Today, we will conclude our sermon series looking at the characters that make up the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Throughout Advent, we’ve focused on how each of these characters help us to prepare our hearts for Christmas. We’ve saved the most beloved and important of the characters, outside of Jesus, for last. Her name is Mary.
Mary’s role is central to the entire Christmas story. We do not give her, in the Protestant tradition, enough attention and respect. She deserves more of our time and reflection, because she is theotokos. This is what the early church called her. Theotokos is a Greek word that means “God bearer.” There is no better word to describe Mary. That is her contribution to the Christmas story. She was the one who gave birth to the incarnate Son of God. She was the one chosen by God to give life to the One who offers true life and hope into the world.
But, who is she? Why did God choose her? What are we to make of her life and her connection to Christ? These are all questions that, perhaps, we’ve wrestled with before and are ones important for us to consider as we think about Mary, her life, and how she enables us to encounter the peace, hope, joy, and love found in the Christ child.
If we’re going to understand Mary, though, we need to get through some important contextual items that help us to engage in her life and what it was like for her in the Ancient Near East areas of Judea and Galilee. For starters, we need to deal with the fact that she was likely somewhere between 12-13 years of age. I know that comes as a shock to many of us. How do we come to this understanding about her age? In both the Roman and Jewish cultures, women and their families, in those days, were expected to protect their virginity. To help do this, they would enter into a marriage around the time of their first menstrual cycle. Protecting a young girl’s virginity was among her and her family’s most important tasks, especially in the one-year betrothal of legal engagement. We have no reason to doubt that Mary and her family would follow this custom.
That she is a virgin is one of the ways used to describe her in both Luke and Matthew. Mary’s virginity has been a key theological understanding of Jesus’s life and birth throughout the church. It is something we confess through the words of the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds. So, how do we understand her virginity? For some, that has meant that she was not just a virgin before marriage, but that she was perpetually a virgin. The claim here, held by our Roman Catholic friends and even John Wesley, was that she remained a virgin throughout her life. That is a secondary theological discussion to talk about Mary’s life. What is important, and essential to faith, is that she was a virgin.
Scripture tells us Mary was living in Nazareth at the time of Gabriel’s visit. There is an apocryphal story that she was born in her parent’s, Anne and Joachim, native home in what is now the Old City of Jerusalem. That site is protected, today, by the Church of Saint Anne. Her birth gives us an entry point to look at another key theological point about Mary. That is the immaculate conception. We often think of it in terms of Jesus’ birth, but it actually pertains to a belief that Mary was born without sin, as well as her offspring, Jesus. It is a belief that is maintain in the Catholic tradition, but did not carry into the Protestant fold.
At some point in her young life, Mary and her family made the 90-mile journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth to make that their home. We see Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus and a place of Scriptural and theological importance. That was not the case in Mary and Jesus’ time. It was a town of 300 people, while, today, is holds approximately 77,000 people. Nazareth gets its name from a Hebrew word, natzer. It is a word that means “branch” and is often used in connection to a branch rising up from God that would give hope to all. This was the case used, in the prophets, to look towards a branch coming out of Jesse’s family would be the Messiah.
Luke 1:26-38 tells us that in Nazareth Mary received a visit by Gabriel, who proceeded to tell her about what was to happen. She was engaged to Joseph at this point. There is some historical question about where she was when the visit took place. The Roman Catholic tradition has it as taking place at her family’s home in Nazareth. The Greek Orthodox tradition has the scene at an ancient well that gave spring water to the entire community. Personally, I’m fond of the Greek site, because there is something about Mary receiving that message in the midst of living her life and caring for her family.
With all of that as an understanding, we get to Gabriel who announces what was to take place through her life. He calls her “favored” or “full of grace.” What is meant by this? That statement leads us to believe that there was something uniquely special about Mary’s life. Mary might not have thought there was anything special about her life. She, likely, grew up in poverty or without a lot means. The idea about being seen as favored isn’t about anything Mary did or her context, but about God’s actions. Grace is about God’s kindness and mercy. God has shown kindness to Mary by looking upon her and seeing her heart and desire for the Lord. As such, God has shown grace upon her to give her this unique and special calling to give birth to the Son of God.
