Luke 1: 26-38, 46-55
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for 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.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, 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.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her…
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Our second week of Advent brings us to reflect on Mary, the Mother of God. She was a poor woman, from a four acre town in what was once called Israel. We know very little about her family, only that she had a cousin named Elizabeth who we will talk about next week, and another cousin named Zachariah who we already talked about last week. Little else is known about the woman who brought Jesus into the world. We do not know how old she was when she conceived, we do not know what she did with her daily life outside of raising Jesus and his siblings, and we do not know what happened to her after the close of the first few chapters of the book of Acts.
Despite this relative obscurity, Mary has captivated the Church for centuries. Legends describe her lineage, her battles with dragons and with demons, and in certain traditions her eventual ascension into Heaven. I do not think that Mary was likely taken up into Heaven like Elijah or Enoch, but there is no doubt that the Mother of God made her way to be seated in the company of Heaven. Wherever her grave may be, it goes unmarked and unremarked upon in the modern day. We do not know where Mary ended up, and so we are left with the few pieces we can be certain of. The most comprehensive narrative we are given in scripture to tell us about Mary are the one’s which we have read today, the annunciation – where Jesus’s entry into the flesh was announced – and the Magnificat – where Jesus’s life was foretold.
When we are told that Mary was visited by an angel, the exact stakes of what she is being told may not snap into our minds immediately. When an angel comes and tells you that you are going to be miraculously pregnant, that can be very good news. Zechariah was excited to hear he would have a child even though he had previously thought such a thing would be impossible for him. Yet, to have this kind of birth foretold when you are not married carries different kinds of baggage with it. The angel was not just telling Mary she was going to carry a child, but that she was about to become an object of public interest, of ridicule, and perhaps even an object of violence.
Formally, Roman rule in Judea had discouraged capital punishment among Jewish citizens. While Rome had the right to kill non-citizens for any number of crimes, local governments were more limited in their ability to execute criminals. Add to this the general perspective among the prominent rabbis of the time that capital punishment was needlessly cruel, “increase[ing] the number of murderers among the Jewish people,” and you get an environment where capital punishment for crimes outside of Roman law was unlikely.
Now, why is this relevant to Mary and the news that she was going to conceive a child? Well, she was an unmarried woman in first century Judea. To an outside observer that would suggest that Mary had had relations outside of marriage. That in itself was not necessary a problem, assuming that this was a matter between herself and her betrothed Joseph. While probably a faux pas and certainly something discouraged, relations of this kind were not considered beyond the pale in the society of the time. However, we know from other places in scripture that Joseph had considered breaking off the engagement before he fully understood what was happening. If that had happened, or if that had gotten out, Mary could have been in big trouble.
An unfortunate truth, as true today as it was in Jesus’s time, is that even when those with the theoretical authority to pursue death sentences have given that power up, people in communities will place that supposed power upon themselves. Mob violence, or even just an individual with the wrong sort of sense of superiority, could have caused great harm to Mary in the months leading up to her giving birth to Jesus. It is my earnest belief that, one of the reasons we see Mary move in with her cousin Elizabeth during the early part of her pregnancy was to protect herself and her unborn child. Something she was able to do even better once Joseph was fully on board with what was to come, but something that still took several months to sort out.
The blessing the angel brought, of Mary being able to carry the incarnate Word of God into the world, was therefore not a small thing for her to take on. She was being asked to face immediate danger for the sake of her child. A child who, we know from reading ahead in this story, she would ultimately have to give up to death on a Roman cross. The grief of a mother who had to face public scrutiny before their child was born, be jeered at by those who misunderstood his work during his life, and then pitied her after he died a criminals death, it is all just unimaginable to me.
Yet, the image we get of Mary is not of a broke woman grieving, but of a strong and confident prophet proclaiming the salvation of God to anyone who is willing to hear it. Mary takes on this assignment, not with apprehension or fear, but with a desire to understand more. “How can this be?” quickly transforms to, “Let it be with me as you have said.” I’m not foolish enough to say that Mary probably did not have any worries or fear, but her faith was sufficient to overcome them. She did not know everything coming down the line, but she sure did know that God was going to see things through to the end.
This is made most clear when she arrives at her cousin’s house. Elizabeth, as we will see next week, greets Mary and confirms that she isn’t just dreaming. She really is carrying a savior, one that will turn the world on its head. Mary does not miss a beat from the moment she receives this confirmation. The quiet and thoughtful Mary launches into her longest recorded speech – what we now call the “Magnificat.”
Following the example of prophets like Miriam before her, Mary describes the faithfulness of God throughout history. She begins with herself, saying that God’s actions even up to this point have shown her to be blessed. She is blessed to be the bearer of God into the world, she is blessed to be a mother who is going to go through Hell to bring Heaven to Earth, she is blessed in a way that no one will be able to deny in the future. She then speaks to God’s more general goodness. God takes the proud and knocks them off their pedestals, but God lifts up the lowly who know their real worth. God feeds the hungry and denies the rich. God brings justice wherever there is injustice, and God settles the score wherever earthly courts fail.
Mary is someone who we in the Protestant church too often neglect. While I understand some of the hesitancy we tend to express, I think that it is to our detriment. We may not regard Mary as the sinless mother of God, immaculately conceived and bodily assumed into Heaven, but she is still the mother of God and worthy of our respect. We can learn a lot from her, even just by thinking about what it means for her to have taken on her role, to have been the first evangelist in history. Some may point to John the Baptist, or to any of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible as the first bringing of good news, but I am admittedly being a bit more specifically Christian in my argument. If we define evangelism as bringing the Word of God, and the salvation that Word brings, to all the world, then I cannot imagine a better prototype than Mary.
She carried that Word of God within her for nine months. She gave birth to a child, naming him “God is salvation,” and then raised him up to love the scriptures and to be a part of the community he lived him. She gave him up to his ministry, eventually joining him in his travels when her husband died. Then, worst of all, she gave up her Son to the cross, standing beside him as he breathed his last breath. Even the resurrection, the confirmation that her prophecy before his birth was spot on and that she would see her Son again rightfully seated on the throne of Heaven, meant that she had to send her beloved child away, far from where she could see him or hear him call for her when he needed her.
We are all of us imitators of Mary. Though we do not suffer our separation from Jesus in just the same way, we still can feel some of what she feels. We come into the Church and accept the Word which is given to us. It grows within us, transforming us into people who more resemble the one who saved us. We then share that Gospel with all we can, through love and service as well as through proclamation and testimony. We wait earnestly the day we see Jesus face to face, and for the work to be concluded and our rest to truly begin. We imitate Mary in every step of our spiritual journey, and so to not give her, her due is a shame.
In a moment we will celebrate Holy Communion. Here we receive the gifts of bread and the vine, here we proclaim all that Christ’s salvific work has done for us, is doing for us, and will do for us. Then we all take it, and we receive it into ourselves. We grow strong through this gift of God and then go forward into the world in that strength to share the grace of God with all the world. Each action of the Church, as it pursues service to Christ, calls us to remember some aspect of those who knew Christ while he walked this earth, and few people know any person better than their mamas. On this, our second week of Advent, let us remember the fearless evangelist who brought our savior to the world. Let us all consider, and imitate, Mary in our devotion to the Gospel. – Amen.
 Mishnah Makkot. 1.10 Available at: https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Makkot.1.10?lang=bi
 Genesis 24: 67 captures one such instance of relations preceding any formal marriage.