Mary's Radical Response

Sunday 21st December 2008
Year B, The Forth Sunday of Advent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Luke 1:26-38

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word" are phrases etched on my memory because of the practice at my convent school of saying the Angelus daily at noon and six in the evening; at these two times, the whole community stopped to pray, a practice you can see in that wonderful Millet picture, of the same name, of peasants taking a brief respite from their daily toil to say those words of Mary. Today, with such traditions long gone except in religious communities, it is left to our Muslim cousins to remind us of the place which regular, daily prayer should occupy in our lives, not just in the domestic peace of early morning and late evening prayers but also in the midst of our daily activity. It is also interesting, in this context, to note that most Muslims are more fervent in their adoration of Mary than some Protestant sects, not least in England.

The Annunciation is, perhaps, one of the scenes in the New Testament where art has most influenced our reception of The Word; Renaissance images have had a tremendous influence on the way in which we see the dialogue between The Angel Gabriel and Mary in this opening scene of the life of Jesus, (always remembering that it only occurs in Luke). God's offer - or is it a request? That, in a sense is the most tantalising aspect of the episode but we will stick with the formulation for a moment - God's offer is made to a frightened girl who, to use the classic adverb, meekly accepts. In most of the pictures Gabriel towers over Mary.

But to see the scene this way is to do immense violence to reality, the kind of violence which we accept when we go to the theatre. We are expected calmly to accept that a Jewish girl, brought up under the strictest conditions, will assent to violating her moral code because of some apparition. Good Christian girls have been condemned to death as witches for less. On the other hand, this departure from conventional morality fits in with the genealogy of Christ which is punctuated by the appearances of, shall we say, rather doubtful women involved in highly irregular sexual activity including the conception of Isaac, the courtship of Boaz and Ruth and the marriage of David to Bathsheba. No matter how strange and contrived the genealogies in Luke and Matthew, they underline the fissures in the unflinching patriarchal table; or, looked at another way, the irregularities of the proceedings might be seen as some kind of reaffirmation. What we are looking at, then, is far from a normal event which we can take in our stride because of magnificently assured painting; we are looking at a traumatic event which violates all the usual rules. No wonder Mary is frightened. She is being asked to take a massive risk which will almost certainly ruin her and might end in her being stoned to death. She is caught between the fear of Gabriel and what he asks on behalf of God and the fear of the community in which she lives. We are therefore moving ourselves psychologically away from a transcendent scene which we simply view as awed observers to one in which we might find ourselves for we are, as Christians, frequently caught between the fear of God and the fear of upsetting our community, not usually over sexual matters because, in theory at least, God and our neighbours agree even though practice is far divorced - to choose an emblematic word - from Gospel teaching; we are more likely to offend simply by affirming our Christianity, by bearing witness, when society expects us to keep our religion to ourselves and not allow it to 'interfere' with secular society. We are expected to believe that religion is a private matter which should not impinge on the way we take moral decisions or, at best, if it must impinge, then our moral decisions will be dismissed as suspect.

What is profoundly wrong with this line of thinking is that it starts from a position of balancing two kinds of fear instead of seeing the encounter between Gabriel and Mary as an encounter grounded in love: God loves Mary, Mary loves God and their mutual love, in the power of the Holy Spirit, causes the incarnational love of God to break out into space and time, into history, in the person of Jesus who, Gabriel promises, will transform the community. Perhaps the most vivid way of understanding what is going on is to intersperse this reading with the first verses of the Gospel of John.

Likewise, if we think the situation in which we find ourselves is one where we are caught between fear of God and fear of the community we misunderstand the nature of our relationship with God; but if our starting point is love rather than fear then there is no conflict. Because we love God we are conduits of love into our communities.

The starting point for Mary's story is not, as is often alleged, the supposed 'fall' of Eve in the Garden of Eden. The iconography of Genesis 3 is complex not least because the serpent might well be seen, as many Jewish commentators see it, not as the symbol of wickedness but as the figure of wisdom which pitches humanity from its naive sojourn in Eden into the crucible of choice. What matters in Genesis 3 is not the enmity between the serpent and the woman which has led to the naming of Mary as the Second Eve, as misleading an idea as St. Paul's naming of Jesus as the Second Adam, but the conflict between divine grace and human wisdom, between worship and hubris, between love and fear. Nor is the proper starting point to be found in Mary's obedience which is better understood as an unconditional response to God's love, so often corrupted into the justification for responding to God in fear and further corrupted into a justification for the subservience of women.

Mary's story really begins in 2 Samuel in Hannah's song which underlies the Magnificat; Mary, above all, is the radical exponent of social justice; she assents to God's call through Gabriel because it is a loving response to love; it isn't so much the right thing to do as the only thing to do. What we see in Mary is the glaringly obvious, freed of all our usual obfuscation. She says "Yes" to love in the power of the Spirit and she says this, remember - I know it is obvious but it still needs saying - in advance of the Resurrection. So why are we, who are children of the Resurrection, so hesitant to follow Mary?

We are back with the woman and the serpent, with the crucible of choice. Our destiny, our problem, our purpose, is to choose to love and because we are children of human wisdom, from the time of the Garden, as well as children of the Resurrection, we find ourselves torn, more often than not knowing what we ought to choose but watching ourselves being too weak to choose it; and so the great illumination of Mary, exemplified in this first encounter with her as she encounters the Angel, is that she cuts through all the self deception and self justification; she says "Yes" in response to God's love and, filled with Grace, offers her love to God; in a mysterious sense, therefore, the Holy Spirit within her moves her with incarnational perception; even before the moment of conception her womb is aflame with her response to God in the Spirit.

In considering this Annunciation scene, then, we need to understand Mary's response not as meek, obedient and subservient but as courageous, committed and radical. The Magnificat is only a glowing fuse which will ignite the dynamite that is Jesus. With God there is no necessary precondition for action but it is of overwhelming significance for us as creatures created to choose that the incarnation had a human necessary precondition in the person and the response of Mary.