Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; Ps 80:1-8, 18-20; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
“Dear Mary from your lowliness and home in Galilee, there comes a joy and holiness to ev’ry family.” Words from one of our hymns this morning.
Today traditionally in the Anglican communion we think about Mary and her role in the Incarnation. Her rather pivotal role. After all, she said “yes” to God: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” A pivotal moment indeed. We don’t know what would have happened if she had turned round and said no, I can’t do that, I’m too scared, too young, too … But it says something about Mary that God trusted her enough to give her the choice. She could have said no. But, “the heav’nly call she thus obeyed, and so God’s will was done”. And Jesus was born, God became human, and dwelt among us. A child, in an ordinary home, living an ordinary life.
Because that is exactly what Mary, and Joseph – who does get mention in our readings today – gave him. An ordinary life. As Bishop John Pritchard points out in one of his books*, for 30 years Jesus lived with us, as one of us: Lord Jesus Christ, you have come to us, born as one of us, Mary’s son – as another hymn puts it. For 30 years he experienced life in a normal family home of the time. And like any child he would have learned from the example and experience of his earthly parents: he would have seen how Mary lived, the work she did in the home – leavening the bread, sweeping the house, losing and finding things – things he brought into his teachings later on to help his followers understand them. And she would have taught the Word of God to speak. She would have shown him how to live in a Jewish society in occupied Palestine. Just as all mothers teach their children, care for them, protect them, watch them grow up. How many times do we hear of Mary seeing what happens around her son and storing up her thoughts in her heart. Just as all mothers watch their children and remember what they do, what they did – I have lots of memories of my three growing up, memories I have stored in my heart. And Mary stored her memories of Jesus’ childhood: the meeting with Simeon and Anna, getting lost in Jerusalem, and many more which were held only in her heart.
And then there is the bit which pierces Mary’s heart: “she gave her body for God’s shrine, her heart to piercing pain,”. The growing up bit. Jesus, the son of the carpenter, trained up to follow in his father’s footsteps, suddenly grows up and moves on, moves out – just as our children move on and out, despite our plans and hopes and dreams for them. And Jesus becomes what he is called to be, what he is destined to be. The itinerant preacher who, again in the words of Pritchard, was “a controversial teacher, setting both religious authorities and Roman rulers on edge”. Walking into danger. And Mary is there, following his journey, supporting him – even when he seems to push her away. And she is there at the end, when those same authorities try to destroy the Good News to the poor, standing by her son at the foot of the cross. Simeon’s words echoing in her heart: and a sword will pierce your own heart too. Watching her blest son, “whom (her) embrace in birth and death confessed.”
So what can we take away from the example of Mary, and her role in being mother to God’s son? To begin with we need to look at her yes. That moment when God’s trust in God’s choice was vindicated. Mary was offered a choice, and she had the courage, the faith in God, to say yes. God didn’t promise it would be all sweetness and light, in fact she must have realised that by saying yes, her whole world would be transformed and made more dangerous: giving birth in those times was dangerous, but doing so as an unmarried mother heightened the danger. Joseph was brave to carry on and marry his pregnant fiancée. He also said yes to the choice that was offered him. And God gives us choices every day. Choices that aren’t always easy to say yes to. Choices that, like Mary, put us at odds with what society thinks is “right”. We can say yes to God, and look at the world through God’s eyes. Standing up for what we believe in, rather than turning away, crossing the road, keeping silent in the face of injustice through fear of retaliation. Challenging the status quo, the unloving attitudes we can see around us: Jesus, again in the words of Pritchard: “taught a radical reworking of .. religious practices”, together with “compassionate healings, over the top forgiveness, and an uncompromising solidarity with the oppressed underclass”.
This is the Jesus whom Mary followed around Palestine. The Jesus God invites us to follow today. The Jesus who was taught at his mother’s knee, the same knee he was laid on after his death. And this is the message, the choice, the way of life God offers to us, asks us to take on. Asks us to say yes to. A yes that takes the confidence and bravery of Mary to speak, to accept. But we can take comfort in the fact that God chose Mary because she was ordinary, just a young girl living a normal life. And God takes what is ordinary and creates the extraordinary. Through Mary’s yes, God is with us. Emmanuel. Through the power of God, that yes changed the world. Through the power of God, when we say yes, God can change us, and through us, the world. That is what the example of Mary shows us. We don’t need to be extraordinary, we don’t need to be special, do special things. God can use us as we are, who we are, and it is because we are ordinary, human, that God can work with us. Through us.
If we, like Mary, despite our fears, our sense of unworthiness, say yes: God is with us. And God can use the yes walking with us, just as God walked on earth those years ago alongside humanity, changing the lives of those around us, around him. Through our lives and by our prayers, God can bring the Kingdom, if we say yes, just as through Mary’s yes, her life and prayers God came to us, lived with us, among us, showed us how to live for God, and brought us redemption. So, “For Mary, mother of our Lord, God’s holy name be praised, who first the Son of God adored as on her child she gazed.”
The Reverend Jackie Sellin
*Pritchard J (2018): Five Events That Made Christianity, SPCK