2 Sam, 7 1-11, 16: Luke 1 26-38
Hymns: O come O come Emmanuel 26, Tell out my soul, 422 the Lord will come 29, Of the Father’s love begotten 33
Rather than taking apart both readings, let me focus almost entirely on the gospel reading. There is a clear link between them through God’s promise to let the house or line of David live forever, despite the bad behaviour of David’s sons, including that of Solomon who had made a house of prayer for God, and, one might add, David himself. But the actual lineage-link is to Joseph, the husband of Mary and social father of Jesus, rather than to Mary herself, whose flesh made the flesh of Jesus in the months of her pregnancy. It may well be that Mary was also of the House of David, for first or second cousin marriage within the lineage was and is proper in that region. Yet it is enough that the text makes clear that, God having kept his promises, Jesus would be attributed to the promised lineage.
And now to Mary who, in the hymn we just sang based on the Magnificat, was told by God she would bear a son who would save all people. Hers is not the only Biblical announcement of imminent pregnancy to a startled childless woman. Hagar accepted she has seen God telling her of Ishmael’s birth and future line, while Sara, eventual mother of Isaac, laughed at a tall tale. The nameless wife of Manoah accepted God’s promise that she would bear Samson, as did Hannah, wife of Elkanah, who immediately committed the promised child, Samuel, to God. All of these Hebrew Bible women were either childless or, as Hagar the slave, not married. Although Sara, already old, quite reasonably rejected the promise of her impending maternity as ludicrous, the others accepted the promise. We do not know what Elizabeth initially said when Zachariah was told they would have a child, but we do know that she later gave thanks that God had removed her low status as a childless woman. More significantly, she later said to her cousin Mary, in what may also be a side-swipe at her very sceptical husband: ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
But none of these women, important though they were, responded in the way of the not-quite-married Mary. For one thing, far from being nameless, or getting the odd one-liner, Mary gets a whole song, in which she hears and accepts what otherwise would have been an embarrassing inconvenience. She responds not only by stressing her servant status but also, and crucially for this discussion, by saying: ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’ Such acceptance is an echo of that of Samuel son of Hannah who when God finally did call him, responded as his teacher Eli had taught him: ‘Here I am, servant of the Lord,’
But commentaries on the two ‘acceptance speeches’ differ. Samuel’s is taken as the proper way for a prophet to accept God’s gift, Samuel following his teacher Eli exactly. Mary had no teacher. Yet discussion of and teaching from her response over the centuries has tended to see her response not only as that of a chosen person, but also as an exemplar of female behaviour.
Accordingly, her response is used less to exemplify the response to God of a human made in God’s image, but rather that of a proper woman, ‘passive perfection on a pedestal.’ Indeed, her acceptance, but not Samuel’s, becomes part of some human demands, wrongly attributed to God, that married Christian women submit to God, and to their husbands in God’s stead. This is contrary to the mutual submission of marriage partners cited so definitively in Ephesians 5:22.
Given that Mary and the prophet Samuel say something similar which is treated differently, let’s parallel another statement of hers, ‘Let it be according to your word,’ with those of her prophet son Jesus. Waiting in Gethsemane, and not discouraging God from stopping the process, Jesus then says: ‘Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.’ His mother’s words parallel his, both asserting and accepting. After expressing surprise – as did Sara at the other end of child bearing – and uncertainty ‘this is not necessarily what I want right now but being in your care, I’ll get through,’ the crucial thing about Mary, as with Elizabeth her cousin, is that she accepts her role in a song foreshadowing her son’s Sermon on the Mount.
So for churches to have used Mary’s acceptance, which echoes that of Jesus, effectively to subordinate women is to put it mildly theologically unhelpful for both women and men. Just as her willingness to submit herself to God is paralleled by Jesus’s willingness to do exactly the same, so too the submission of wives to husbands under God in Ephesians is exactly paralleled by the submission of husbands to wives under God, the salvific irrelevance of gender being made clear in Galatians.
Mary as the God bearer was indeed female, there being no other option. There was an option for God to be born on earth in the Image of God as a female, for God is without gender, yet the realities of life for a wandering preacher, never mind the different social but not salvific status accorded men and women, made the male version preferable. Yet, and this is important for males and females alike, while Mary suckled one child, God is seen as suckling all people. As William of Thierry, a medieval French theologian wrote: ‘It is your breast, O Eternal Wisdom, that nourish the holy infancy of our little ones,’ and ‘It was not the least of the chief reasons for your incarnation that your babes in the church still need your milk.’ Indeed Jesus is often shown in that medieval period as feeding saintly followers with milk from his breast.
‘Blessed be the womb that bore you’ said a woman to Jesus later in Luke. ‘No’ responds Jesus quickly before going to speak of the potential for light in all believers, ‘blessed are those who hear God’s word and obey it.’ In other words, while only a woman could emulate Mary as birthing mother, both men and women can emulate Mary in accepting, believing, and acting on God’s promises and that is crucial to this story. No one on earth can emulate Jesus, can be Jesus, but all can make an intentional effort to follow Jesus’ promises made on earth, and all, male and female, can offer the milk of human kindness to the thirsty and the needy, which is each one of us here in church, as well as each person outside.
The symbolic re-enactment of the Messiah’s birth, for which we have been making ready these last three weeks, is near. In honouring Mary as mother, let us honour the mothering, nurturing, sustaining and comforting done by all, men and women, throughout the ages, and remember and practice her first response of believing: ‘Let it be according to your Word.’