has been said about Mary, “No woman in scripture is more honored,
blessed as she was ‘above all women’ (Luke 1:42), and she holds an
iconic status shared by no other woman in Christianity. Through the
accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, Mary is one of the
first biblical characters many children encounter. Along with Eve,
Mary is integral to shaping how Christians understand the nature of
womanhood and motherhood.”1
What is said is true. Mary, along with Eve, has both shaped how
women are understood in Christianity AND the inverse: perceptions of
Mary (and Eve) are indicators of how Christianity is understanding
women. How Mary is seen is a bell-weather for how women are seen.
Cary Gibson, the author of the opening quote, also says, “Mary is a
container into which we pour ideas of what it means to be a woman. In
turn we then draw from her image ideas about our own womanhood.”2
commonly, Mary is said to be meek and mild. Usually, it is her
subservience that sets her up as the ideal woman. The pedestal of
womanhood that Mary most frequently occupies as the ideal woman is
the pedestal of the selfless mother, the one who exists simply so her
son can exist. She’s faithful, sweet, and biddable. There is,
however, one issue with this common perception Mary: it completely
ignores the words of Mary found in the Gospel of Luke.
I’m not saying that I really think some literate scribe was following
Mary around during her pregnancy to record her insights for
posterity. However, I am saying we have a rather long monologue
attributed to Mary that defies the way she is most commonly defined.
The meek and mild ideal does not match the actual Gospel. The myths
around her are more about what Christian women have been told to be
than they are about the actual stories about and words of Mary.
it seems worth exploring the words attributed to Mary. Whether the
words are what Mary said, or something Mary could have said, or
simply what it made sense to someone that the Mother of Jesus WOULD
have said, they are attributed to her. Since the general perception
of Mary is based on 20 centenaries of trying to put women in their
place, and I’d prefer to get to know Mary as presented in the Gospel.
It may be that we can take a look at Mary-the-ideal-woman and get a
different answer about what it means to be an ideal woman.
starters, these words are not meek, nor mild. In fact, Cary Gibson
says Mary, “voiced a defiant and righteous hope in the face of
violence and injustice.”3
It is true. These words express a HARDCORE faith and a great ideal
for women to seek to live up to. 🙂 Men too. This is the sort of
faith we can all aspire to!
of all, Mary’s song is deeply rooted in her faith tradition. It
echoes Hannah’s song of celebration after Hannah fulfilled her
promise and brought her son Samuel to Eli to serve him as a priest.
It also echoes with phrases from the Psalms. The version of this
song that we have is a work of theological and scriptural brilliance
and sophistication. Hannah’s song is powerful, but reflects a less
mature faith. Hannah yearns for God to smash the powerful, deride
her enemies, and break the mighty. In her mind the powerless are
lifted up BY making the powerful small. There is violence in her
imagery, even as there is celebration of the goodness of God and of
her sense of becoming more significant in the world.
song, though, is not vengeful. She also speaks of lifting up the
poor and lonely. Like Hannah she speaks about God’s power, but she
also adds God’s mercy. Mary speaks of lowering the mighty, but the
lowering isn’t violent or dangerous for them: the proud are
“scattered in the thoughts of their hearts” which sounds like a
way to be more humble; the powerful step down from their thrones (but
she doesn’t suggest they’re harmed afterward); the rich are sent away
empty – as if they don’t need any more. Hannah had the the
formerly “full” “hire themselves out for bread.” Mary is
interested in lifting up the lowly and removing their oppression, not
in oppressing the oppressors. She is a actually meeker and milder
than Hannah, Hannah’s is pretty rough. Mary is simply less violent!
speaks of her victory, Mary speaks of being treated with God’s favor.
While both are grateful for the child they are able to nurture, and
while both express incredible gratitude to God and deep theological
reflections, they have different energies. The insertion of material
from the Psalms into Hannah’s original poem changes it into a more
gracious piece. One scholar found that in addition to the source
material of Hannah’s poem, the song of Mary includes 7 pieces of
different Psalms, as well as a quote each from Deuteronomy, Job,
Micah, and Isaiah. By that scholar’s reckoning all of the words of
Mary’s song are attributable to Hebrew Bible quotations.4
song starts in the specific. She is grateful to be useful to God,
humbly aware of her status as a poor woman in her society, and
attentive to the change of her status because of God’s favor. She
attributes her life change to God’s greatness, and she praises God.
She expresses who God is: merciful,
consistent, strong, and powerful. She talks about a God who cares
about the lowly,
and feeds the hungry with GOOD food.
