Mary Before the Manger

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the First Sunday of Advent.

Luke 1:26-38

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 for ever, 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.

The most important thing I know about Mary of Nazareth, mother of God, queen of heaven, lady in blue, is that I never got to play her in the annual Christmas pageant. 

As one might imagine, I was a pretty dedicated church kid, and this rankled.  After all, in many ways Mary was the star of the show. None of the rest of the story happens without her. I can still picture the parade of girls, coming up the center aisle of the church over the years, in blue bathrobes with beach balls duct taped to the front of their t-shirts. Led tenderly along by Joseph, they would mount the chancel, a spotlight shining just on them, while they cradled a plastic baby doll Jesus and the choir sang Away in a Manger. 

This was my downfall: I was too chatty to play Mary. I took a shy turn in my teenage years, but as a child, I could talk with a vengeance, and so I was inevitably cast as a character who narrated. Mary smiled mysteriously, while I, in a shepherd’s robe or innkeeper’s coat, explained the situation. 

As I’ve aged, it has bothered me more and more that Mary was a silent character in all those musical pageants—because, as you just heard in our gospel today, Mary absolutely had a voice. She thinks deeply. She asks questions. She answers a calling. She echoes the words Abraham, Samuel, and Jeremiah used when God called them to difficult tasks, saying “here I am. Let it be with me according to your word.”

And later, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts out with a song of praise that rivals any the psalmist, prophets, and poets of Israel ever put to parchment. 

Mary is not a silent character. She is not a blank slate. And yet we also don’t know too much about her, this woman who said yes. She appears in all four gospels, named as Jesus’ mother. She has the biggest part to play here in Luke, where she has the voice of a prophet. We know she lived in Nazareth, a small town in the fertile area around the Galilean lake, where Roman influence—and Roman money—loomed large. We know she was young—although young is a moving target, so she could probably have been anywhere from twelve to twenty five. We know she was Jewish, and knew her scriptures—both well enough to quote them, and to trust them. We know she was engaged to Joseph, in the carpentry trade. But we also know she spoke for herself. 

That is what we know from scripture, and it is not nothing. But naturally many people of faith have wanted to know more about this mysterious, magnificent woman. As early as the second century you can read little novellas about Mary that fill in some of the gaps. They read a bit like fairy tales—that she was the miracle-born beautiful daughter of rich parents, kept in a temple where her angelic singing voice brought the birds to her room, that Joseph won her hand in a sort of widower dating contest, that she was miraculously unaffected and unwearied by Jesus’ birth. 

These are stories that came from the period when Christianity was trying to gain some respectability in the Roman world, and it helped to have Jesus born of noble stock and wealthy family. In a pagan world full of bejeweled goddesses from every culture, it helped to build up a myth of the queen of heaven, in a rich blue gown with a golden halo. 

That image of Mary—wealthy, beautiful, meek, and silent—has lingered through the ages. In some ways it feels like a miracle, that we have given our reverence and attention the mother behind the man. But in other ways that image of Mary has been a shroud, covering up who she really was—not a remote, close-mouthed queen but a woman who faced an incredible task and approached it with hope. 

More recently, other characterizations of Mary have come to the forefront, and I have to point out that they also serve a need. In my own Protestant circles, I hear more often about how Mary was a poor teenage homeless refugee who protested injustice and showcases how messy, how painful, and how life giving living out our faith in these physical bodies can be. I am inspired by these portraits, just as I am awed by the more traditional ones. But I recognize there is an agenda here as well—and that while Mary was both homeless in Bethlehem and a refugee in Egypt, she and Joseph seem to have been at least stably working class in their lives before the manger. 

Ultimately, I think it is telling that our gospel writers are so comparatively uninterested in Mary’s biography—her parents, her class, her age, all those accidents of fate that are mostly beyond our control. Instead, Luke focuses on her voice and her choice—a choice to say “here I am” when an angel asks her to do the impossible. She must have wondered, and worried—what would her family and fiancée say when she turned up pregnant? What would the town think? What would this infant messiah be like? How do you raise God?

And yet Mary reached back to the goodness of God—a goodness she knew and trusted, having heard the stories about how god saved her people from slavery, pulled down the rich and proud and filled the hungry bellies, brought the scattered Hebrews home from exile. Mary reached back to the goodness of God, and so she looked forward with hope—hope that whatever God was up to, she would be blessed to get a front row seat. 

During communion Rachel is going to sing Mary, Did You Know for us, a modern entry into the catalogue of art featuring Jesus’ mother. Like all the other pieces of art that attempt to portray Mary, it is both valuable and incomplete. Each year a bitter war rages across my social media between people who love the song for its sweeping melody and powerful lyrics, and people who think it belittles Mary as clueless and in need of a good mansplainig. For me, though, it represents that strange middle ground in which we find ourselves—there is much we know, and much we don’t. 

Mary knew her son would save the people. She knew he would be the messiah, the long awaited heir of David’s throne. She knew he would enact God’s purposes on earth—to even out inequity and right injustice, to lift up the lowly and bring peace. But I don’t think she knew—or could have even imagined—what that all looked like in practice. 

The endless days of walking. The sermon that nearly ended with her son thrown off a cliff. The parade of sick and outcast folks who begged for his touch. The loyal band of ragtag followers that surrounded him. The day he walked on water, and the day he calmed the storm. The day the verdict came down guilty. 

And even on that day when the angel Gabriel sat in her house, and told her nothing was impossible with God, I don’t think she could have imagined that one day her baby boy would walk out of a tomb, and tell another Mary that death was defeated, once and for all. 

We sit now where Mary sat. We know God’s character . We know the stories. We know what Jesus did for us, and has promised to do again. We are not ignorant, or clueless. We know we have a calling, to enter the future with God. 

And yet we do not know—and I don’t think we can possibly imagine—exactly what God’s future will hold. We know the promises of the kingdom of heaven—a place where there is food enough for all, faith enough for all, love enough for all. And yet how we will get there, day by day, remains a mystery. 

And so with Mary we are called to wonder, and to ponder, and when God calls, simply to say “here I am.” 

Whatever may come, whatever you have in store, here I am

Let it be with us according to your word. 


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