Advent 4 20/12/20
Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
(Song of Mary)
Who remembers the slogan ‘The personal IS political’? It appeared first in an article written by Carol Hanisch in 1969, though she says that she got it from somebody else. It became the catch cry of the women’s movement, and I know its impact in my own life. Mary’s story exemplifies this idea. Here she is, her personal story told and retold by the world, though people have tended to sanitise the story and put Mary on a pedestal, and yet speaking out into a political world about political matters.
Mary is a young girl, promised to a man and approaching her marriage. In our times we would regard her as a child. She is a real person with real experience and expectations. I would take a guess and say that she was expecting and hoping to be a mother, barrenness was something to be feared for various reasons, but I would take a punt on it that she wasn’t expecting to be the Mother of God, Theotokos, the God bearer.
And Gabriel thinks that she may well be frightened by his manifestation and gives her the statement that always goes with a theophany, ‘Do not be afraid’, because she has found favour with God.
Mary is described in our translation as perplexed but I did a bit of digging and there is controversy about the root of the word, she may be puzzled but she may also be troubled, and I think it may well be the latter. She is a brave girl and rises to the challenge, but not without questioning the angel. ‘How can this be,’ she asks, ‘since I have not known a man?’ She is a girl who has a sense of her agency in this process even here. The angel in answering reminds her of all the women who have conceived at God’s behest including her cousin Elizabeth, so many impossible pregnancies. I am sure that this resonates with people in our world for whom conception seems a miracle in one way or another.
The bearing of this child, to which Mary consents, is a radical embodiment. God taking on flesh, forming in the womb of a real girl. And her consent is important, particularly for us in our current climate in which we are acknowledging how important it is for consent to be given. God has looked at Mary and seen her for who she is, a mighty girl and she chooses to agree to what God is asking of her.
The pregnancy is not going to be without cost. It is dangerous, from the point of view that many pregnancies, then and now, end in death for the mother. There is also the risk of being stoned for being pregnant before she should have been, not to mention the risk that is outlined in Matthew, that her betrothed would put her away, as it said in the old version. Nowhere is mentioned her parents reaction, but I think we can all imagine it. This radical embodiment of God is going to cost Mary. Her personal world is under threat, but God has looked at her and seen a brave girl.
And she needs to be brave because this business of childbirth and then mothering is daunting for each of us who experience it. I want to read you two poems that have been doing the rounds during December. The first might shock you, but those who have given birth and breastfed a baby will tell you how true it is. It is by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler
”sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
but then i think of feeding Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.
because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
This is spoken into a church environment where men are still in control and call the shots. It is worth remembering that this is the kind of hierarchy that Mary’s life encompassed and which continues into our present time, even though we are blessed that it isn’t us. It is still true, nonetheless that many don’t want to think about the personal that was the birth and babyhood of Jesus.
The second poem is less offensive:
Let it be the middle of nowhere,
at the heart of nothing but wheat fields.
Let there be farmers swinging their arms,
Let us see the terrible boredom of oxen
and small-town girls. Let there be one girl
grinding grain in her father’s house,
her face bland with inexperience,
her heart expectant of little
but marriage, customarily arranged.
Into this everyday, female life,
let there enter a messenger,
praising her and telling wild stories
about God inside her body.
Let the message flourish in the girl,
and make of her a prophet, capable of seeing
beyond the milky tenderness
of her promised pregnancy and motherhood,
to her son’s ironic kingdom.
Let her envision him befriending prostitutes
enraging priests and governors,
dying between thieves.
Let the girl be wise and curious.
Let her ask, how can this be?
When the messenger is overwhelmed
and he can tell her only
that the shadow of the holy will fall
across her life,
let her receive
the God of fearsome possibilities.
Let her conceive the Christ.
This is the personal and from this personal experience Mary speaks to the political. Mary sings her song and rejoices in God. This is God that has just given her the great joy of an unexpected pregnancy! This is also the God who looks with favour on the lowly, and who shows mercy to the humble and at the same time scatters the proud, and brings down the powerful from their thrones, or seats. We have rapidly moved from the personal into political territory, haven’t we? This is God who fills the hungry but sends the rich away empty. This is God that remembers God’s servant Israel and helps them, because of his mercy. This social justice agenda that Mary lists is exactly what Jesus will embrace at the very beginning of his ministry and indeed what ultimately gets him crucified. And why is it that this becomes so important? Because the big picture, all the injustices and inequalities, all the bad political decisions, all the power and all the greed is played out one person at a time. The big picture is made of millions of tiny dots.
And why does this matter to us, in 2020? Well, we have seen the impact of a global, pandemic, played out in the lives of individuals. We here in Melbourne have all experienced at first hand, the nexus between the big picture political and the very personal. We now know, in our bodies, how connected we are to every other human being on the globe. And God, the creator of the universe, came down to be a human and to experience this directly, with us. God’s incarnation was personal, God who is transcendent, beyond us all, is also immanent, right here with us in our struggles. God gazed at Mary, really saw her, chose her and inhabited her. Mary embodied God, both the personal and the political.
And you know, that is true for each of us as well. We are the God bearers because we have the Holy Spirit. And because we are human that Spirit is embodied in us. God is with us, Emmanuel, God is in us, each one. We are Theotokos, like Mary.
We always have a part to play in the kingdom of God- that is the whole reason that the Kingdom of God exists, so that God’s people might play our parts and bring in the Kingdom for the healing and wholeness or salvation, of the whole world. This isn’t just about us we must have the big vision, like Mary.
We are to be the Christ for others in the personal, in relationships, in chance encounters, always in who we are as people. We are also, by our very nature, participators in the political whether we realise it, or not. The only way to escape being part of a political system is to live on a desert island, and even by that rejection of the culture we make a political statement. Sometimes we don’t know that we are participating, however. I think that Mary did understand that. She was prepared to speak into the political system, even though she was young, female, and a social disgrace, and so must we be. Often we think that we have no agency, but we all consume. Most of us invest, even if it is only through our super funds. We all shop and use power. We can all give, even if it is only the widows mite. Even if all we do is vote we still participate. Mary is calling us, down through the ages to understand that we have a voice, just as she did. That we have choices, just as she did and that the personal is political because of the incarnation.
Do not be afraid, God is with you.
Rev. Roberta Hamilton