“…for nothing is impossible with God.”

Everything we know about Mary come from a very little bit of information in the New Testament. There are legends about where she comes from, and a countless stories speculating where she might have gone after Jesus resurrection, but I am only interested in the portrait painted by the gospels. The authors of our sacred texts wanted us to know that Jesus was connected to a community; ‘God-with us’ needs to be truly with us, so in the midst of a human family – complete with a long list of famous (and infamous) relatives (early in Matthew’s gospel, and later in Luke’s) – that is how we are introduced to Jesus, and by extension, Mary. Each of the gospel writers ensure that we see Mary from time to time (and others from the family occasionally) as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. She watches Jesus carry his cross, and he speaks to her from the cross before he dies. But Mary’s shining moment is here, at Christmas.
She is young – her life is full of promise. Engaged to be married, her life is unfolding at it should, until suddenly, a strange visitor. Greetings, he says – the Lord is with you. Not many of us would be clever enough – or brave enough – to sit still for this kind of surprise; a strange man saying stranger things – claiming to represent God, for crying out loud – how long do you imagine that any of us would last in a conversation like this…?
Is she afraid? No doubt! (‘do not be afraid’, the angel says, as if his words might be less terrifying…). ‘God is with you… You have found favour with God…you will have a special child…’ ; this last statement is too much for Mary, and finally, she finds her voice. “How can this be?”, she asks…
How indeed! She is engaged – as good as married, according to the rules of her culture – but a baby right now, that would be trouble; babies that come at the wrong time, they make life difficult for their parents. It would be hard to explain to her husband – the community would ask questions; point fingers; tell stories – no one wants to be in that position. But the truth of the matter is that Mary is pregnant; and babies – even when they are unexpected – are a source of hope and joy, new life and new beginnings – and this baby will be all those things, not just for his careful, thoughtful mother, but for everyone who learns his story.
The Christian church has invested much in Mary’s story. Her favour is sought in prayer and devotion; she is revered as a role model for faithful obedience. Desperate for mystery and miracle, some have given Mary a status nearly equal to that of her son; not that we shouldn’t be impressed by the woman presented in the gospels. She shows incredible wisdom in her questions to the angel. Later, she will keep her own counsel when the shepherds dance and sing in the presence of her new-born son. She even has the nerve to declare that her son will change the world – how can she know that, if she is not some kind of super-woman (highly favoured by God, no less) – it is not hard to understand how she gained such high status in Christian worship from very early on – but what message is intended by presenting us with this lovely, puzzling and quite remarkable young woman?
Luke’s gospel reminds us that there is a promise – an ancient promise – being offered in the person of Jesus;. He offers us a faint echo of Isaiah’s hopeful words; an expectant people is offered an expectant mother, whose child will bring freedom – whose name shall be Emmanuel (Hebrew for God with us). Those words are evoked by the angel’s opening statement – ‘the Lord is with you’ – the suggestion of such close, personal contact by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would not go unnoticed by anyone who had been raised on the stories of promise in the Hebrew community. and in that, I believe we can find the purpose of Mary’s story, and the reason for our continuing fascination with her. For in this ‘new covenant’ – a fresh revelation of God meant to be real and personal and impossible to ignore – we need to be shown how to interact with this most Holy being.
For Mary, this is a life changing moment in every possible way. To give birth is to suddenly and intentionally share yourself with the world. Mary shows us the full extent of God’s intent; God will be among us – with us, flesh and blood; unbearably human – and Mary accepts that God had every right to step aside and do such a thing. “Let it be according to your word”, she says – and ‘just like that’, Mary has welcomed (and shown us how we might accept) the presence of God in our lives. That presence will ‘overshadow’ her – it will change her life – and yet, Mary remains the remarkable, curious, patient and willing child of God throughout. Her ‘lesson’ for us – her purpose for our faith – is to teach us how to be “with God”, and how to let God be “with us”.
May we, as the Christmas season dawns upon us, be as ready and willing as Mary to welcome the overshadowing presence of God-with-us. Let our celebrations tell the story of God’s loving intention, born to us in Jesus. Thanks be to God, for this marvelouos gift of grace. Amen.


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