If you grew up in the 80’s, you might recognise some of the toys in this list of Ten Best-Selling Christmas Presents that are back on the shelves
• Cabbage Patch Kids
• Care Bears
• Ninja Turtles
• Rubik Cube
• BMX bike
• Tickle me Elmo
• WWF figures
• Lego train
All of which has nothing to do with my recent Advent sermon on Mary, but is an example of the format I decided to use in a busy week when noone wants to hear a long expository sermon. So I used a format I had read about that week: a listicle. In journalism, a listicle is a short-form of writing that uses a list as its structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article. A typical listicle will feature a number in its title, such as "10 Ways to Beat Stress this Christmas", or "13 Famous People with IBS”, with subheadings to match; the word is a blend of list and article and is sometimes seen as lazy journalism, since the points don’t have to have any obvious connection or flow. I thought I’d try a short listicle for the fourth Sunday of Advent, a few days away from Christmas and our theme in a series on "Women of Significance" was Mary.
There are a few things we all know about Mary. She lived in Palestine, and she was a relative of Elizabeth. She was visited by an angel who announced a surprise pregnancy, one that would come about supernaturally, not by human means. Her fiancée Joseph then had to be convinced of her fidelity. They somehow ended up in Bethlehem and the newborn baby was laid in a manger. Despite all the wonderful nativity pageants perfrmed in churches this month, the Bible says nothing of a donkey, an innkeeper or a stable full of cute animals, although they may very well have been part of the story. But Mary’s part in the drama includes some interesting angles you may not have grasped. Thank you to a friend who gave me the idea of dwelling on some of the Christmas story in this way. She uses Christmas songs or decorations as a starting point for processing what this season means in her own faith experience. So here are a few starting points that may get you thinking, a ten-point listicle of things you may not have known about Mary.
1. She was young, but not that young.
Luke’s gospel tells us Mary was a virgin, but that she was old enough to be engaged. In ancient times this meant she had reached puberty, which was probably around the age of twelve. A Jewish betrothal involved two steps, the formal engagement including a contract and exchange of a bride price, and then about a year later a wedding. That she was old enough to think for herself is clear from the debate she had with God about this pregnancy idea. "How can this be? I'm not sexually active. But if you say so....."
2. She suffered rumours of sexual impropriety all through her life.
It wasn’t only Joseph who was shocked at Mary’s pregnancy. Her parents must have been extremely concerned, and genuinely confused by her reassurance that all was kosher. Others were not as generous, and we can imagine the gossiping tongues, wondering whether Joseph had pre-empted their marriage or if there was a secret boyfriend. It could well be that moral outrage was the reason the couple couldn’t get a bed with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. And these suspicions stayed with Mary as Jesus grew into a man. There’s a subtle message in Mark 6, where the astonished villagers ask “Is this not the Son of Mary?” Scholars say this turn of phrase is an indication that Jesus' father was unknown, and is usually meant as an insult, an allegation of illegitimacy. The gospels tell us - in their different ways – that was not true, that Jesus came into being at the initiative of God himself. I won’t go into the science but we are clear that God was not the biological father of Jesus, in the normal way. Rather this baby’s birth is a miracle, beginning a new way of God being in the world. That’s why the early Christians gave the title ‘mother of God’ to Mary. They saw that Jesus was not just a good man who was close to God; he was God himself, a flesh and blood human being. Catholics and Orthodox –and some Protestants like Martin Luther - think that Mary remained a virgin the whole of her life, but there is plenty of debate about that one. However all Christian traditions agree that this new way of God being among us continues in our lives today.
3. She was a Hebrew Bible scholar.
The song of Mary in Luke 1 is called the Magnificat, and has been sung or chanted as least once a day in churches all over the world for many hundreds of years. It’s a poem of praise to God: for his choosing Mary to be a participant in his mighty acts; for his care for the lowly, poor, and powerless; and for his bringing to fulfillment the promise made to Abraham in Mary’s child. It’s full of phrases and allusions to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures of that day. These ten verses have over forty references or direct quotes, including five from Hannah's thanksgiving in the book of Samuel, which is seen as a primary source for Mary's song. Some people are not surprised at the scholarship in the song; they think the Holy Spirit inspired Mary and gave her the words to sing. But our experience is that inspiration usually comes as God’s voice filtered through human voices, so that psalm singers wrote about the cosmos as an upside down bowl, and gospel writers wrote with their own cultural preconceptions in mind. So I don’t think Mary was simply a mouthpiece for this poem; I believe she created it or something very like it, and that it was preserved as a hymn by the early church. Far from being an ignorant teenager, she was a quite savvy theologian. That leads on to
