Readings: Isaiah 61:10-11, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55
Some of you may have heard me tell this story before, in a slightly different context. A few years ago I went into the office, and two of my colleagues were engaged in animated discussion: ominously, it stopped as I came in.
“Aha,” one of them said. “Let’s ask Sue. Sue will know.” I thought: depends what you’re asking!
Anyway it turned out not to be a fine technical accounting point (which was just as well). They’d been watching the BBC drama series on the Nativity, and the big question they had was, how much of what was on the telly was in the Bible, and how much had the writer made up?
Which is the Big Question for a lot of things involving Mary, the girl at the centre of the BBC drama. Because for a figure who looms so large in the story of our salvation, we don’t actually know much about her, and most of what we think we know…..we don’t.
We have no idea what she looked like, although artists have almost always shown her as beautiful (in a very European way, of course). It’s very unlikely she wore blue all the time, as blue cloth was expensive stuff. She probably was young, because she’s described as a virgin just engaged. Marriage was generally the only occupation open to women, and people didn’t hang about.
So let’s revisit that. What’s the one thing that’s most likely to damage Mary’s only good chance of having a decent life? Answer: having a baby with no father.
Well, I think a writer of drama has as much of a right to put in his tuppence-ha’penny as anyone else. So let’s go more into the BBC version of events. Mary doesn’t believe the chap in white who’s just turned up with the news. Remember that Luke gives us the same thing in the Gospel: “I’ve never been with a man: how can I have a baby?”…. but she admits that she loves and trusts God.
For me there are two especially powerful scenes: the first where Mary goes to see her cousin Elizabeth, the woman who’s far too old for childbearing, but there’s some unexpected news on that front. Hasn’t there? Mary thinks, if I see her, I’ll know it’s true for me as well. She meets Elizabeth sitting by the water: and as Elizabeth gets up, we see that unmistakeable profile. And we see Mary’s face as the truth hits home. It is so.
Elizabeth rejoices with her, but she says, you know Mary, you’ll have to go home at some point. Then what will you do? And of course that day comes. Someone tells Joseph she’s back and he races off at once. In this version, her parents and the rabbi made the introduction in the first place. OK it’s an arranged marriage, but they liked each other from the first (they made each other laugh): Joseph’s only a few years older, and he’s looking for a nice girl to settle down with. The formal betrothal has been held at a big party. It’s all official……and Joseph has let his guard down and he has dared to fall in love.
“Mary, Mary!” he shouts joyfully. “When did you get back?” And as Mary gets up, and as she turns, we see that same unmistakeable profile: and we see Joseph’s face. He doesn’t say a word. Not at first. Has she been attacked? Or is there something going on, and her parents knew all along and they were just desperate to get rid of her to an unsuspecting bloke before anything showed? As for this ridiculous story……. It’s embarrassing and humiliating for Joseph.
Of course (spoiler alert!) it works out in the end, but the emotional and spiritual journey depicted is – I find – very satisfying (I really do recommend this series if you ever come across it). And I emphasise again that this is how a modern writer has used his imagination, to fill in the details that the New Testament, frustratingly, doesn’t give us.
But good drama gives us exactly that, something deeply emotional and sympathetic, that draws us into a story we already know as if we’ve never heard it before: we get it all fresh. We see the implications for her of what Mary has agreed to do when we see a good man’s face, struggling with anger, bewilderment, pain, loss…..and perhaps pity. Because he also knows what it means for her.
And so if we think about the wonderful words of the Magnificat, sung week in, week out across the Christian world, its context is not simply that of a “good girl”, submissively obedient to God and agreeing passively, which to be honest is what the Church emphasised for so many centuries (I can’t think why!).
Mary is risking everything, and now she knows she is. She’s had time to think about it. But she says to Elizabeth, who also knows a thing or two about what happens if you don’t fulfil the role society expects of women: “my soul magnifies the Lord.” This is God’s favour. God has a history of mercy and deeds of power; he cares for people who aren’t important; and he is faithful, he keeps promises. It’s a message of defiance to those who are comfortable, to those who don’t like tothink, to those who like things as they are. There’s going to be a shake-up.
That shake-up is still with us, 2000 years later. We have not always been true to the song of Mary. She has been safely fenced in, turned into that serene figure that we see in so many Annunciations, responding meekly to God’s request. She doesn’t turn a hair. The ideal woman (discuss!). That’s not untrue, but it is simplistic.
The Magnificat shows us Mary’s fire, the spirit so open to God’s own Holy Spirit. Let’s face it, if God only wanted a good girl, there were plenty of those in Roman era Palestine. But God chose her, and the song of praise she comes out with shows exactly why he did.
Of course the Bible gives us a few other “snapshots” of Mary in Jesus’ life: looking for him in the Temple when he got lost as a boy; the wedding at Cana, the first time she sees what her son can do; the unimaginable agony of Good Friday. Did she remember Simeon’s words about a sword piercing her heart? Did at least part of her think that for once, in spite of what she’d sung so long ago, God had not proved faithful, and that it had all been for nothing? Or did she hold fast to a truth that was even deeper? And then Easter….
But it seems only fitting that Mary’s final appearance in the New Testament is at the start of Acts, when the Apostles “pray together constantly” before Pentecost. We’re told that the group includes women, and she’s named as one of them. And “they are all” together when the Spirit descends like flames on that Pentecost. I think it’s likely that Mary was there as well.
Fire and spirit, from the first to the last. The girl God chose, who dared to say yes, and whose soul magnifies the Lord: Ave Maria.