household that she sings the Magnificat, that hymn to justice which proclaims God’s intention for Israel. In her song, she takes blessing away from the proud, the rich, and the powerful who sit upon thrones; she bestows blessing upon the poor, the lowly, and the hungry – and she does this in the house of a powerful man.
It shows us that Mary is no royalty. Instead, her actions remind us of other people in the Hebrew tradition. For example, Mary 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, he finally 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 takes away blessing from the rich and bestows it on the poor, 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.
Do you get the picture? These men are all prophets. And 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 renders the Magnificat a prophetic word from God.
Let’s keep going. Most artistic 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 are we shown a heavenly queen. Instead, we are shown a woman, a prophet, who is, quite literally, on the road. We see her walking into the Judean hills, visiting with cousins, or giving birth, not at home but in another town. We see her fleeing to Egypt, or on the road to Jerusalem, or outside a house where Jesus is. We see her at a wedding, at the cross, or visiting the tomb.
What we don’t see is Mary at home, engaged in domestic duties. She was a mother; she would have washed nappies; she would have 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 bearing God’s word in the places to which she is sent. She is not a passive receptacle who happens to be carrying baby Jesus. She is a faithful woman who assents to God’s call, and who bears God’s love in her womb, and in her words, and in her prophetic song.
This is all rather interesting – 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 mother, or Mary the virginal heavenly queen. And these are impossible ideals. But understanding Mary as a god-bearer opens up new possibilities, both for women and for men.
For we can all be god-bearers. We can all let God’s word be inscribed on our hearts and our lives; we can all carry God’s love and God’s longing for justice into every place that we go. But be warned: as Mary’s life shows us, we cannot expect to have our lives shaped by God and remain domesticated. Opening ourselves to God, offering ourselves up in perfect obedience, will catapult us out of the comfortable, the familiar, the known, and will throw us into situations and places where we will find ourselves challenging the dominant powers and narratives of this world.
This all sounds rather daunting – and it is! – but we are already well on the way. Looking around at this little congregation, this weakest clan in Manasseh (to go back to Gideon), this little town of Bethlehem, we can already see this prophetic god-bearing lived out among us. In the last few weeks, members of this congregation have stood in the heat and sung Christmas carols outside Transfield, peacefully reminding the powers that Jesus was a refugee, and that no child should be in immigration detention. A member of this congregation has spent weeks at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, helping survivors give their testimony and seeking to uncover the truth about institutional cover ups. Members of this congregation have offered hospitality and welcome to some of the most marginal people in our society: to people with disabilities; to indigenous families; to strangers in this land. Members of this congregation have put their own interests on hold and travelled interstate to care for the sick and for a new baby; they have volunteered their time to work in op shops, to lead services at hospitals, to visit shut-ins, and to run recreational programs for asylum seekers. They have cared for children, both their own and other people’s; they have cared for each other. And there are many other ways that members of this little congregation have engaged in God’s work of healing, creativity and witness in the world.
Our individual efforts may feel meagre at times, but all of this work is important. It is both a loving response to and a preparation for the coming One, the One who has made us holy by doing God’s will with his whole self. Like Mary, we welcome him in, and become god-bearers in this time, and this place, birthing his love into the world. And like Mary, we know that this labour is not about paying lip service. Instead, it involves our whole selves – our words, yes, but also our bodies, our songs, our homes, our families, our travel plans, our workplaces, our dinner companions, and everything else which makes up our lives.
So as this work of love grows within us, shaping our embodied selves, sending us on the road, and giving us voice, let us look to this woman who was not domestic, not a goddess, but a prophet. Let us model our lives on this faithful witness who carried God’s love into the world. And with her let each one of us now pray: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Amen. Ω