“Mary and the Proclaiming Women of the Bible”
Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Text: Luke 1:26-38
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent. In the history of the western church, both the third and fourth Sundays of Advent have each been dedicated to Mary; we’re going to be a bit extravagant this year and celebrate Mary both this Sunday and next. Today, I’d like to begin by lifting up Mary in the context of our readings about the proclamation of the gospel; next Sunday we’ll enter into her life as the Mother of God.
In our lessons for today, we just heard Isaiah and John the Baptist proclaiming in the name of the Lord – Isaiah says: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
If this passage sounds familiar to you, it should: Jesus himself quoted it when it was his turn to read from scripture in the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath – he reads that very passage from Isaiah, then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
We also heard John the Baptist, proclaiming, quoting a different portion of Isaiah: I am the voice of one, crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. –
This means that we have Isaiah, John, and Jesus all using similar language to proclaim the arrival of Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one, the Lord.
Now it goes without saying that Isaiah, John, and Jesus are all men, and that Mary is a woman. It turns out that women have a very different way of proclaiming throughout the Bible than men do, particularly in the Gospels. So now let’s look at Mary’s proclamation within the community, if you will, of the other women in the Bible.
We know Mary chiefly through the Christmas story in Luke, which we’ll hear next Sunday, in which she is greeted by the Angel Gabriel who announces God’s plan for the Incarnation. After some questioning on her part – “And how is this to be, seeing as how I have not known a man?” – Mary submits to the plan as the handmaiden of the Lord, and sings the Magnificat, which we just prayed together. That little dialogue and song are almost all we hear from Mary directly in the gospels.
That intrigued a group of Minnesota church women, both ordained and lay. They decided to take a look at something that had not been examined in detail by Biblical scholars: the presence of women who speak in the Bible. The results are shocking: there are 93 women who speak in the Bible, only 49 have names, and – here’s the truly surprising part: out of about 1.1 million words in the Bible, women speak only about 14,000 of them, or about 1.1%.
By far the vast majority of these women and their words appear in what we call the Old Testament; of itself, this is not surprising because that Testament is more than three times the size of the New Testament, but that isn’t the whole story. The Old Testament has many dialogues between women and men, usually – but not always – between husbands and wives: think of Abraham and Sarah, Joseph, Leah and Rachel, David and Bathsheba, the bride and her lover in the Song of Songs, plus the words of Ruth, Judith, Esther and a few others.
By contrast, the New Testament records hardly any dialogues involving women at all – but it is the Samaritan woman has the longest sustained conversation with Jesus in the Gospels, which is all of 151 words. Mary Magdalene says a total of 61 words. Mother Mary, who speaks mostly to the Angel Gabriel, and only a few words directly to her son (at the wedding in Cana), speaks a grand total of 191 words.
And here’s the kicker: most of those words aren’t really even Mary’s own. The Magnificat is heavily borrowed (almost lifted) from an Old Testament hymn. The Song of Hannah was sung by Hannah to celebrate her miraculous pregnancy after years of being barren; after she prayed to God at the Temple, she received the answer to her prayer in the form of a son, the prophet Samuel. And – Hannah was not truly original either: her song is itself is borrowed from a Psalm of David, 113, which also celebrates the God who makes childless women mothers of children, raises the poor and needy up from the dust and places them in palaces with princes. I’m not telling you this to denigrate Hannah or her song or Mary or the Magnificat in any way at all; it is simply to point out that even when women speak in the New Testament, what they say tends not to original but derivative, and to point out that even though we Christians view the New Testament as a tremendous advance over the Hebrew Scriptures (which is in itself is problematic), in some cases it is regressive, particularly when it comes to women’s words.
Now of course Jesus himself was revolutionary in his treatment of women: welcoming them as disciples, forgiving sins like adultery for which women were punished by banishment or worse in his time; he even healed specifically female diseases like that of the woman with an issue of blood. On occasion, he even lifted women above men, like the unnamed woman – possibly Mary Magdalene – who washed his feet with tears and anointed him with oil, saying that whenever the gospel was preached in the future, it would be told “in memory of her.”
