6th December 2015

“God’s promise to Mary”. (Luke 1:26-38).

I’m sure that Mary, that teenage girl from Nazareth, never expected to meet an angel. It was a bolt from the blue. Yet the Bible tells us that she did; as a consequence, not just her own life but the history of our planet was changed forever. This story of the Annunciation is very familiar; we hear it each Christmas and, to be honest, we probably don’t give it a great deal of attention but allow its words to flow over us. The story has assumed the character of a well-loved folk-tale, something that is said to have happened in those mythical “olden days” but which we have rarely bothered to study in any great detail. But, when we do start putting our minds to it in order to analyse its content and meaning, we begin to see that it is fraught with all sorts of problems.

For instance, at the very least we have to ask where the story came from. Unlike the Gospel stories about the adult Jesus, there are no eye-witnesses to this supernatural visitation: we only have Mary’s words, passed on to Elizabeth, Joseph and finally to Jesus himself as he grew up. There is no independent corroboration; Luke simply asks us to take it on trust – and he clearly believes it to have been a genuine historical event.

Then we have the little matter of Gabriel himself. Although we know that the word “angel” simply mans “messenger” and that he – despite the pictures – he may well not have had shiny white clothing or golden wings, we still want to ask, “Just who was the emissary from another realm?”; “How did Mary recognise and hear him?”; and “Can we really believe that angels exist in the first place?” Once again, Luke doesn’t have a problem with any of this; but we do.

And finally we have the little issue of what had really happened: if we assume that Mary was telling the truth and had not slept with Joseph (or anyone else, for that matter), then how on earth could she possibly be pregnant? And, if she was, how had God pulled off something which breaks all the rules of biology? Could even he do such a thing?

So this Annunciation story is problematic, even far-fetched. I suspect that many Christians today, if pressed, would probably regard it as mythological rather than historical. Even though, in my opinion, that view doesn’t do justice to Luke’s account, I understand that it’s about the only way in which many modern and scientifically-aware people can make head or tail of it. It seems that you must either treat it as fable or else ignore it completely – and I don’t wish to do either.

Well, you may have spent years working your way through those difficulties and come to your own conclusions. I have to say that my own view, simplistic as it may seem, is that, if God really is God, he can do anything he pleases; that he is certainly not limited by the so-called “rules” of science as he was the one who invented them in the first place! After all, we aren’t talking about just “any” child but the once-in-eternity’s birth of a Messiah, God amongst us or Emmanuel.

But this tale raises some other questions which you may never have thought of – questions which come to the fore whether you take the story literally or not. I think it’s right to say that most of these questions are relatively new; in particular they are being asked by feminist theologians who may well be challenging traditional views of how Christians regard both Mary in particular and women in general. It seems to me that, if we want to relate Mary’s story to modern society, and if we still want to find in it some promises which we can treasure today, then we must listen to what these people are saying.

For instance, modern science tells us how a foetus is formed, with the fertilisation of a female egg by a male sperm, each bringing half of the required DNA to the conception. Now I am well aware that gynecology today isn’t as simple as it once was, what with so-called “test-tube” babies, surrogacy and changing ethics around human sexuality. Nevertheless the basic facts of procreation have not changed: some kind of partnership between male and female is still necessary to produce new life. The two elements are equally important.

But that wasn’t how people regarded parenthood in the first century; and it still isn’t the way in which many uneducated folk understand it today. For a commonly-held view is that the man plants his “seed” in the “field” of the woman. In other words, the new life comes entirely from the man and the woman’s role is secondary and passive; although she bears the child and rears it, she is not an equal in the process. Now I’m sure we would strongly disagree with this view; but it is one which the Annunciation story appears to accept uncritically. For the angel declares that God had placed his seed within Mary’s womb; her task was to nurture the growing life and bring it to birth. Although she was uniquely privileged to do that, the initiative and the baby’s life itself came entirely from God; as an Orthodox prayer still in use today says, “the Most High ... made her fruitful womb as a fertile field for all who long to reap the harvest of salvation”.

