What was life like for a young Jewish women in first century Judaism? A young woman in her culture– a child-teenager– in our twenty-first century culture? Mary would have been considered to be of marriageable age, the responsibilities of adulthood already being thrust upon her. What was life like for Mary engaged to be married, preparing for domestic life and all that her culture expected of her? She was thirteen, or fourteen, or fifteen… mature and wise beyond her years.
What would life be like for Mary after the unimaginable happens?
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:26-38).
To accept willingly Gabriel’s words to submit herself as a servant of the Lord, knowing all that is about to happen is astonishing. Can we envision the moment when Mary tells her parents that she is pregnant but saying, “It’s not what you think?” How about Joseph when he hears the news? What fiancé would believe such a wild tale?
Not everyone called in the Bible was so willing to accept their charge like Mary. One thousand plus years before, Moses stands in front of the burning bush arguing with God trying to find every excuse possible not to have to go back to Egypt to lead God’s people (Exodus 3:1-22). Jonah runs in the opposite direction of God’s call to go to Nineveh and becomes part of a big fish story still told two-and-a-half millennia later (Jonah 1:1-17).
Mary’s submissive faith was not the result of living in a patriarchal society (which she did) but rather it was a Christ-like example of service before her son exemplified such sacrifice on the cross. Mary, a proto-disciple was willing to endure the ridicule of an honor and shame culture, pregnant before marriage with townsfolk wondering and gossiping about who Jesus’ true father might be. Why was she willing to be so stigmatized?
Mary, a young Jewish woman knew her people’s history. She knew well the stories of the heroines of her faith– Ruth, Esther, Deborah and others– faithful daughters of Abraham who in difficult circumstances answered the call of God for the sake of God’s people. Mary knew that she had been chosen to be part of something much larger than her own status, reputation, and honor. Mary the submissive servant of the Lord is also a courageous prophet as she sings to her cousin Elizabeth.
‘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 for ever.’ (Luke 1:46-55).
These are not just comforting, encouraging words; they are subversive and revolutionary. These are not words King Herod would have received with joy. This is not a song of triumph embraced by Caesar Augustus; it is rather a canticle of treason. Those who have the wealth and the power, those who have a stake in the status quo find no solace here.
Mary, a young woman, a teenager, courageously proclaims that God is about to turn things upside-down and that Herod and Caesar and every earthly ruler are on borrowed time. In good prophetic fashion, Mary is so certain that God will keep God’s promises that she speaks of these events as if they are in the past. Herod was still on his throne. Caesar was still ruling from Rome. The hungry were still hungry and the rich were getting richer. Nevertheless, Mary rests assured in the hope that God is now acting to reverse the fortunes of life. The Great Reversal has begun. It must, therefore, be spoken of as past event because it will definitely happen. If there was ever a sure bet, this was it.
Is it any wonder that Mary’ words about herself were also fulfilled, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” We rightly honor Mary even in this day. Submissive faith and courageous preaching are a powerful combination.
May all disciples of Jesus, follow the example of Mary, the mother of the Messiah and say to God without hesitation, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word'” (Luke 1:38).