Sermon: Mary the Magnificent

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
24th of December 2017

Luke 1:39-55

Recently I read an article by Irish writer Colm Toibin about his writing of the book and one-woman play, The Testament of Mary. He starts by saying how ‘shadowy’ Mary’s presence is: ‘She herself, as she is presented in the Gospels, is mostly silent, and, once Jesus leaves her home, she is mostly absent in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke she recites the Magnificat, but even there she takes account of her own “lowliness” before declaring, “From this day all generations will declare me blessed”. Matthew and Luke mention her in their Gospels, but mostly in her role as the mother of the infant Jesus. Mark hardly mentions her at all. It is John alone who registers her presence at the wedding feast of Cana and later at the foot of the Cross.’[1]

I feel awkward disagreeing with Toibin, but I don’t think Mary is particularly shadowy. We see a lot more of her than we do of Joseph. In Matthew’s gospel Joseph has the role that Luke gives to Mary; it’s to Joseph that an angel comes in a dream to reassure him that the child Mary is bearing is from the Holy Spirit; and it’s to Joseph that the angel comes a second and third time, to tell him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod, and then back to Israel once Herod is dead. But after Luke’s story of Jesus going missing during a visit to Jerusalem for the Passover when he was twelve years’ old, and his parents’ worrying about him, we never see Joseph again. We presume that he died, and that’s one reason that Joseph is so often portrayed in art as an old man. But Mary reappears again and again. In Luke’s gospel it’s to her that the angel Gabriel goes, and he doesn’t appear to her in a dream, but while she’s awake. It’s Mary who treasures up everything the shepherds say and ponders them in her heart. It’s to Mary that Simeon says: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul, too’ when the baby Jesus is taken to the Temple; and when the boy Jesus goes missing, it’s Mary who speaks, telling him: ‘Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety’. According to Luke, Mary also stayed with the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension, and so she would have been with them when the Holy Spirit came on them at Pentecost. Given that Joseph disappears so early from the story and that the names of Jesus’ brothers are never given in the gospels, Mary has a significant role.

But maybe Toibin only meant that the Mary of the gospels is shadowy when compared with the Mary of the Roman Catholic Church? Mary was named Theotokos, God-Bearer, by the early church. The Western Church translated this from the Greek into ‘Mother of God’, and then, once celibacy came to be seen as a better way of Christian life than marriage, the church decided that the ‘Mother of God’ must be a perpetual virgin. Thus the references to Jesus’ brothers in the Scriptures could only be to step-brothers or half-brothers, children of Joseph but not of Mary. This is the other reason that Joseph is often portrayed as an old man in art, so he can be seen as a man who has already had his family and who has no objections to a sexless marriage. The concept of Mary’s perpetual virginity led to some particularly ridiculous ideas; my favourite is the medieval explanation that Mary was impregnated through her ear and gave birth through her navel. In the twelfth century the concept of Mary’s Immaculate Conception was born; monks and nuns who were particularly devoted to Mary decided that she had been conceived without lust and so born without original sin. This idea remained controversial until 1854, when Pope Pius declared Mary’s Immaculate Conception to be official doctrine. Early Protestants, with their desire to sweep away any traditions not based on the Bible, soon had to realise that the plain meaning of scripture, with its reference to Jesus’ brothers, was that the Virgin Mary had not remained a virgin her entire life, something that initially troubled them.

Compared to the wealth of tradition that surrounds Mary the Mother of God, perpetually virgin and immaculately conceived, the Mary of the gospels may indeed be shadowy. But we do have the Magnificat, the magnificent song Mary sings in which she draws on the calls for justice of the Hebrew prophets to foreshadow the over-turning of society that her son will bring about. It is no wonder that as he wrote about her Toibin discovered ‘that the character who came into being on the page was not the mild, meek mother to whom we directed our prayers, nor the silent grieving woman at the foot of the cross. In what I wrote, Mary had sharp memories, strong opinions. She was unafraid, often fierce. Her very act of speaking would be an act of defiance.’

Of course Toibin found himself writing a Mary whose speaking was defiance, because that is the woman the gospel according to Luke presents. As Toibin writes, in the Magnificat Mary takes account of her own ‘lowliness,’ but she does that only when her lowliness has been overturned, after the angel Gabriel tells her: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ Her lowliness is mentioned only when God has looked on it with favour and Mary is able to sing: ‘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.’ There is little that is meek and humble about Mary’s song of prophecy and praise.

What there is in her song is a cosmic reversal, as the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, and the rich sent away empty. The lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled with food. This is the world that Jesus came to initiate, the one in which the first are last and the last are first, in which the poor are blessed and the rich are woeful, in which the rich man ends up parched in hell while Lazarus rests in the bosom of Abraham. In Mary’s song we hear a woman who is absolutely aware of the changes the coming of the Messiah will bring, and of what God is doing through and as the baby in her womb.

But just as Jesus is so often portrayed as ‘meek and mild,’ so is Mary. Christmas carols are especially prone to this. Carols tell us that ‘little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’ (TIS 318) while enfolded in the arms of Mary ‘a gentle maiden pure’ (TIS 294). We sing that ‘all is calm, all is bright round the virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild’ (TIS 311). The image is not of the up-rooting of tyranny, the scattering of the powerful, the bringing down of the powerful, the rejection of the rich – even if the carols do remind us that in Mary and Jesus the lowly are being lifted up ‘for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above’ (TIS 312) and ‘Christ the babe is Lord of all’ (TIS 292).

It’s easy for Christmas to make us sentimental. It is, after all, a story centred on the birth of a baby, and I don’t think I’m the only person who automatically softens and goes into cooing-mode at the sight of a newborn. So, just in case we start getting a little too warm and fuzzy at the Feast of the Nativity, Luke and the Lectionary give us Mary’s song of revolution immediately before Jesus’ birth. We’re reminded, in case we ever forget, that the baby whose birth we will celebrate will grow into the man who at his first public appearance read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour;’ declared it fulfilled in the congregation’s hearing; and almost got himself thrown off a cliff. Jesus was without a doubt the son of Mary, and his use of the prophet Isaiah echoes her song in which the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down, the rich sent away empty, the lowly lifted up and the hungry filled with food. There’s no doubt that Mary and Jesus are mother and son; both of them are radical re-makers of the world. Neither of them is particularly meek and mild. And since the world they describe and inaugurate is the world of justice and righteousness and love that God intends for us, for their lack of meek mildness or mild meekness we give thanks to God! Amen.


[1] Colm Toibin, ‘A test of faith’ The Age, Saturday, October 21, 2017.

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