In the New Testament, men do the vast majority of the talking. But here’s the thing: the men may talk, but it’s the women who do; this becomes clear if we look at their actions. The deeds of the women in the New Testament are a different kind of proclamation, not needing words.
Ahead of her actions, though, Mary begins the Magnificat begins with verbal proclamation: my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. When not just your mouth but your soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, it follows that your whole life that shows forth the love of God, and that is the most compelling kind of preaching there is. I can speak to this in my own life. I was drawn to Christ and to baptism by meeting people whose lives were attractive to me: these people were joyful, had integrity and sense of purpose – in short, they had what I wanted in my life. After much prayer and back and forth with God, I became convinced that the way to get what they had was through baptism. And it wasn’t hearing a sermon that got me there – although I know that many have been converted through preaching, it’s not the only way, and it wasn’t the way for me.
If we look, we see this kind of conversion in the women in the Gospels – possibly excepting Mary, we’ll get to that in a moment – all of the other women meet Jesus in exactly that same place I was in, that of intense desire for something only Jesus can give: forgiveness, healing, eternal life, none of which time or a man can take away. Take the Samaritan woman that Jesus meets at the well, the one that has that long talk with him. She doesn’t say it in so many words but it is clear that she is tired, sick of being taken advantage of, and thirsty for something beyond the water in the well. She has had seven husbands – seven! – and either disillusioned or with a disastrously poor self-image, she is now living with a man who isn’t her husband. She comes to the well alone, not in the company of other women – women in a village would normally draw water together at a particular time – so it’s obvious that she’s being shunned by them. And the conversation she has with Jesus is clearly not about the water in the well: they wind up talking about living water, which heal can heal her, forgive and give her the first taste of true love in her life. Take a look at what she does after she leaves Jesus and goes back to her village: she becomes the first evangelist to the Samaritans, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he be the Messiah?” Suddenly she’s proclaiming like a man!
She is not alone in the strength and conviction of her conversion among New Testament women, along with the healing of her deepest need. Mary’s barren cousin Elizabeth receives a child, John the Baptist. Anna, the widow and prophetess who prayed night and day in the Temple, receives the reward of beholding the Messiah she has longed to see her whole life. The woman with the issue of blood, sick and an outcast, receives healing and restoration to her community. Mary Magdalene is cured of seven demons and forgiven her horrific past; she becomes a disciple of Jesus. And Mary and Martha, disciples and friends of Jesus, receive their brother Lazarus back alive out of the tomb.
All of these are proclamations of the gospel in their own way, and all of these women remain faithful to Jesus even through his crucifixion. The same can’t be said of the men, who talked a great story yet fled when the going got tough, when their lives were in danger. Remember Peter denying Jesus three times after insisting that he would never leave his side, no matter what? And while Peter was the leader of the disciples, his compatriots did no better: they all ran away while the women remained at the cross. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.
But what of Mother Mary? I told you she was different. She didn’t appear to have much of a need when the Angel Gabriel suddenly appeared to her in her home in Nazareth. She was young, probably 12 or 13, unmarried but betrothed to the older Joseph, by all accounts a fine, respectable Jewish man who earned a living as a carpenter. Mary was not sick, there is no indication that she was barren, and she did not appear to be in need of special forgiveness – in fact, tradition says that the Angel Gabriel interrupted her while she was piously praying. So why did God choose Mary as the mother of his son? That’s a teaser for you: stay tuned – next week, we’ll see why. We’ll look at Mary’s faith, character, and life, which was by no means an easy one.
But for today, let’s give thanks for Mary’s terse but exquisite brand of proclamation. Without her, our Savior would not have been born.
“Who is Mary, Mother of Jesus?”
Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge
Church of the Intercession
Sunday, December 20, 20202
Text: Luke 1:26-38
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we are celebrating Mary Sunday; that’s why we just lit the rose-colored candle and are wearing these beautiful vestments – rose is Mary’s color. There’s no better way to put a bow on Advent as we embark on Christmas week than to pay tribute to Jesus’ mother. I gave you a tease last week, telling you that we would continue what we began last Sunday. So who is Mary? Why was she chosen to bear the Christ? And what was her life truly like?
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. I’m using the archaic language of the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting here, because it’s more familiar and it’s certainly more poetic than our translation. It also gets the point across more directly than “Greetings, favored one”; the Greek word “Xaire” is complex, meaning “welcome, greetings, hail, be full of joy.” Now apart from the shock of having an Archangel suddenly burst into your house, the teenage Mary must have felt doubly stunned at being greeted with “Xaire.” Our translation says that Mary was “perplexed,” but there’s no doubt that’s a very mild word for how she truly reacted. The fact that the very next thing Gabriel says to her is “do not be afraid” likely means that he had to pick her up from the floor, possibly from a dead faint.
Once Mary is capable of listening again, Gabriel continues: You have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
Notice, Mary doesn’t immediately say “yes” here; instead, she’s got a question. “How is this to be, since I am a virgin” (or “because I have not known a man”). Gabriel’s reply to her really has two parts: the first is a direct answer as to how she can possibly conceive a baby as a virgin, the second answer is unrelated to Mary’s question, it’s oddly about her cousin Elizabeth.
I think this tells us about what really happened during their encounter, although it’s not explicitly described in the gospel. Because famous stories from the Bible are so familiar to us – like this one – we don’t stop to notice the very human dynamics that are contained within it. Here Gabriel tells Mary two different times that God is going to cause her to become pregnant: first he says, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you.” I think there should be a period right there, and a pause, because most likely Mary was looking at him with an expression on her face that said, “What?” possibly with a helping of “Are you kidding me?” Then Gabriel says the very same thing a slightly different way: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” – perhaps there was another pause here with more incredulity from Mary here – then Gabriel concludes with “therefore the child to be born will be holy, he will be called the Son of God.”
Mary still doesn’t say anything, whereupon Gabriel notes her silence and adds something to convince her that this is for real: “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Now Mary speaks, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” But I find it hard to believe that Mary responded with her “yes” immediately – I’ve said before in sermons that time is compressed throughout the Bible, and that most likely in real time, there were large pauses when time passed, but the narrative appears to race right on. This is one of those places. I imagine Mary had to consider what Gabriel told her and pray about it. She had to get to “yes” in her spirit before saying “yes” to the angel. Imagine Gabriel sitting quietly in a corner of Mary’s room, his wings folded, while Mary wrestles through the night with the immensity of what it being asked of her, struggling not quite like her son will later struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane, but she must have struggled mightily none the less.
Why such a struggle? Because Mary must have known that saying “yes” would mean signing on not only for joy and honor, but for suffering. Even in the immediate future, would anyone believe her story about becoming pregnant by the Holy Spirit, not least of all her fiancée Joseph, but also her family, friends and community? Even though Gabriel told her that she was “full of grace” and that the Lord was with her, she must have had forebodings in her soul about how this was going to unfold in her life.
Mercifully, Mary didn’t yet know how hard her life would become. Upon hearing the news of her pregnancy, Joseph did not believe her: he decided to break the engagement as quietly as he could, before an angel in a dream intervened and told him to stay with her. Yet there are indications that all was not well – Joseph isn’t mentioned accompanying Mary to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, a journey roughly the distance from here to Philadelphia that she would have had to make on a donkey while pregnant. Was this the equivalent of Mary “going home to mother” to get away from a troubled relationship? We’re not told, but it’s certainly a possibility.
