A teenage girl sits on the edge of her straw-filled mattress. Her room is simply furnished. We notice a small oil lamp and water jug; a couple of blankets and a wrinkled rug. She draws our attention as she sits near the center of the picture. Yet we immediately notice that her attentionis directed elsewhere. She cocks her head at a curious angle as she looks toward a numinous beam of light at the foot of her bed. This is how 19th century painter Henry Ossawa Tanner envi- sioned what he simply titled “The Annunciation.” It hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We see in Tanner’s work the vulnerable humanity of a peasant girl. This stands in stark contrast to the surrealness of the heavenly being, painted as that shaft of light. This is precisely Mary’s situation recorded in the first chapter of Luke.
Let’s suspend the fact that Mary is second only to Jesus in receiving Christian adoration. She is a young girl from a no-account village. An angel appears out nowhere without any reference to Mary’s virtues; simply calling her “favored one.” For reasons known only to God, Mary is favored to carry and bear the Christ Child. Over the centuries, Christians have tried to explain God’s choice. “Why Mary?” we might ask. In a papal bull issued from Rome in 1854, the Roman Catholic Church decreed Mary free from sin. You may recognize the term immaculate conception. It was reasoned, she was the mother of Jesus, who came to redeem the world from sin. A redeemer from sin must be without sin. Therefore, in order for Jesus to be sinless, his mother must also be without sin. With all due respect to Pope Pius IX, the Bible makes no such claim.
So, why Mary? Way back in the 11th century, Benedictine monk Anselm of Canterbury wrote a treatise entitled “Why God Became Man.” He claimed that Mary’s selection had to do purely with gender. He reasoned that God chose Mary, not because she was without sin, but because she was daughter of Eve. Early Western Christianity believed that Eve was the blame for human sin. Here’s some of what Anselm wrote: “It is most fitting for the medicine of sin and the cause of our salvation to be born of a woman, just as the sin of man and the condemnation took its be-ginning from a woman. Also, lest women despair of sharing in the lot of the blessed, since such great evil came from a woman, it is right that such great good should come from a woman to renew their hope. And paint this too: if the cause of all evil for the human race was a virgin, it is still more fitting for the cause of all good to be a virgin.” With all due respect to Anselm, again, the Bible never states or suggests that Mary was a second Eve who could undo the work of the first Eve. Moreover, it would be sexist to assume all the blame for sin should be pinned on Eve while conveniently overlooking the fact that Adam took a bite out of the same forbidden fruit without raising any questions. And, duh Anselm, what other gender could bear a child?
So, why Mary? In a small fishing village in Nicaragua, some peasants were talking about the annunciation story before mass. One of them said, “God wanted his son to be born in a pigsty, in a stable. He wanted his son to belong to the poor class, right? If God wanted him to be born to a rich lady, that lady would have had a room reserved…. especially arriving in her condition.” With all due respect to the Nicaraguan peasant, while Mary herself was poor – she a peasant among peasants – there is no obvious privilege in poverty that would favor her as qeotokos; as mother of God.
The reason behind Mary’s selection remains a mystery known only to God. As she enters the drama, the spotlight is on God, not Mary. God sends the angelic messenger Gabriel to announce the birth. The announcement is made in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, tying it to God’s earlier announcement of another miraculous birth. Gabriel sings praises of the child now implanted in Mary’s womb: “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 forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
No sooner does the angel catch a breath when Mary asks, “How can this be?” That is the second time such a question is posed according to Luke’s Gospel. Earlier, the priest Zechariah John the Baptist’s dad -- asked, “How will I know that this is so?” when he heard that he and Elizabeth would become parents in their old age. We’re told that he was struck speechless, pre- sumably for his doubting. For the time being though, Mary gets off much easier. Zechariah is a priest and shouldn’t question. On the other hand, why shouldn’t a teenage girl question such astonishing news? Even at her tender age, Mary probably knew enough about the birds and bees to wonder how such a pregnancy could happen. This would always be regarded as a scandal in her small town. There was no way to anticipate how beloved Joseph would respond to the news. What’s more, angels come and go, but children remain. Any blissful birth announcement would be tempered by the hard realities of late-night feedings, colic, and potty training.
