Monday 29th November
The beginning of Luke’s Gospel sets up this moment really well. Two angelic appearances, one in the place of privilege to a priest, the other to a young woman. Two babies announced, one to prepare the way for the other. Two pregnant women. Perhaps both bear the weight of gossip - one, barren and therefore, according to the wisdom of the time, unfulfilled; the other inexplicably pregnant before her marriage. The last thing we ‘heard’ Mary say was declare herself the Lord’s servant and willing to do the Lord’s will.
At some early stage of her pregnancy, Mary, the younger woman, goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Perhaps this is a step made necessary by her unexpected pregnancy, perhaps she goes to offer companionship to her cousin (or seek it from her). Whichever interpretation you prefer, the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth encapsulates a new move of God. Elizabeth and Zechariah represent the ‘best in the religion of Israel’* yet their role is simply to prepare the way for someone else, for the Messiah. How might Elizabeth have felt when she saw Mary approaching? Elizabeth had waited so long for a child, born her husband’s disappointment as well as her own. Put up with the special slurs of those who see children as central to marriage, reserved for those unable to produce them. It would have seemed normal had Elizabeth felt resentful - at last a child, and a son, but only to prepare the way for another.
As Elizabeth greets Mary, though, she proclaims God’s blessing over her and the child she carries recognises his aunt and his cousin. “Blessed are you, the mother of my Lord,” says Elizabeth. And then we read to these key words: “and Mary said.” Elizabeth’s blessing releases Mary into prophesying the new kingdom. The announcement of God’s new kingdom does not come out of the power or splendour of the Temple, or from the rule of men, but out of the companionship of two women in a home: a new prophetic relationship in the new sacred space.
Mary’s ability to speak contrasts powerfully with her cousin’s husband, the priest, unable to speak for weeks since entering the sanctuary to make an incense offering to God. Where Zechariah could say nothing, “Mary said.” Women say little in the Bible, only about 1% of spoken words - but “Mary said.” Women’s stories are rarely told, women’s experiences of God are rarely reported, and women’s understanding of God’s kingdom is rarely heard. And yet “Mary said.”
The verse we are reflecting on, Luke 1:46, is brief. “And Mary said,” followed by the beginning of what she said. She begins where she is, she doesn’t begin with theology or philosophy, but with “my soul.” Mary’s announcement of the new kingdom begins in her. The kingdom of God always comes in the soul, or heart, of God’s people. When Mary continues, however, we learn more about her. Her words are not only full of emotion, they are also full of understanding. Surely it cannot be by chance that Mary extols God’s kingdom so clearly - nor that a few chapters later, her son describes it in similar terms when he launches his ministry in Nazareth.
One of my favourite images of Mary is the centre panel of a triptych now housed in the Cloisters Museum, New York. It was painted probably by Robert Campin in the 1420s. What is particularly special about it is the fact Mary is reading. In fact, she looks as though she is studying. There’s an open book on the table and another in her hands. It seems as though she is so engrossed in what she is reading, that the angel on the other side of the table has to gain her attention. It is an image of a woman who studies and understands. Her understanding is not lost, when she comes to announce the kingdom of God.
Liz is the author of three books on preaching, Preaching Women: Gender, Power & the Pulpit; Out of the Shadows: Preaching the Woman of the Bible; and The Present Preacher: Discerning God in the Now. She is a researcher in feminist practical theology and leads Women’s Voices, an annual conference for women who preach. She is Director of Studies in Chester Diocese and Canon of the cathedral.
*R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 268.