The passage we just heard from Luke’s gospel is preceded by the annually-repeated annunciation to Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son….” Mary asks how this is possible since she is still a virgin; the angel says not to worry: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Wow! If angel Gabriel came to you and said something like this, how would you respond? (Quinn, how would you respond? Mary was, probably, a couple of years younger than you). Gabriel continues to help Mary to believe, “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
Now we come to today’s text and find young Mary. We do not know much about her, but tradition has it that she was just a teenager, perhaps around fifteen. She had grown up in a religious home and she had developed a special relationship with God, despite the fact that, as a female she was barred from the formal training of the synagogue.
In our text today, she has made a quick trip to her older cousin’s home. Was it a joyous meeting? For Elizabeth, it could be. But, for Mary, I don’t think it was, because it was a catastrophe for her. I suspect she made the trip hoping that what Gabriel said to her was not true, because if it was true, she would be in big trouble. What an embarrassment!
But, she found out Elizabeth was also pregnant, as it was told. In her case, though, the coming baby was a RELIEF from embarrassment rather than the cause of it. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah the priest had been trying for years to have a child but to no avail, and in that society, childlessness was considered a curse… unless, of course, you did not happen to be married. Like Mary.
I think Mary had all the reason in the world to complain…, but she did not. It was truly a catastrophe for her. Even in our own day, becoming pregnant while unmarried carries a tremendous toll, but two-thousand years ago, it could be even worse. Joseph could have gotten rid of Mary by announcing to the world her crime against him and having her killed! That was legal.
She surely had grounds for complaint. Here was a young girl on the brink of an exciting new life, and now this. “Greetings, favored one.” Favored? What kind of favor is this? She had every right to complain, but she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This is a truly heart rending story.
We had the last Bible Study session last week. We learned about Lectio Divina and we used this story as our text. During my preparation, I realized that it is truly amazing that Mary did not complain at all, which led me to another realization. That is…, I complain for nothing! For example, (please, don’t laugh), I complain that “God, why do we have to eat three times a day? Can we eat just once a week, like snakes?” Or, “Can we go to sleep when it’s cold and wake up in the spring, like the bears?” Then, we don’t have to deal with all the burdens that the snow storms bring. Seriously!.., these are my complaints. This young teenage girl, Mary, gave me a perspective and I felt ashamed.
As we know, as time went along, Mary had more grounds for complaint. Some months later, she and Joseph had to travel eighty miles from Nazareth down to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. Here was this “favored” young woman being forced to travel a difficult route when she was nine month pregnant. Mary surely could have complained about that. But all we hear her saying is “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” This is a truly heart rending story.
Mary’s situation did not improve much when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. This “favored” young woman who was about to give birth had no a place for them. Again, Mary had every cause to complain. But what does her complaint sound like? “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.” Wow! A truly heart rending story, isn’t it?
Somehow, one might expect that, with all Mary had been expected to endure, there would come a time when SOMETHING might have been expected to go RIGHT for her. At least once the anguish of having to tell her husband-to-be that she was going to have a baby that was not his, the difficulty of a lengthy trip just before the due date, the problem of awful accommodations, the pains of the birth itself, and the lack of privacy after it was all over, Mary might have figured on the right to EXPECT that things would begin to start going her way.
But we know the story. After hearing about the ‘new born king’ from magi, King Herod wanted to make certain that no one would be able to claim his throne. He ordered to murder every baby boy under the age of two. The Holy Family had become refugees. They fled to Egypt. They remained in Egypt until Herod finally died. Mary SURELY could have complained. She had every right. But her words were, “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Truly, a heart rending story.
Maybe Mary did not know how to complain… but I doubt it. She was just like us: she was a human being like anyone else with all the natural tendencies to gripe and moan like any of us. But something kept her from it. She had heard from the angel that she was “favored,” and she believed it. She knew that she was CHOSEN by God. But chosen for what? A life of ease? A life without pain? A life with no problems? Hardly. Mary was chosen for service; she was chosen for the fulfillment of God’s promise. She knew that to be chosen of God sometimes means both a crown of joy AND a cross of sorrow. She had heard that she was “favored,” and, in faith, she was willing to accept whatever that favor meant.
Interesting, is it not, how many others in history have been “favored” of God in being given some tremendous task to do. Paul was “favored,” favored with the task of sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles, and ended up being able to write that “I have learned to be content in whatever situation I find myself.” He wrote that from a prison cell.
How many of us would count ourselves as “favored?” Not us. We are not in the class of a Mary or a Paul. We do not think of ourselves as heroes of the faith. And it is just as well. We would rather someone ELSE have all that “favor” considering what it might entail. And way down deep, we would rather hang on to the right to complain. Well, perhaps, I am speaking for myself here. But, let’s be honest. Most of us DO NOT have as much to complain about as Mary. We do not even have as much to complain about as those folks whose stories we see on the evening news… but we do it anyway. That’s a shame. As I told you earlier, I felt ashamed last week.
As Mary learned, God doesn’t promise a perfect, peaceful life or a silent, holy night. She was blessed, God-favored, and grace-filled, yet her troubles did not end. That’s how life was for Mary, and that’s how life is for us. Life doesn’t go according to our plans. Sometimes it’s hard and painful and scary. Yet, in the messiness of life, God is at work, bringing blessing out of pain. My friends, let us remember that’s the message of Christmas.
If anyone had cause for complaint it was Mary. Listen and learn from her: “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.” Amen!