Her response is to say “yes.” She is willing to be the Lord’s servant and, as well, willing to do whatever God asks of her. She is willing to be used for the sake of the Lord to bring hope into the world through this child she would give life to. Mary, this young girl, says yes to God, even though she had no idea what it would mean, what it would look like, or how it would change her life. That is a servant’s heart.
Eventually, Mary travels to just outside of Jerusalem to a place called Ein Karem and the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth and Mary were cousins and, as well, Elizabeth was also pregnant through a divine act of grace and mercy. It would have been a long journey, but well worth it for Mary to interact with someone who would have known what she was going through personally. When Mary and Elizabeth meet, the child inside of Elizabeth’s womb, John, lept for joy.
It was enough for Mary to offer a deeper response. She was seeing what God was doing all around her, and as a result she felt compelled with her soul to offer some words upon how she was engaging it all. Her response has long been regarded as the “Magnificat.” It is so named that because of the first words in the Latin translation, the Vulgate, for the word we know as “magnify.” It references the idea of enlarging something, so that others may see it.
Her words express what God is doing not just in her life, but throughout the world. What Mary gives witness to is the global reversal that will take place through Jesus. God’s strength of grace and mercy will bring forth a new way in the world. It is will be one where the powerful and elite will be humbled, while those who are poor and forgotten will be noticed and given attention. The poor are being filled with the good things of life, which is counter to what takes place in the world where the rich take advantage and horde for themselves all of the world’s resources and finances. That will no longer be the case in God’s kingdom, Mary says, through her son, the Savior.
Mary, in her prophetic role, announces the fulfillment of God’s promises of a redeeming Messiah. She sees the future work of God and announces it as being complete in the present, because she is confident in the grace of God. All of creation will be forever redeemed and transformed, because of the love and presence of her Savior son. God’s kingdom is coming and it will bring life to all.
Mary’s life enlarged the very presence of God at work in her life and around the world. From the moment she encounters Gabriel to the moment she stood at the cross as her son, the Savior, died for the world’s sin, her life enlarged the very presence of God’s indwelling love with a willingness to be the Lord’s servant and to see into what God is doing in the world. Her words and life reflect a sense of rejoicing, in which her very soul gives praise to the mighty and impressive work of God. She has seen it all and knows it is coming for all time.
As we approach the celebration of Jesus’ birth, this week, I cannot help but wonder about what we might learn from Mary and our responses to following Christ. I cannot help but wonder about what we are focusing upon in our life. What takes up our energy and focus? That is a question worth thinking about as we consider what it means to magnify the Lord. For Mary, her energy and focus were upon giving witness to God’s work in her life and in the life of the world. She was a loving and compassionate servant of the Lord.
What takes up our energy and focus? Is it the things of God? We might want to say, yes, but as we enter this final few days of Advent, and prepare our hearts for the Christmas celebration to come, perhaps that is something we need to ponder upon deeply. Does our heart, like Mary’s, truly magnify the Lord?
Are we giving our entire energy and focus to God, or are other things becoming more important? Can we see what God is doing in the world or are we too consumed with bringing up complaints, negativity, and talking about all the problems we think our present in our community and the church? Can we see the glory of God all around us, or are we too consumed with making sure we get everything we can out of this world? Can we see God humbling the rich and raising up the poor, or are we too consumed with political power and cultural relevance that we miss the kingdom in front of us? How are words, actions, and deeds giving witness to the work of God?
This Advent season has been about a time of focus, but, as well, about seeing the deep upon the deep that lives within these characters. We end with Mary, because in this season we find ourselves in we need to be reminded that it is the heart of a servant who truly magnifies the very nature of God in the depths of their soul.
May we, like Mary, give voice to what God is doing in the world, by giving focus to God and God alone. May we, like Mary, rejoice in the Lord’s redeeming and world-changing work. May we, like Mary, respond with the heart of a servant and go where God is leading us, without negativity, but with a heart of joy.