4. She was (very likely) part of the workforce at the Jerusalem temple.
Nativity plays tell us Mary came from Nazareth, but the Bible only says she was there when the angel visited her after she was betrothed. There is quite a strong tradition that she came from Jerusalem, that her parents were called Anna and Joachim, and that they kept sheep near the pool of Bethesda. You may have never heard of this tradition, because it comes from a second century document called the Protevangelium, or Gospel of James. It is not part of Holy Scripture but has been highly regarded down through the centuries and still is by many Catholics today. In recent times there has been quite a lot of scholarly research into its explanation of Mary’s life before Bethlehem. It’s in this scroll that we first find the idea of a donkey, of a cave stable, and of midwives at Jesus birth. I don’t swallow all its claims but the suggestion that Mary served the priests in the temple may well have some truth it. Scholars tell us there was a group of consecrated virgins who lived in the temple and served as weavers and seamstresses in the first century, and in a Duke University paper published in October 2013 Dr Megan Nutzman finds the claim that Mary was one of these is supported by a number of archaeological details. That means Mary was educated by priests and scribes and that
5. She may have made the purple curtain that was split in two when Jesus died.
The Hebrew Bible tells us it was women who wove the curtain of the tabernacle (Exodus 35: 25, 26) , and in New Testament times when the door and its veil or curtain was huge, the task was undertaken by the virgins who lived in the temple. The protevangelium says that Mary herself had woven the purple and scarlet veil that was torn, and “that when a needle accidentally pricked her ﬁnger, she was given a foretaste of the pain she would feel at the cruciﬁxion.”
6. But there were times when she found her son exasperating.
We know the story of the precocious Jesus deserting his family to have debates with the temple scholars; perhaps he did that because his mother was well known there. In Mark 3 20 - 21 we are told his family tried to take him away because they thought he was out of his mind. Jesus was not what the Jews expected of a messiah, and it’s quite probable that Mary was disappointed to see that Jesus did not fulfil her dream of a Saviour who would boot out the Romans. She must have been shocked when he said publicly that his loyalty to her and his brothers and sisters was of little importance in the big scheme of things. No wonder she despaired of him. However she was there at the end, watching as he was cruelly executed, and helping with the burial rituals along with Salome, who is one of the midwives named in the gospel of James.
7. She is supposed to have died in Ephesus.
You can visit a house there where she lived, and that is perfectly believable because you may remember Jesus put her into the hands of his beloved friend John, who also went to Ephesus. What is not so believable is the doctrine that she never actually died but was miraculously removed to heaven, a bit like Enoch in the Old Testament. Catholics and Orthodox have slightly different beliefs about this but both hold it, along with the conviction that Mary herself was conceived by a virgin; the feast of the Immaculate Conception celebrates the miracle pregnancy not of Mary but of Anna, who for Catholics was a married woman dedicated to celibacy.
8. Mary is the most famous woman in the Bible, but she is not herself to be worshipped.
She is known by hundreds of names, portrayed in thousands of sculptures and probably millions of art works, but Mary is not worshiped by Catholics and Orthodox Christians; she is venerated. You may think this is a subtle distinction but Mary in her own song makes it clear that God and God alone is worthy of worship. Yes some Christians do revere her, even pray to her, but in conversations with my Catholic friends, I realised that they are not putting her in place of God. They see her as a sort of prayer partner, a person who as part of the communion of saints is now in the presence of God, and who can support and enhance our prayer requests. And I’m sure you know that most of the Hail Mary is straight out of scripture.
9. Her vision of hope for the poor has inspired a passion for justice down through the ages.
I read this week that the Magnificat is a theology of status. We tend to view the rich and famous as blessed and powerful, but Mary reminds us that God’s preference is for the poor, and that he notices the humble and downtrodden in a way that we often do not. Today, ambassadors of the Kingdom minister faithfully to the poor here and elsewhere, in the name of Christ. It’s good for us to pray for and offer practical support to social justice initiatives like City Mission food parcels, or Baptist ministries like Freeset, because they are causes that seek to embed gospel values into contexts where human beings are used and abused. As Mary said so poetically, He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
10. However Mary’s main gift is not politics but theology, the theology of worship.
Her song is one of gratitude to God for his choosing her to collaborate in his purpose. God does the same with us; he calls us to collaborate with his mission in the world. He may not send angels or wise men but he does inhabit our very life, and invites us to share his love and joy with others. In today’s society and especially at Christmas, that’s not a theme we hear much about. In a world of human rights and personal rights, we have become entitled. We anticipate with glee the well-chosen gifts under the tree and delicious food on our overladen table. The needs of others or how we might serve or honour them may not figure high on our Christmas list. And we can lose sight of whose birthday it really is. Our democratic worldview can mean we feel so matey with God we forget to revere him as the Almighty Creator of all that was and is and is to come. Mary understands the difference, she doesn’t take God for granted, but recognises the privilege of being used by him. She has a proper understanding of the meaning of worship. Her grasp of who God is and what he can do in a willing human being spills over into a waterfall of praise and prayer, of gratitude and generosity, of love and wonder.
May we endeavour to follow her example.
When lives of humble service preach
The Good News to the poor,
When troubled minds or bodies find
A welcome at our door,
When healing hearts and hands lift
The lowly from the dust,
Then ring the bells and sing Noels:
For Christ is born in us.
(From Birmingham Methodist Circuit)