Mary The Revolutionary
A Christmas Blog by Dr Lucy Peppiatt
Coming up to Christmas I always find myself thinking about Mary and meditating on her extraordinary life, and as I do that, one of the things that strikes me over and over again is how big the gap is between how Mary is so often depicted in church, in art, in hymns, and in liturgy, and what she must have been like in real life. When you study her story, read about her encounters with God, watch her pray, think about what she lived through, imagine what must have been at times a desperately lonely path, it seems that her story, her life, and her character have been tamed – domesticated.
The idea that a teenage girl in 1st century Palestine would have the courage and the faith to submit to carrying the Son of God in her womb, to be stigmatised and gossiped about, to take the risk of being rejected by her fiancé, her family, her community is utterly astonishing. It brings to my mind Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who has made history by becoming a human rights activist by the age of 12 and by doing so, becoming a victim of an assassination attempt by the age of 15 at the hands of the Taliban. She survived, thank God, and lives to speak out for human rights and education for girls. This is not a tame, pious situation. Mary was in a similar position. God called her to undertake a dangerous and highly controversial mission. She was to bear and to bring the Son of God into a fiercely hostile world. Matthew tells the story of Herod being so filled with fury at the threat to his power that he murdered all the little boys under two years old in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside – the massacre of the innocents. Later, Mary's nephew, probably as close to her as a son, is executed by beheading. Mary and Joseph must have been terrified. In the end, she had to watch her son die a gruesome, slow and painful death before her very eyes.
And Mary submitted to this plan. She must have been willing at the time to face it alone, having no reassurance when Gabriel appeared to her that her fiancé and family would support her. Only she was to find out they had been spoken to as well, been visited by angels, warned, reassured, in touch with a power they had never known before.
Deutsche Welle news wrote about Malala Yousafzai in Jan 2013 that she may have become, "the most famous teenager in the world." What would that make Mary? She too was powerful, feisty, visionary, resistant. We read or sing her 'song' at Christmas – The Magnificat. But why do we call it her 'song'? Why not her prophecy? Why not her war cry? Mary proclaims that God has scattered the proud, has thrown down rulers from their thrones, lifted up the humble, filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away. This is a subversive and dangerous message. It isn't for the faint hearted. The rich and powerful don't like to be told that they're going to be dethroned and sent empty away, as Mary is soon to find out. It really isn't very good news for them. Mary echoes Hannah's prayer, the prayer of one of her mothers in the faith, "He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats the with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour." 1 Sam 2:8
I am writing this with Nelson Mandela's funeral going on in the background, hearing voice after voice celebrating the man who changed Southern Africa, and even the world, by fighting for justice, bringing hope in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, struggling for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the underdogs. He is so often compared to Christ. For Mandela and his fellow countrymen and women, this was a racial struggle. Hannah was a barren woman in a man's world. Mary was a young woman in an occupied country. They knew what it was like to be the underdog. Mary knew that God had radically turned the tables. What more proof would you need than that he'd visited a young Jewish girl and promised her that she would bear the Son of the Most High? Justice is about to be done. Mary rejoices because the poor will be exalted, but the rich will be sent empty away.
One of my sons was told by a contemporary of his at his Christian Union that boys are like thermos flasks and girls are like crystal glasses. The boys can take being knocked around, but the girls need to be looked after and treated with care. They are delicate, vulnerable, fragile. When he told me this, my very first thoughts went to all the women in the world who shoulder unbelievable burdens day after day, who support families while going out to work, who fight for justice, who take in orphans, who resist oppression, and I'm utterly bewildered at a young Western male who thinks like this, and a church that supports such thinking.
Next time you see a picture of Mary, nursing a child on her lap, or weeping over her dead son, next time you're tempted to think about Mary as the ultimate portrayal of submission, think as well about how subversive she was, how courageous she was, how gripped with a vision for justice she was, and be inspired.