Each week, we look at one of the lectionary passages for the upcoming Sunday. This week we continue our journey towards Christmas through Advent by looking at Luke 1:26-38.
I typically imagine Mary as this sweet girl who was practically perfect in every way . I don't think that I am alone in having that picture (and, indeed, some run further with that idea than others). We have a natural tendency to sanitize our biblical figures; Jesus' mom is no different. Our picture of Mary is this flowery and pristine image. We can see her hands piously folded while this beatific look shines across her faith. Our nativity scenes and Christmas carols perpetuate this pleasant image of meek and mild Mary.
Yet while I was reading the gospel lectionary passage for this week, a thought occurred to me: Mary was pretty hardcore. She was likely a young teenage girl which in our minds is an odd time to be engaged for marriage. Yet that was the way that her society worked. As such, her life was pretty well locked in. Then a messenger from God comes and pretty much blows all of that up. He tells Mary that she is going to become pregnant as a virgin and give birth to the greatest human being who will ever walk the earth.
There are huge ramifications to this news. She is going to be pregnant out of wedlock. Any number of things could happen to her. She probably is going to become a social pariah and an outcast. They'll call her names and throw her dirty looks. Shame will be brought down upon her and those close to her. Her future husband Joseph could abandon her. Or, if he really wants to make a point of it, he could have her stoned to death for adultery. And it's not like she has the most believable alibi. Oh, the old "I was knocked up by the Spirit of God excuse..."
All of this—the shame, the hurt, the danger—was on the table when the angel brought this news. And what was Mary's response? Bring it.
Actually, I don't want to be glib about her response because I think what Luke has her say is a great piece of storytelling and a challenge to those who follow God. But we have to go back a little bit to get the full impact.
Earlier in the chapter, an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah. He was told that his barren, aged wife Elizabeth would give birth to a great son. This son would grow up to be filled with the spirit of their greatest prophet Elijah. This is nothing but awesome news for Zechariah. He does not face the stakes that Mary faces. There are no dirty looks or potential for execution in his future; just a ton of whatever was the First Century Palestinian equivalent of the high five.
But Zechariah just can't believe it. Even though this scenario of God blessing a barren mother late in age with a child is a pattern repeated throughout the scriptures, he just can't see it happening (and as a side note so as not to dogpile on Zechariah: I would have trouble believing it too). So the angel takes away the priest's ability to speak. Zechariah cannot say a word. His encounter with God's messenger ends with his silence.
Zechariah is a priest. He is a literal servant of the Lord. Serving God is his profession. It is what he does. Yet he just can't believe this incredible news. And right afterwards, Luke tells us about Mary. As a young girl, she is practically on the opposite end of the spectrum as the wise old priest. He is a pillar of the community; a servant of the Lord. She's just a girl who is getting married as part of a cultural transaction. The proximity of the stories only enhances the contrast.
So the angel tells her something even more incredible than what Zechariah was told and the stakes are unbelievably higher for this vulnerable young woman. And she says: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." This is the first chapter of Luke and right out of the gate the narrative is completely flipped. The individual who the audience would assume is the servant of the Lord is mute and this young girl in an incredibly vulnerable place is declaring her service to God with an almost steely resolve. Meek and mild Mary is not.
Mary is one of the most brave characters you will find in scripture. To face that future and still trust in God showed remarkable faith. It is challenging to me as I consider the times when I face stakes that are not close to what Mary faced and my faith shrivels up. Like all moms I know, she was tougher than her exterior showed. Jesus was fortunate to have her as a mom. We're lucky to be able to learn from another hero of our faith.