Her song makes another journey outward, celebrating God’s care for
all of the Jews and then attributing God’s care to God’s merciful
nature and God’s promises. She moves from celebrating God’s work for
her, to celebrating God’s work for the vulnerable, to celebrating
God’s work for all her people. It is as if she is expanding her
gratitude in increasingly wide circles.
it is unlikely to be factual, this text suggests that Mary knew her
scriptures well enough to combine them creatively into a truly
beautiful and majestic song celebrating God WITHOUT demeaning anyone
else. It suggests that her humility was real, but it wasn’t a form
of self-deprecation. It says she was genuinely honored to be able to
serve God and be useful in forming the world in God’s kindom of
shalom. She was delighted and amazed to be chosen. She recognized
the depth of the blessing she received, seemingly without thinking
that it made her more important than others. She said she was
blessed, and was amazed that people would remember her as blessed.
That indicates she didn’t think she’d done anything right or worthy,
it was God’s choice not her worthiness that mattered. Her gratitude
was expansive and celebratory and still focused on lifting up the
lowly and attentive to the hungry. She kept her head!
Mary of this song is wise, strong, compassionate, creative, humble,
and grateful. She knows and celebrates a God who is a fierce
advocate of justice. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their
book “The First Christmas” point out that each of the Gospels
start with a “Gospel in miniature” (with the possible exception
of Mark which starts at a gallop and just keeps going!). Luke 1 and
2, which likely do NOT represent authentic memories of things that
really happened, DO represent themes of the Gospel, understanding of
Jesus, foreshadowing of things to come, and ways to see how God is
known in the Gospel. Luke pays particular attention to women – as
we can see here where Mary gets a prolonged monologue – as well as
to the poor and vulnerable. We can also see that here in the words
Mary speaks. The writer of Luke, and/or the Christian tradition,
and/or the editors who came later attribute these words to Mary
largely to help those of us who came later to understand her son.
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m disparaging Hannah’s song. Her
song is FIERCE and profound, and reflects an era one whole millennia
before Mary’s. Hannah, as well, sought justice. She sought it for
herself and she sought it for all of God’s people. She understood God
to be one who cares about the poor, the hungry, the feeble, the
barren, the low, and the needy. That is a reflection of the unique
tradition of Judaism, from a pretty early time. Other ancient
peoples believed in god and goddesses. The Israelites were unique,
however, in believing in a God who cared about how they treated each
other, and in a God who cared about the people who had the least
power and influence. There is a constant tension in the Bible
between this belief – in a God who cares for the poor and lowly –
and the human tendency to prefer the rich and powerful. Hannah
reflects the God who cares for the poor and lowly without being
pulled toward the rich and powerful at all. Then Mary manages to
take it a step further and acknowledge a God who cares for everyone.
They sought justice, and believed in a God who wanted justice. This
is our radical tradition. This is the wonder of worshiping a God of
sons of those women took their justice-seeking natures and their
understandings of the God of Compassion, and changed the world. We
mostly know about the mothers because of the sons. Samuel anointed
kings. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with sinners, and
told parables that still confound us today. Both sons changed the
world. Both mothers are presented as sources of wisdom for their
sons. Their stories are preludes to their sons stories, and yet I am
so grateful that the Bible gives them voices and songs and stories!
They are not ONLY vessels through which their sons come to be, they
are interesting in their own right.
do wish for all of us to be able to be a bit like these justice
seeking mothers. And if we are going to hold up Mary as the ideal,
then I hope it takes the form of being moved to sing our gratitude
to God and celebrating the wonder of God’s good work in the world. I
hope we can become so steeped in our faith tradition that we can use
it in creative ways that bring more caring, compassion, and justice
to our tradition. I hope that we can see and name the goodness of
our lives without taking ourselves too seriously. And I do hope that
when push comes to shove we are more like Mary than like Hannah, and
that we can hope for the transformation of oppressors – not the
oppression of them. I hope we too can always remember the people of
God who are struggling the most, and find ways to help lift them up.
I hope we can be part of our tradition that remembers God as a God of
compassion for the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.
Mary is the ideal, and she seems to be well set up to be the ideal,
then let’s seek to be like her: fierce, grateful, and brilliant.
Cary Gibson, “Mary, Jesus’ Mother” in an email from The Common
English Bible send by Abingdon Press on December 2nd,
A. Fitzmeyer “The Gospel According to Luke I-IX” in the The
Anchor Bible Series (Doubleday and Co.: Garden City, NY, 1981) p
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
December 11, 2016