A sermon on Luke 1:26-35, 38 by Alison Sampson
The first time I heard the word ‘virgin’, I was in grade four or five. I arrived at school one day only to be confronted by a mean little gang, who asked hungrily, ‘Are you a virgin?’
The way they said it, it was clearly a dirty word. And so of course I said, ‘No.’
They howled with laughter and I felt ashamed. When I asked them to explain the word, they just laughed some more, then ran off to the next poor sucker at the gate.
A few years later, I was in high school in America. At that time and place, and to the concern of many parents, health workers, and conservative Christians, very few fifteen-year-olds were virgins. And so a series of billboards went up. On each was sprayed ‘VIRGIN’ in ugly letters; and underneath, in calm, assertive type it said, ‘Teach your kids it’s not a dirty word.’
It failed completely. In the perverse way of teenagers, ‘virgin’ became even more shameful: something adults tried to insist on for teenagers, and a label to be shed as quickly as possible.
A few years after that, as a young adult in our deeply literal society, I thought the virgin birth was embarrassing, indefensible, even ridiculous. The stories of faith had to be explained rationally; there was no room for miracles. When pressed, I would explain that ‘virgin’ was better translated ‘young woman’; the virgin birth was the story of a teenage pregnancy; and yes, we all agree that there is no baby without sex. And while I still am quite convinced that ‘virgin’ is a mistranslation from the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’, and that there are important theological, historical, and political reasons why it was translated this way, I am ready to let that one go for now. It’s not the point.
Instead, since it’s been over thirty years since I first heard the word ‘virgin’, I think it’s about time to take a good look at the term.
The first definition in the Chambers dictionary implies incompleteness. A virgin is someone, especially a woman, who has had no sexual intercourse. As an adjective, or a describing word, something which is ‘virgin’ is ‘in the original condition, unattained, untouched, unexploited, never scaled, felled, captured, wrought, used’ and so on. These definitions all imply passivity. The mountain is waiting to be scaled, the forest to be felled, the field to be tilled, the gold to be dug out of the ground; and the woman, to know a man.
The angel Gabriel was sent to a virgin. The angel said to her, ‘Hello there, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you!’
What was it about Mary’s virginity that was important? Was it really that she had not yet known a man? Was it a physical thing?
Many would say yes. In desperate attempts to disassociate Jesus from sex, wombs, blood, vaginas and birth, various theologians have insisted on Mary’s physical virginity. For example, it has been suggested that, when Jesus was born, he emerged as a wisp of spirit touching nothing, and that he took flesh only outside the birth canal. Others have insisted on Mary’s continuing virginity, arguing that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were really his cousins. Poor old Joseph!
But arguing about Mary’s sexual history misses the point. Definitions of virginity are usually written from a male perspective: the virgin is that which has not yet been used. It suggests innocence, but also ignorance. Wishy-washy portrayals of Mary as pale and submissive uphold this point of view.
But when are women most fiery and powerful? I think of young girls – and there are plenty in our congregation – who know exactly who they are. Before they have completely internalized the gaze of others, and adjusted their behaviour accordingly, they exude confidence, competence, and completeness. We adults might use words such as fierce and feisty, wild and stubborn; but what we are seeing is a lucid content, a product of freedom, something that often fades as girls learn to adjust their attitudes and their behaviours and their ideas about themselves to meet outside expectations. The fierce power of little girls is a product of their virginity.
When else do we see women so fiery? Sometimes, on the other side of their reproductive years. Many women really hit their stride in their forties and fifties. No literal virgins, yet this shift into a new stage of life can reflect a new virginity, with an identity independent of being a wife or a mother. It can be a time of shedding conformist behaviours; a time of developing a vision for oneself; a time of coming into wholeness, of beginning to really know, or rediscover, oneself.
The virgin listens to the fiercely holy little girl as she points out our hypocrisy, as she reminds us what we were made for, and as she directs us to right paths. The virgin insists on the outrageous claim that women, too, are complete, and are made in the image of God. The virgin proclaims our obedience to love, which is more important than our obedience to anything and anyone else.
The angel said, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him ‘God- Liberates.’
In occupied Palestine, a young woman conceives a child and names him ‘God-Liberates’ – for that is what the name ‘Jesus’ means.
This is hardly the action of a submissive naïf, an ignorant innocent, a celibate simpleton, that is, a virgin in the pejorative sense. Instead, we are encountering a woman before marriage, before motherhood, and yet whose identity is already fully formed. For the angel tells Mary that she has already found favour with God. Her identity does not rely on being married, or being a mother. In God’s eyes, Mary is already somebody, and that somebody already pleases God.
That somebody goes on to sing the Magnificat, that radical hymn which claims that God ‘has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the humble; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’
These are the actions of a fierce woman, a centred woman, a strong woman, a woman who lives in occupied territories, who knows herself and her political terrain, and yet who dares to resist. A woman who quietly challenges military power, and claims a small circle of freedom in the baby she will bear, the boy she will name ‘God-Liberates’.
Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
Not many of us here tonight are virgin. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has shied away from the word. And so we are easily swayed by the expectations of others; we adjust our behaviours accordingly. We are happy enough to submit to the authorities, to turn a blind eye to the powers which are so brutal to the little ones, whether it’s governments intent on protecting their borders; advertisers intent on teaching dissatisfaction and self-loathing; or corporations intent on profit at all costs. We sadly agree that the rich seem to get richer, and the poor seem to have even their little taken away from them – but how rarely do we help lift up the lowly! How rarely do we help fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty!
From Mary, from the virgin, we have much to learn. Can we learn to be virgin once again: to be whole and complete in ourselves; to live as we are called, and not dance to anyone’s tune but God’s? Can we make God the centre of our love and our longing? Will we allow God to liberate ourselves, and will we participate in God’s liberating work in the world? Can we nurture that which is Christ-like within us, offer it hospitality and nourishment, and, when it is time, birth it into the world?
And when it is born, will we dare to name it God-Liberates?
Tonight, we are celebrating Immanuel, God-with-us. Tonight, we are welcoming a baby born into occupied territories to a fiercely holy young woman, and we are recognising in that baby the hope of liberation. And so here in our occupied territories, in which lives are dominated by the violence of late capitalism and neo-conservatism, where everything and everyone are ripe for exploitation, tonight we are invited to nurture that hope, and to seek the way of freedom. Ω