Hail Mary: Girl Power in Nazareth

December 14, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


mary' s dream by Lucille Clifton

winged women was saying
"full of grace" and like.
was light beyond sun and words
of a name and a blessing.
winged women to only i.
I joined them, whispering

holy night by Lucille Clifton
joseph, i afraid of stars,
their brilliant seeing.
so many eyes. such light.
joseph, i cannot still these limbs,
i hands keep moving toward i breasts,
so many stars. so bright.
joseph, is wind burning from east
joeph, i shine, oh joseph oh
illuminated night.

It is Advent again, and we are waiting.
We are too sophisticated to expect miracles
but we are waiting just in case.

We hear the old stories and we are listening
carefully, in case there is a treasure in them that we may have missed.

Perhaps we have been listening for angel voices
when what God wanted us to hear is the voice of the
ordinary ones,
the women who stand all day on sore feet
the men whose eyes we never dare meet
The ones with whom we ridiculously believe we have nothing in common.

In the quiet of this hour may we come to know that
we have everything in common
with every other human being:
the need to love and be loved
the need to belong to something
the hunger for understanding and acceptance
the desire for healing where there is pain
and for peace where there is chaos and threat.

In the quiet of this moment may we come to know that we are one.
May we incarnate the miracles we are waiting for.

THE SERMON "Hail Mary: Girl Power in Nazareth"
"In the sixth month the heavenly messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, in the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. He entered and said to her, 'Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!'

But she was deeply disturbed by the words, and wondered what the greeting could mean.

The heavenly messenger said to her, 'Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Listen to me: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever; and his dominion will have no end.'

And Mary said to the messenger, 'How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?'

The messenger replied, 'The holy spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will cast its shadow on you. This is why the child to be born will be holy, and be called son of God. Further, your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age. She who was said to be infertile is already six months along, since nothing is impossible with God.'

And Mary said, 'Here I am, the Lord's servant. May everything you have said come true.'

Then the heavenly messenger left her."

And thus it is that we first meet Mary in Luke's gospel, just as an angel is crashing through her wall or ceiling and telling her "Congratulations! You' re going to give birth to a savior." We don't know who she is or why she may have been singled out among women for this miraculous happening. It all happens so fast.

It all happens so fast it has become a kind of blur to us. If you're of skeptical mind, why would you look more closely? It's preposterous, just another crazy Bible story. If you're of a more mystical bent, why would you look more closely? It could blind you, this astonishing moment.

Those of us born in this hemisphere do not need to "look" intentionally at this particular Bible story to have seen the tableau a thousand times. If you' ve spent any time at all in Western culture, you' ve seen it -- in the gorgeous, jewel-tone paintings of the Renaissance masters. On the gilt-edged Christmas cards that come in the mail from old friends. On the stained glass windows of some of your childhood churches and cathedrals. There is the woman, unspeakably beautiful, young and fair, cringing a bit, perhaps on her knees before the great angel, receiving this phenomenal news. You will have a son. He will be called Jesus. He will be holy and beloved of God.

The Bible tells us that Mary "was deeply disturbed by [the angel's] words." Yes, I would imagine so. Shocked half to death, too, at the appearance of an angel breaking through from the heavenly realm into hers -- a peasant Jewish girl who had had no glory to speak of in her life to this point. Recall also that angels in the Biblical tradition are nothing like Michaelangelo' s cute cherubs on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, nor are they recognizable, like Emma Thompson all wired up for an HBO special. They are enormous, terrifying, other-worldly messengers of God. Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. Also deeply upsetting for Mary, being informed that she' s pregnant! I have a button that says "The Virgin Mary is a unwed teenage mother." Some things haven' t gotten much easier for young women since Mary' s time, and that' s one of them. In that moment, did it assuage her anxieties to have been informed that she was the vessel of the divine?

"Matthew was using the Greek translation of the Bible, where the Hebrew word 'almah' had been translated as 'parthenos' in Greek. The two words are not synonymous, for 'almah' means a young girl of marriageable age, with a primary connotation of eligibility. . . . Parthenos carries a sense of intact virginity, of physical maidenhood far more strongly than almah, which could have been translated by the Greek neanis (girl)." .From the very start of this dramatic narrative, we know this is going to be a big story. The Annunciation functions as a resounding literary overture to the entire Christian story, in all its supernatural splendor and magic, and provides one of the most beloved images of the Christmas season. Before we can arrive at the sweet manger scene, there must be the Annunciation. Hail, Mary, the Lord is with thee.

Christmas is for children in more ways than one: it is for the wondering, child-like soul that never ages in all of us. The Christmas spirit and the Christmas story are not concerned with history ---Christmas is an occasion for awe, mystery, innocence, yearning, and navigating by the stars. The centuries have taught us that it does not matter that the Annunciation scene between Mary and the Angel Gabriel does not appear in Mark, the oldest of the gospel accounts, nor that it is never mentioned in the gospel of John or the letters of Paul, which were written before the gospels. No matter. We return again and again to the maiden and the angel, to the good news of Jesus' birth, to the miraculous improbability of his divine origins and the miraculous reality of his life. We return again and again to the miraculous reality of all birth.

I have traveled all over Europe and gazed upon many breath-taking images of Mary and her baby, and of Mary and the Angel Gabriel. There she is, lithe and serene, truly full of grace, clad in sapphire blue robes and completely anachronistic (!) embroidered Renaissance garments. She' s beautiful but there' s a problem: such devotional images have obscured Miriam from us and sanitized her. She is almost never depicted as she must have really been at the birth of her first-born: a dark-skinned Jewish woman, lowliest of citizens in an occupied land, poor, unwed, uneducated, grubby from riding a donkey all night, covered with bits of straw and blood, her brown eyes bleary with worry and exhaustion.

