I know Christmas circular letters are not everyone’s cup of tea, but we enjoy writing ours as a review of the year, and catching up with what has been going on in the lives of others. For those who don’t like them, their distaste is summed up in that archetypal circular where everything is going wonderfully well—the demands of new jobs following promotions, the stresses of getting ready for exotic foreign holidays, and the difficulty of keeping up with so many achievements by the children. (Should you receive any like this, Lynne Truss offers a variety of ways of responding..)
Such paragons of perfection don’t do much to cheer us up, because they look far beyond our frustrating, dull and mediocre lives. And my feeling is that, for most of us, that is how Mary makes us feel too. There are two main theological traditions which set Mary on a pedestal in different ways. The first (in which I was raised) has Mary as such a paragon of perfection that not only is she herself sinless, she too was conceived miraculously (which is what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is all about) and was herself also assumed bodily into heaven.
But there is a Protestant version too, and I was treated to it once when on a job interview to be a curate in the sermon by the vicar. God used Mary to great effect, and we want God to use us. So what can we learn from Mary in order to be used like her? She was humble, so we ought to be humble. She was expectant, so we ought to be expectant. She was willing for God to use her, so we ought to be willing. She praised God for what he had done, so we ought to praise God. I am not sure what this sermon was supposed to do for my heart, but there seemed to be a lot of hardening of the oughteries!
Both of these approaches fail to be true to the account we have in Luke 1 of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and her response. The first turns her into a polished, plaster saint we can put on a pedestal to admire but hardly to imitate. The second turns the text inside out and makes it say the opposite of what it is actually proclaiming. The main lesson from Luke 1 on how to be used by God appears to be ‘You have to make a terrifying angel appear to you’—and I have not yet found out how to do that. (Answers on a postcard…)
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah…’ (Luke 1.5)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…(Luke 2.1)
This not only locates his story within the big stories of the time, it also offers a striking contrast between the way human kingdoms operate and the coming of the kingdom of God comes amongst his people. Where Matthew talks of ‘what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt 1.20), for Luke the Spirit comes with ‘power from on high’ (Luke 1.35). Even Gabriel’s name speak of power; his name means ‘El is gbr—strong, a mighty warrior, one who will prevail’. He is one of the seven mighty archangels who stand in the presence of God, perhaps referred to in Rev 8.2. This is no dainty cherub or winged androgyny, but a terrifying vision of spiritual power and authority. No wonder his first words were ‘Be not afraid’!
Even within the shape of the story in Luke 1 we can see a progression, and it is from the qualified to the unqualified. As a priest entering the Holy of Holies, Zechariah might have expected some sort of encounter with God, not least because he and Elizabeth are ‘righteous and blameless’ (Luke 1.6). And Elizabeth has that biblical ‘qualification’ of being barren, so we might expect God to be at work as he has before, with Sarah and Hannah. Yet when we come to Mary, no such qualifications are mentioned, and no explanation of her choice is given. She is chosen simply because she is chosen.
It is an idea we struggle with—so much so that we turn her lack of qualification inside out. We read her exclamation ‘he has looked with favour on the low status of his bondservant’ (Luke 1.48) as proclaiming her humility is a qualification for God to use her. But in the context of a status-conscience honour culture, it actually emphasises her lack of qualification for anything. It’s no wonder we struggle with this idea, as we are so immersed in our ‘merit’ culture. We live in a world where those who can, win, and those who can’t get knocked out in round 1 (or round 4 if they fail in a sufficiently entertaining way). We live in a world where those already at the top define who qualifies, so that those who already have get more, and those who have nothing have even what they do possess taken from them. Mary’s praise tells us this world is turned upside down because of God’s choice.
Indeed, the content of what she exclaims reflects what she has experienced, and it is marked by three things.
It is no accident that Mary’s song of praise echoes Hannah’s song of praise when God gives her the gift of her son Samuel (whose name means ‘God hears’, 1 Sam 2.1–10). In fact it is hard to find a phrase in the Magnificat which does not echo a verse somewhere in the OT. God’s sovereign choice of the small and insignificant in the NT is not a contradiction of his action in the OT, but confirmation and consummation of it. What Mary experiences here is what God’s people have always experienced—as you can see by the parallelism of her reflections in the first half of the hymn with the recounting of Israel’s experience in the second half.
The NT does not proclaim grace where the OT proclaimed law, since God’s calling his people into healthy patterns of living was always his gracious gift. No, rather we see the same problem in the OT as we have continued to experience as God’s people—thinking that God’s choice and call on our lives somehow makes us better and more deserving than those around us. Perhaps that’s why we have a problem inviting people to services and events at Christmas, as if it was their annual chance to tick the ‘merit’ box by doing their religious bit, or that we are asking them to pull their religious socks up. In fact, an invitation to celebrate Christmas is an invitation to encounter God’s free grace.
2. It is focussed on God.
When you look at the poetic presentation of the Magnificat in most English translation, something is very striking about the layout, especially in the second half. ‘He has, he has, he has…’ It is all focussed on what God has done, not on what we deserve or what we might achieve.
Peter Wilby, the atheist newspaper editor, put it very well:
Nothing draws me more to religion than Christmas. That is not because I lose my atheist faith but because I intensely dislike all the commercial baggage and babble that surrounds the festival. So, in a spirit of protest, I shall try to attend at least one carol service and possibly a midnight Mass, too, as well as listening at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.
All religions have stories at their heart. Christianity, to my mind, has the best: an omnipotent God who chooses to be incarnated as a human, born in the most humble circumstances imaginable. Whether or not we are believers, we should all celebrate that story in the coming days and ponder its meaning.
3. It elicits response
Mary does model the right response—and therefore we should imitate her—but notice the order in which things happen. God acts; the angel appears; Mary responds.
It is often said that God’s love is unconditional, but I am less and less convinced that it is true. Put that way, it suggests that God loves us and God’s love has its effect, does its work, regardless of any action on our part. But the story of Mary shows that is not true. Yes, God’s love is indeed unconditioned—there are no preconditions that we need to fulfil first. But there are conditions in letting God’s love do its work in our lives—that we receive it and respond to it. As with any Christmas gift, we need to hold out our hands, receive the gift, and unwrap it.
Perhaps we should indeed feel nervous about inviting people to Christmas services, and we ought to feel nervous about coming. Because once we hear this story and are challenged to respond to it, we cannot remain unchanged.
This is based on my sermon on Sunday 20th December 2015 at St Nic’s, Nottingham. You can listen to the whole sermon on the church website.
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