Today, the fourth Sunday in Advent, we remember the Virgin Mary and celebrate the part she played in the coming of God into the world, thought the birth of Jesus. The patriarchs and the prophets foretold the Messiah who was to come: but Mary did the hard work! Ask any mother – giving birth – it’s hard work! And yet, in the Christmas cards you will receive this year, Mary looks serene and fresh and not like she has given birth at all! I’ve seen that programme, ‘One born every Minute’ – the women look exhausted, they cry out in their labour. But not Mary. She looks calm and collected, as she should.
The reason I mention this is to make the point that Mary was human, like any other woman. Her humanity is what is important about her. When you listen to some hymns, or look at some pictures, you might think that she was some sort of Goddess. And that is a distortion which does no one any favours. Mary was a teenage, unmarried mother, who saw angels – Mary had problems! But Mary said YES to God! At the Wedding at Cana tells the servants to do the same: Do what he tells you, she says to them. Yes, to God.
Scripture is clear. ‘We have one mediator for… and He is the propitiation for our sins.’ Jesus is our saviour, but Jesus also portrayed himself as the Son of Man, foretold in Daniel, coming to judge the world at the end of time. Over the centuries, this mediation role of Jesus lost out to Jesus the Judge. How could an ordinary person get on the right side of this Judge? What would any ordinary person do in the Village do? You would go and see his mother and ask her to put in a good word for you!
Mary came to be seen as an intercessor for us to Jesus, and Jesus as an intercessor for us to God. There’s a story that is a popular at Walsingham. A Walsingham pilgrim who has lived a rather dissolute life dies and goes to heaven. ‘Well,’ says Peter, who has the Keys to Heaven,’ I am not sure I can let you in, seeing the sort of life you have led.’ Jesus is passing by at that moment.’ It’s all right, Peter,’ Says Jesus.’ Let her in. She’s a friend of my mother’s.’
But Mary plays an essential role in the Christmas story, and in the life of Christ. That’s why Luke tells us what others believe about her. The angel salutes her as ‘Highly favoured’ and tells her she is ‘blessed among women.’ The angel tells Mary she has found favour with God. Mary goes to see her cousin, Elisabeth, older and wiser. Elisabeth greets her with the words: ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed the fruit of your womb.’ For Mary is to be the ‘Mother of my Lord.’ By his birth, Jesus gives a new dignity to Mary.
Someone said to me once: ‘Jesus is enough for me, I don’t need Mary.’ I understand what he meant. But Jesus needed Mary, whether we do or not. And on the Cross almost Jesus’s last wish was for his mother, when he put her under the protection of The Beloved Disciple. ‘Behold, your Mother,’ he tells The Disciple. So Mary becomes a gift to the church. She becomes our Mother, in a sense.
And what is Mary’s response to all this attention? Mary thinks of the poor and the downcast. Familiarity has disguised how revolutionary the words of the Magnificat really are. Mary praises her God, who scatters the proud, puts down the mighty, and raises up the humble and meek, who fills the hungry with good things and sends away the rich empty. It’s very revolutionary.
There is speculation that Mary was one of the Anawim. The Anawim were the little people, the poor, the vulnerable, today we might call them the socio-economically oppressed, they had no property, no stake in society. But they remained faithful to God, and they relied on God to fill their emptiness with good things. They lived by faith – because they had nothing else. The Anawim approach to life is outlined and commended by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells them they are blessed because they are poor, because they are lowly, non-violent when insulted. Jesus preached to the Anawim, because the Anawim listened. They didn’t believe they would be saved by money because they had no money, they didn’t believe they would be saved by religion, because they knew that religious people looked down on them – you will remember that Jesus continually has it in for ‘religious’ people. Their reward would be great in heaven, when the values of this world were overturned. Mary’s Magnificat overturns the values of this world and fortells the values of the Kingdom.
‘Be it unto me according to Thy word’ Mary replies to the Angel. And so Christmass could begin.