You may recall a brouhaha at the Brooklyn Art Museum a few years back, when an avant-garde artist painted images of the Blessed Virgin featuring elephant dung and some other animal waste products. Lots of folks, including then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, considered it a sacrilege. They tried to close the show. Of course all the controversy made the exhibit hugely popular. But what is the problem, really? After all, if we go by the Bible stories, Miriam (for which "Mary" is a Greek translation), was in close proximity to animal dung when delivering Jesus. I doubt very much that she needs Rudy Giuliani to protect her from the earthy realities of her life.

Though the ages have tried valiantly to distance Mary from the rest of fallen humanity, to grant her titles of honor that place her in the heavenly host, and to create outlandish theologies that deny central biological realities of her womanhood, she is consistently and enduringly held to the collective heart of millions of faithful people, loved and trusted as mother and protector. She has been cleaned up beyond recognition but the people know the real Mary, and they persist in loving her. All of Europe' s most soaring cathedrals are dedicated to her. When there are visions of the divine to be had, they are almost always of her. She is a vestige of the ancient goddess traditions, of course, but she is also her own lady, her own intrepid girl, and she still captures people' s hearts and devotion.

Scrape away the ivory painted face of the Caravaggio or the Boticelli to see the tawny complexion underneath. Consider the callused, brown hands she really had, and consider the work of which they were capable. Replace the fine-spun satins with rough cotton, and the soft brocade slippers with bare feet, or rough sandals. Restore to her brown hair, her Hebraic features, her chocolate-deep eyes. Hear her voice speak Aramaic, not Greek or Latin. Now we can get a sense of the real mother Mary, Joseph' s sturdy wife, Jeshua' s mom who lit candles on shabbos, who noodged him to do his first miracle at a wedding, and who was there to tenderly cradle him in her arms at his tragic death.

Miriam is blessed on her own, as she really was. She was a woman. And because we honor real women, we do not need to believe that she was as meek, mild, humble, and smooth-faced and skinned as church fathers would have her be. Virgin Mary? That' s a translation issue. The gospel author known as Matthew was reliant on the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the Hebrew word 'almah' had been translated as 'parthenos' in Greek. The word ‘almah' simply means a young girl of marriageable age. Parthenos, however, is a more clinical term that refers to intact virginity.

Matthew, as we know, gave us the legacy of the technically virgin Mary. We should also recognize that only the gospel according to Matthew makes this claim, and that he had an agenda in wanting to prove that his Jesus Christ was The Messiah anticipated by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who said: "Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel… (Isaiah: 7:14; Matthew 1:23)

For centuries, Mary has been held up as the paragon of womanhood for all the qualities church fathers fantasized and projected onto her: bland obedience, luminous perfection and impossible purity. That is troubling enough, for it sets a one-dimensional standard of femininity no healthy, self-respecting woman could or should ever meet. But even worse, the church fathers' obsessive insistence on Mary's virginity before, during and even after Jesus' birth, interpreted the process of childbearing as something dirty and shameful. Through the figure of Mary, these men continued an already ancient tradition of institutionalizing disgust toward women's bodies and all matters sexual. The results, as you know, were very damaging to western culture: Christianity took on a kind of sex and body phobia that was probably far from what Jesus of Nazareth would have wanted (although we' re not entirely sure). If Miriam needs to be rescued from anything, it is from her unfortunate status as an impossible exemplar of pristine womanhood.

Some of you might relate to Marina Warner's memories of Catholic childhood. She writes,
"On February 2, the feast of the Purification, we wore starched white veils of tulle that stood around us like a nimbus. With the medals of the Sodality of Our Lady on blue ribbons round our necks, we processed with lit candles up to the communion rails to be blessed. In another convent school, on the same day, each young girl laid a lily at the feet of the Virgin's statue: 'Mary, I give you the lily of my heart, be thou its guardian for ever.'

The blue ribbons - blue is the color of the Virgin . . . signified that the wearer was a child of Mary, and had dedicated herself to the Virgin and promised to emulate her in thought, word and deed: her chastity, her humility, her gentleness. She was the culmination of womanhood. As my agnostic father maintained, it was a good religion for a girl."

Well, I think we can see the limitations of that kind of religion for girls, or for anyone.

There is another, far more powerful religion that Mary teaches, in fact, and it' s right there in the Bible, when Mary responds to the angel. This is Mary' s yes, a very famous yes that is known in the Christian tradition as The Magnificat. See how meek and mild this sounds to you:
And Mary said,

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:46-55)

This might give you some insight into why Mary is so particularly beloved in poorer regions of the Christian world. Just like her son, Mary proclaims that the lowly will be lifted up, the poor will be made mighty, God's realm is going to break through in a way that reverses the world order as we know it. This is hardly a meek and mild girl speaking!! This is the prophesying of a poor, dispossessed woman who rejoices in the promise of a new kind of community -- one based on justice rather than on power. She could be a mother in our country today, young and pregnant in a land that has no respect for her kind, judged by policy-makers who consider her community inferior in all ways, and unsure of her future and the future of her unborn child.

What would you do if an angel appeared to you some afternoon and informed you that God would use your life and being in the service of peace-making, salvation and a radically new human community of love and justice? Would you say "yes?" Would you go with the plan? Or would you resist and use your free will to reject the angel's message? Mary said yes. Mary rose to the occasion. It changed her life and broke her apart in ways we will never know. Hail, Mary. Blessed are you, courageous and noble among men and women, who teaches us that any one of us may all be called upon to painfully birth the new world order of peace and universal human kinship.