Things get worse from there. After Mary returns home to give birth, she has to leave again – with Joseph this time – to go to Bethlehem for a census and a tax. We all know she is forced to give birth in a stable, and wrap her baby in what’s called “swaddling clothes” but which were either rags used to milk the animals, or possibly bands of linen that Joseph was carrying in case she died in childbirth – after all, while Gabriel has prophesied a wondrous future for her son, he didn’t say a word about her having any future at all, and at that time it was very common for women to die in childbirth. Through all of this, Mary must have been thinking, “How could this be what ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’ means?” ]
And that is only the beginning of her life’s journey as the Mother of God. There’s the flight to Egypt to avoid Herod’s death decree for newborn boys which seeks to kill her son. Later, Joseph disappears out of the gospels after Jesus is found teaching in the Temple when he is about 12 years old; most scholars believe that he died, leaving young Mary a widow. Then, as Jesus grows into manhood and begins to minister, he causes such controversy that Mary is compelled to try to rein him in because people are saying that he’s mad. Finally, of course, she is forced to watch her son suffer a horrific, unjustified death on the cross. Could Mary ever have said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” just like her son on the cross? Maybe more than once.
So why was Mary chosen for this blessed yet deeply painful path? First, let’s ask whether she was the only woman approached by Gabriel with an invitation to participate in the Incarnation. The answer is: we don’t know, but we do know that other things we take for granted as the only possible course of history in the Bible are shown – in the Bible itself – not to be so. For example, the chance to accept the Torah to become God’s chosen people was not given to the Hebrews first – that same invitation was given to and then rejected by Crete, Philistia, and Egypt. It was finally accepted by people who were not even a nation – the Hebrews – because Moses was able to lead them into both acceptance of the Torah and the formation of Israel. But it was not pre-ordained.
God gives all of us, as individuals, communities, and nations, free will. So is it possible that Gabriel appeared to other women who rebuffed him? It is. But it is also true that Mary had the prodigious faith to submit to God’s plan not only for herself but for all of humankind, and the strength of spirit to remain in unshakeable faith through trials that might have destroyed other women. She was able to remember that Gabriel told her that “the Lord was with her” even during times during which the Lord must have felt very far away. This is why Mary was worthy to be chosen to help redeem humankind from the error of Eve; in doing so Mary became Eve’s opposite, in the same way that her son Jesus became the correction of Eve’s husband Adam: Eve rebelled against God and along with Adam caused the fall. Mary fully submitted to God and raised her son Jesus to offer us salvation.
When it came time for Jesus to be born into this world, God was searching for a woman who would be as strong spiritually as her son. Mary could say “yes” without any more proof than learning that her barren cousin Elizabeth was with child. She could say “yes” knowing that what lay ahead was going to be hard beyond her imaginings. And she could say “yes” not knowing what lay beyond her son being buried in the tomb, not yet having an inkling of either the resurrection or the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost still to come.
I confess, that there is much I am not certain about when it comes to Mary. I confess that I’m not sure that I believe she was a virgin – of course God can do anything God wants and she could have been a virgin, but the word quoted from the prophecy of Isaiah that is cited as the foretelling of Jesus’ birth uses the word “almah,” which means simply “young, unmarried woman,” there is an entirely different Hebrew word that means “virgin” that is specifically not used. Even the early church was not fully united on Mary’s virginity – there are early gospels from Syria that refer to Joseph as Jesus’ father in every sense, yet they are still convinced that Jesus was and is the Son of God.
Here’s the thing: that point doesn’t matter to me, it has no effect at all on my faith or my admiration for Mary. I love the fact that Mary is human, like me, a human woman, whose faith was so strong that God could choose her not only to give birth Jesus but to raise him to manhood, and to stay by his side through his death. And I love the fact that even though, as we noted last week, Mary says very little, her actions speak volumes to each and every one of us who are looking for our own way to submit to God’s will. Like Mary, we might struggle with what God is asking us to do, yet also like Mary, we can choose to say “yes.”
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Thanks be to God.