And Mary said “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word”
One of my mother’s regular sayings was “Children – a handful when they’re little and a heartful when they’re big” and it’s true isn’t it. I’m sure Mary felt this – just as most of us do.
I can see two different ways of reflecting on Mary – I can use my imagination with the biblical stories as well as closely reading the biblical text and for me both ways are helpful.
Mary was first and foremost a young woman. She became pregnant – like any other young mother. Never mind how – mysteriously, or normally just like the rest of us.
When I imagine Mary pregnant, I think of how I and so many other mothers felt during our pregnancies. The thrill we had in knowing we were pregnant, the awful sickness, the worry that everything was OK – particularly if it was our first baby or there had been problems in a previous pregnancy. I wonder how Mary felt.
Then I think of the dreams we had of what our child would be and do. The lack of knowledge about gender in those long-gone days probably gave even more scope for dreaming! What did we most want for our child? Health – certainly – for one thing. Happiness for another. A good education, a job and in due time a partner and family.
Perhaps we even said we wanted the world for our unborn child?
Did Mary have those thoughts and dreams like us? And if so, how did she feel throughout her life as her dreams turned to nightmares? The times when Jesus the handful became Jesus the heartful for Mary?
Some years ago, we went to Spain on holiday and as part of some research on Mary for a TV programme for which I’d been commissioned to make a hanging, we visited many churches looking for inspiration. There were usually two sorts of statues or shrines to Mary: the one of her with a crown, a blue dress, flowers and a general feel of glory and the others which made much more of an impact on me – the statues of Mary with a sword plunged into her breast and blood pouring out.
I’d never thought before about those words in the story when Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. Clearly it was a metaphorical sword but surely those metaphorical sword thrusts hurt Mary deeply.
I guess we can all think of times as parents when the metaphorical sword pierced our hearts…. when the joy of having our child became an excruciating pain. Mary undoubtedly felt that many times throughout Jesus’ life….perhaps much more than we have.
I think that learning about the murder of all the boys by Herod must have pierced her heart – that was another thing we saw in those Spanish churches – gruesome – decapitated children’s heads. I can’t begin to imagine how I would have felt in Mary’s place knowing those children had been killed because I had a special baby. Talk about her heart being pierced.
Then think of the time she and Joseph lost him on the way back from Jerusalem or the time he said he didn’t have a mother or the times he went off preaching and she didn’t know where he was for weeks on end, or the worries as she began to realise that his arrest and death might happen. And then the absolutely excruciating agony of watching her firstborn die on a cross.
And then I put all those thoughts alongside the biblical text and ask first at what point did Mary tell her story? When did she sing the Magnificat? When did she feel she could actually believe what the angel said?
We read at the very end of chapter three – the end of the birth and childhood narratives that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart”. I wonder if that’s exactly what she did and it was not until very much later – perhaps when Luke was writing his gospel and asked her about the early life of Jesus – that she began to be able to express more clearly what she’d been pondering. It makes more sense to me. She’d perhaps be more likely to be able to sing or speak the words of the Magnificat after the resurrection – do you think?
The normal age for betrothal in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth was probably 14, and marriages would have been arranged. So she’s still very young and living with her parents but expecting to be married within the year.
Mary would have been a religious girl like everyone else in those days – she would have known the history of her people, the longing for a saviour, a messiah to save her people from the current oppressors – the Romans. But she was also only a girl – so ordinary and unexceptional and so unimportant –as she thought.
Nazareth was a small town – Mary would probably have known everyone so imagine her surprise at the appearance of an angel or strange messenger. Does Gabriel look like an ordinary man? What does an angel look like? And how does she feel when he says “Rejoice favoured one”? It’s hardly the normal way to talk to a child, is it! Luke says she ponders what sort of greeting that was – well she would, wouldn’t she!
When angelic messengers appear you would expect most people to fear. Zechariah was afraid when his angelic messenger appeared to announce John’s birth. The shepherds were afraid when the angelic choir announced Jesus birth. Fear is probably an appropriate reaction. But Mary later – in the Magnificat – reminds us that God has mercy on those who fear him. Could a child (for really that’s all she was) have thought those thoughts? To me it does make more sense that she sang them after the resurrection at the realisation of what giving birth to Jesus meant for the whole world.
The angel said, “You have found favour with God” – can you imagine what a teenaged girl today – even one brought up in a close Christian community – would make of that? There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that she was a special person – unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth who were “righteous before God and living blamelessly”.
God just chose ordinary her. Throughout the bible God has chosen people – people who thought (and who sometimes others thought) weren’t good enough or educated enough or holy enough – remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David. God chose young unmarried Mary, a lowly girl in a lowly town to give birth to the Son of the Most High God. That’s amazingly Good News.
But I think it’s really relevant for us today.
My grandmother was, according to her GP, the worst case of rheumatoid arthritis in Hartlepool. She couldn’t walk unless someone supported her. All her limbs were completely distorted, she was in constant pain. She frequently, through many years, begged that God would take her.
She was also very poor – as many long-term widows were back in the fifties. She lived from pension day to pension day but even with exceedingly crippled hands and feet managed to use a treadle sewing machine for many years of my early life to sew children’s clothes to sell in order that she could support the church with what she earned.
You’d have thought her life was as nothing in God’s great scheme of things. But her home was open house to all the young people in our church – “Let’s go to Nanna Norman’s” was the regular call after evening service or youth group or prayer meeting and round they all crowded. In that little house several generations of young people learned what service and faithfulness to God meant.
They saw a clear example of a life lived for God and through her humble witness many lives were changed. Even today there are still people in Hartlepool whose whole lives have been lived in service to God and his church who still remember her and speak of her life.
At her funeral, the minister preached on the text from Proverbs “Who can find a virtuous woman? Her price is above rubies”. And hers was. God often chooses the lowly – like he chose Mary – like Nanna Norman – to do important work.
It can teach us that we don’t have to be special – not especially mature, not especially beautiful, not especially clever, not especially rich for God to choose us and use us. In most cases we are only too aware of the ordinariness of our lives.
We might feel that what we are doing as service to God is lowly or even of no importance, but the reality is that every task, low or high, fits into God’s scheme-of-things in ways that we cannot yet understand.
It matters less that we do fantastic jobs brilliantly than that we approach them with devotion. God desires more the love of our hearts than the brilliance of our minds or the skill of our hands.
A person who has only the ability to love God and their neighbour is all-important in God’s economy. And that is something we can all do.
May Mary’s prayer be ours “Here am I the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word”. Amen