When I read the gospel writer Luke’s account of the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, I find that most Christmas cards and a lot of Christian art through the ages get the story wrong. They tend to picture Mary as meek, mild, and unassertive. They see her as the proverbial dishrag of a woman.
If we read Luke’s picture of Mary in that way, we miss entirely what an amazing woman Mary proves to be. In her culture, most women were given in marriage as soon as they became sexually mature. That means at the ages of 14, 15, or 16. So Mary was likely just a teen-ager when the angel visited her.
This is an age in our culture when girls are obsessing about their appearance. Their anxiety concerns whether they are attracting the attention of the boy of their present infatuation. They are busy chattering to each other about the current fads in shoes and jeans. Concerns with doing the will of God seldom rank high in their priorities.
In Luke’s story, when Mary hears the message the angel delivers, she certainly feels anxiety. How can this be because she is unmarried? But in the end she exercises a profound act of faith. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she responds, “let it be to me according to your word.”
That response indicates that Mary is a teenager with an incredible level of spiritual maturity despite her young age. How did she acquire that maturity? Luke does not say.
Her response also shows Mary as a woman of profound courage. As an unwed mother, Mary will have to endure all kinds of attacks on her reputation in the village where she lives. Neighbors will gossip about her. The pious will look down upon her with condemning judgment. The other girls in town, many of whom might have been playmates at one time, are likely to look at her and whisper sneering remarks to each other behind her back.
And if Nazareth society was anything like many societies in the Middle East today, her family may have felt that her pregnancy brought dishonor onto the family’s reputation. For many Middle Eastern women today, such thoughts have brought on murder from outraged fathers or brothers.
Faced with all this possible ignominy and even danger, Mary still responds, “let it me to me according to your word.” That took courage, tremendous courage and deep trust in the God who was calling her to her task.
Mary has spiritual backbone. That becomes vividly clear as we read on. Luke tells us that when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-58), Mary breaks out into song. Western Christian tradition has come to know it by its first word in Latin, Magnificat.
This song is a song of fierce jubilation over the fact that God is turning tables on society. The rich and powerful are being unseated from their thrones. The lowly are being exalted, and the poor fed. It is a song of almost revolutionary fervor. These are not the lyrics of a dishrag. They are the words of a teen-aged girl who already has a deep sensitivity to social justice and compassion.
I often wonder if Jesus did not get some of his passion for healing and justice from his mother. As she raised her child, she must have surely conveyed to him some of her own passion for justice, as we hear it expressed in the Magnificat.
As we celebrate the Christmas season, let us never forget how courageous and strong was the woman who became the mother of our Lord.