As Luke relates the story, he suggests that Mary was a contemplative; a reflective soul – even something of a mystic – who looked for deeper implications of the events in her life. On three occasions, Luke says she “pondered” or “treasured” the words of others. In this morning’s pas-sage, Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” After a visit from shepherds, she “treasured all (their) words and pondered them in her heart.” Years later, after finding the boy Jesus in the temple, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” While we can only guess the content of Mary’s thoughts, Luke’s verbs imply that she did a lot of deliberate thinking about the Child, and His larger role in the world. If we were to meet Mary as a girl, we’d probably say “She’s deep,” or maybe even, “She’s a little odd.” A scholar by the name of Patrick Miller has gone to the extent of regarding Mary as the church’s “first theologian.” He writes this: “(Mary) was not one of the rabbis, not one of the persons called or appointed to the study of God’s ways as found in the Hebrew Scriptures. We have no Scriptures written by this woman. She was simply the mother of this child. But the first musings over his significance, the first Christological reflection, began with the woman who brought him forth in pain and nursed him on her breast. While we do not know all she thought, we know that her theological reflection never ceased, for such is the way of mothers with their children.”
In her book, “Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus,” Professor Beverly Gaventa from Baylor University notes the difference between the shepherds’ awestruck arrival and Mary’s pondering. She writes, “The verbs that describe Mary’s response constitute neither wonder nor praise, but perhaps secrecy or even isolation.” Who knows what deep thoughts swirl in a mother’s mind?
Since the gospel writers are mainly interested in Mary’s Son, they maintain a respectful dis-tance from His mother. At times, Mary’s role is downplayed. In John’s Gospel for instance, the mother of Jesus is never once named. She is merely referred to as “the mother of Jesus.” Mat-thew and Mark name her in a handful of stories, but they grant her no special privileges for her family ties. According to Mark, Jesus’ family once attempted to restrain him after he was accused by His opponents of being crazy. Jesus shrugs them off saying, “Who are my mother and my bro-thers?” Looking at those around Him, he adds: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” But then there’s Luke who, unlike the other evangelists, esteems Mary as a crucial member of the first Christian community. She is the first person in Luke’s account to profess belief in God. With prophetic vigor, she is the first Christian preacher, proclaiming God’s divine activity in her Magnificat: “My souls magnifies the Lord…..” And she is named among the inner circle of believers gathered in the upper room after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. As Luke tells us in Acts [his second volume], “All these [the apostles] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
I really dig the fact that Mary plays such a key role in Luke’s narratives and in his theology. Iand many other scholars believe Mary may actually have been a primary source for Luke’s Gospel. I realize this might be something of a romantic notion, imagining a scribe or Luke himself asking, “Now Mary, when did you first think there was something special about your boy?” Yet there is so much detail about the birth and childhood of Jesus that is reported only in Luke: the birth of Zechariah’s son; the annunciation; the greeting of Elizabeth; the appearance of the shepherds; the blessing and warning of Simeon, the disappearance of Jesus when He was twelve. Where else could Luke have heard these stories ---- except from the mother of Jesus?
Regardless of her part in telling the story of Jesus – historical or theological – it is clear that Mary is held up as a role model for all believers. Why Mary? we continue to ask. That’s ultimately a mystery in the infinite mind of Almighty God, to which we’ll find no answer this day. In Luke, however, there’s a brief episode where a woman in a crowd is overwhelmed with joy at the words and deeds of Jesus. As Jesus passes by, she cries out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” I wonder if He was thinking of His mother. For how does the story of our redemption begin? Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Maybe, just maybe, that’s why. So on this note, we close: Let it be with us according to God’s word. Amen.