Is Mary just for the Nativity Play?

How we view Mary, mother of Jesus, can help define us as Christian believers. In orthodox and catholic traditions, she is held in high esteem and endowed with other earthly qualities. She is deemed to be ‘ever virgin’ despite the gospels speaking of Jesus having brothers.

For those who believe in praying to saints, the prayers of Mary are seen as particularly effective. The words of the ‘Hail Mary’ or Ave Maria are familiar to many: “Hail Mary, full of gracethe Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

In the Roman Catholic Church, today is observed as the Feast of the Assumption, the day to celebrate Mary being ‘assumed’ into heaven. The belief is that because the early church had no record of the death of Mary, she did not die a physical death but was some how mysteriously welcomed into heaven. It is a day of ‘obligation’ in the Roman church and a holiday in countries where the Roman Catholic church is the national church. Many a first-time visitor to France in August has been caught out!

By contrast, protestant tradition has tended to play down the role of Mary in the understanding of the Christian faith. She is almost invisible except at Christmas time when many a young girl has vied to play Mary in the church or school nativity play and wear the blue dress. Because there are no bible references to Mary remaining a virgin for the whole of her life or being assumed into heaven, protestant churches simply do not believe these things of her. Prayers are addressed directly to God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit without recourse to the intermediaries of the saints, so Mary is not prominent in our prayers.

Here, in the Church in Wales, we are given this day to reflect on the life of Mary, whatever our understanding of her. That is no bad thing for her role is a special one. As we think about Mary, so we see God working profoundly in the life of a young woman and a mother. It is surely in the womb of Mary that earth and heaven meet. The line from the carol: ‘Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ speaks powerfully of how God does not stand aside from what he has created in the human body when he enters our world as flesh, incarnated.

What do we know about Mary? Both Matthew and Luke tell us that she was betrothed, a stronger form of engagement, to Joseph a ‘tekton’. The word is usually translated as carpenter, but such people worked in stone too. If Joseph had had a van, it would have probably said ‘Building Contractor’ on the side. Joseph can trace his line back through King David to Abraham, he is of good solid Jewish stock. Mary was in all probability a good deal younger than Joseph which would explain the absence of Joseph from Jesus’ ministry which began around 30 years after his birth. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, a small place then, deep in the Galilean hills some eighty miles north of Jerusalem. Jerusalem and Judea to the south had remained a centre of belief in the God of Israel, but among many families, there was a desire to move out and establish devoutly Jewish communities in the north. There was also work to be had in the area as the Romans were rebuilding Sepphoris as regional capital. Did Joseph find work there?

Nazareth, along with other communities in Galilee had become little havens of committed Jewish families worshipping and learning together in the synagogues and making regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals and to see family and friends. Mary is part of such a community and her evident faith has been nurtured by those around her.

It was a community that was characterised by waiting, by hope and expectation, a belief that God would again act in their history having been quiet so long. Mary, along with her family is keeping the faith, saying her prayers, listening to the scriptures read at family meals. With this thoughtful prayerful trusting young bride to be God chooses to act, to begin to do a new thing which makes for a different ordering of things in the world; that says that things do not always have to be the same old.

Are there things that you have long been waiting for, wondering when and if God will ever act? Maybe it’s a prayer for someone’s life to turn around, for them to come to faith in Jesus, a prayer for healing, a prayer for growth and renewal in the church or better conditions for a local community. It might be for a long-awaited project to come to fruition or a change of leadership.

Mary’s experience of God overshadowing her life with the news of her unexpected baby is sign that he is not inactive, that he will not ‘cast of his servants forever’, Lamentations 3.31) but he is beginning to act and so her faith blossoms into the song which forms today’s gospel reading.

We know the words as Mary’s song or ‘The Magnificat’ after the opening words in Latin ‘Magníficat ánima mea Dóminum’ traditionally sang at evening services. Luke’s gospel records the words of the song. How did he get hold of them? How did he know what had passed intimately between God’s messenger, Gabriel and Mary? While we can never prove these things, it is just possible, Luke the Doctor either met Mary in her old age through the early church or had access to records made by someone who had. The song may have been tidied up after Mary first uttered the words in praise at wonder at her situation, but it speaks of her personal amazement that God has chosen to use her. She reflects on the mercy God has shown to each generation in the past. The waiting has been hard and long, but God has not rejected them. God has kept the promise he had made to Abraham and his descendants for ever.

Then there are the few verses which make this a song of revolution: ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.’ (Luke 1.52-53) For all the evensongs when this has been sung, we are apt to spiritualise those words, to say they refer to God’s word, or Jesus as the bread of life. In a sense they do, but Jesus, the bread of life is for everyone, rich and poor. The bible is a book for every soul. What we fail to grasp is that an encounter with Jesus, born into the womb of Mary, an ordinary but faithful girl, a humble servant, should transform us into servants too. The early church was predominantly a church of slaves and the lower echelons of society. When Constantine, the Roman Emperor, embraced Christianity, he made it fashionable. In twenty first century Britain, we have become a church for middle classes again. It’s time to make Mary’s song our battle cry: ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.’

So, how do you see Mary? My prayer is that we don’t become so protestant that we pack her away with the blue gown after the nativity play, nor do we get so catholic that we place her on a pedestal as literally a ‘prima donna’ remote from the nitty gritty of life. Instead, we see her as the faithful girl from an expectant community of faith whose song is a rallying call to us for authentic Christian life and witness.

Mary, Mother of our Lord 15.08.2021

Rev Jonathan Smith

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