But we must move on, for this very fact of God’s initiative leads us to another problem. For have you noticed that there is something rather inconsistent about the conversation between Gabriel and Mary. On the one hand he declares, “The Holy Spirit will come on you ... you will conceive and give birth to a son .... you are to call him Jesus” – there is an inevitability about this, it sounds as if God has made his decision and that this is unquestionably what is going to happen. But then there is Mary’s meek acceptance of the angel’s message (and we must remember that she is terrified, overawed and dumbfounded): “I am the Lord’s servant”, she says, “May your word to me be fulfilled”. Yes, Mary willingly submits to God (and her humility has often been commended) – but wasn’t she just a vulnerable teenager who felt she had no other option when confronted by raw divine power?

Do you see how uncomfortable the story becomes when we start thinking about it in this way? For it turns God into a bully, even an abuser, who is determined to have his way and who forces Mary to consent to his plans. The radical lesbian feminist American theologian Mary Daly – herself a Catholic – puts this notion in truly shocking terms: “The male-angel Gabriel brings poor Mary the news that she is to be impregnated by and with God. Like all rape victims in male myth she submits joyously to this unspeakable degradation”. Now that sentiment goes too far; it ends up being both offensive and blasphemous – which is hardly surprising when we discover that its author was strongly anti-male and regarded the whole story of the Virgin Birth as an element of Greek paganism that had somehow found its way into the Christian scriptures. Nevertheless the very vividness and crudity of Daly’s language does make us sit up and ask exactly what we think God was doing. And that isn’t a bad thing.

In other words the story can easily boil down to the concepts of male dominance (for God in this story certainly comes across as male) and female submission; it involves real issues of power and consent. Some commentators have suggested that Mary didn’t question the angel as critically as she ought to have done; they also criticise her for giving weight to the idea that women’s only real claim to fame is the capacity to have babies. Those comments are unfair; I think we all realise that men held the reins of power in ancient times (and often do today). But I also think we must agree that, far too often, the Church has blessed the idea of women meekly agreeing to subordination in return for male appreciation and the offer of limited power over other people (but always within the bounds set by the men in charge). The Church’s record of offering liberation to women is not a distinguished one.

So we must ask exactly what is God’s promise in this extraordinary story, not just to Mary but, by implication, to all women? Is it nothing more than a prediction of their perpetual powerlessness and second-rate status, a prophecy that they will do little more than consent to the lusts of men and bear their children? Is Mary the great example of female submission and humility – over and against Eve who, by arrogantly taking the lead in the Garden of Eden, led her husband Adam into sin? That interpretation has often been favoured in the churches; but it is one I want to unhesitatingly reject this morning.

So should we go to the opposite extreme? Ought we to champion Mary as the archetype of the single woman who regards the intervention of men in conception and birthing process as a tiresome biological necessity and who is proudly determined to enter motherhood alone? That has certainly been the aim of some theologians who have been filled with the desire to reclaim Mary for their process of female liberation; but it isn’t a legitimate interpretation of the story. Indeed, if we take that line we are falling into the familiar trap of moulding Bible stories and figures to suit our particular needs and of forcing our own meanings onto the text rather than carefully listening to what it may say in our contemporary situation. And that’s simply not on, as it mutes the voice of God’s Spirit.

Nevertheless we must not uncritically accept traditional approaches to this tale. There must be a middle way which both does justice to the text and offers women hope – after all, they make up half the human race! And I believe that there is. For I don’t think that Mary unthinkingly colludes in God’s plans nor unacceptably submits to his will. There is no confusion in her mind between obeying God as Lord of the universe and rebuffing the petty tyrannies of men who try to lord it over women. And she certainly doesn’t regard her role as God’s servant as a demeaning one but as the most amazing privilege.

For actually – and despite our first impressions – Mary is in a position of power. God does not send his angel to brutally impose his will upon her; Gabriel is more of a suitor who comes to plead God’s cause. The success of his entire plan of salvation hinges on Mary’s agreement – and she could have said “no”. So God must tremble and the universe must hold its breath while Mary makes up her mind: will she agree or refuse? The outcome is not certain as she has the right to do either.

This way of looking at Mary surely transforms and empowers her. As we suspected all along, she is a crucial part of the redemption story: not merely as the woman whose womb just happened to contain our Saviour, but as a fully-fledged human who played a crucial part in our salvation. Mary is not, as some Catholics would say, Jesus’ equal or “co-redemptrix” in our salvation; that is going too far. But I think she definitely has a more significant role than most Protestants have traditionally have given to her. We give thanks for the way she was prepared to accept and embrace God’s will, although it would prove costly, embarrassing and painful. Mary challenges us all – women and men alike – to do the same.