May 31st is the day the Church commemorates “The Visitation” the story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth as it is recorded in the Gospel According to Luke 1:39-56. Since reading Jane Schalberg’s “The Illegitimacy of Jesus”, I can’t help but wonder if Mary’s visited her cousin Elizabeth or escaped to her cousin Elizabeth seeking protection for the crime of being raped in a culture that all too often blamed the victim. Historians estimate that Mary may have been all of twelve years old when she became pregnant. There is ample evidence in the New Testament accounts of Mary’s story that suggest that she may indeed have been raped. So rather than sweep the possibility under the rug, on this the Feast of the Visitation, I’m reposting a sermon I preached a few years ago during Advent. I do so because women young and old continue to be raped and to this day, are forced to flee from the accusations and persecutions of cultures that continue to blame the victim. What follows is a written approximation of the sermon which in addition to Jane Schalberg is also indebted to John Shelby Spong’s “Born of a Woman” and “Jesus for the Non Religious” along with John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg’s “The First Christmas”.
Sadly, one doesn’t have to travel too far into the past to arrive at the time when women’s voices were not heard. Indeed, in the Lutheran church, it was only a few short decades ago. For most of us that time is within our own lifetime. For generations, men have told our sacred stories. Men have decided which stories made it into the canon of Sacred Scriptures. Men have interpreted the stories that were allowed to be told. Men have translated, taught, and commented upon those stories from pulpits, in universities, in seminaries, in commentaries and in the public square.
Today, as more and more women take on the tasks of translating, interpreting, writing, teaching, preaching and imagining the texture of our sacred stories are changing in ways that our mothers and grandmothers may not have been able to imagine. This morning, I’d like to ask you to imagine with me a radical re-telling of the birth narratives; a re-telling based on the New Testament and the hidden gospels of the apocrypha; a retelling based on good sound historical scholarship; a retelling grounded in the ways of the world; a retelling by women; religious women, scholarly women, women trained in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, theology, doctrine, and the ways of the world.
Our story begins thousands of years ago in the occupied territories of Palestine were being a woman was a very dangerous and even death defying occupation. It is the story of a young girl; who couldn’t have been more than about 12 or 13, who fell pregnant. Notice the verb, it is chosen deliberately. The heroine of our sacred story is a young girl, a child, who fell pregnant. A dangerous and fall one for which the penalty was clear, for there was no ambiguity in the law, such fallen women were subject to stoning; stoning unto death.
But before I tell you this story, let me tell you another story. It’s the story of a woman who made it into the sacred halls of academia. She was a daughter of the Roman Catholic Church who against all odds managed to earn a PHD and teaches at a Roman Catholic University in Detroit. In 1987, when she dared to publish her scholarly account of our fallen heroine, she faced the wrath of the men in academia, who poo pooed her work and discounted her evidence without so much as a by your leave. This much she had expected, what she didn’t expect was the violence or the strange characters who showed up at her lectures hurling more than verbal insults; and she certainly didn’t expect to wake up in the middle of the night to find her car burning out in her driveway. The police told her to keep a low profile. She did for a while, but then people outside the academy picked up her book and the odd reporter quoted her theories and that’s when the death treats got really serious. You may not have heard of this obscure New Testament Scholar, but Jane Schaberg is a hero to many female biblical scholars, for daring to speculate on exactly how a young girl may have fallen pregnant 2000 years ago.
You see then like now, rape was not just a random crime committed by isolated individual men. Then like now, rape was a military tactic designed to terrorize an occupied population. Jane Schaberg uncovered, what many believe to be a deep dark family secret about a young woman, a child who fell pregnant a long time ago and fled for her life. She wasn’t the first to talk about it. There were men in the past that had dared to speculate about it and felt the wrath of the institution.
Some say the evidence is clear, if you’re willing to see it. After all there was a large cohort of Roman soldiers encamped near Nazareth. The people of Nazareth had participated in an uprising against their oppressors and the Roman’s had raided Nazareth in retaliation. There are numerous Jewish accounts of Roman raids that include details of strategic rapes. Could our young heroine be the victim of such a rape?
There are New Testament scholars who ask you to simply consider the New Testament story of Jesus’ audacious first sermon in Nazareth. What could have made the good people of Nazareth so angry that they wanted to kill Jesus? Nazarenes were accustomed to listening to itinerate preachers make all sorts of outlandish claims. But this Jesus was a mamzer Jewish texts written within 500 years of his birth attest to it. Historians do not even dare to translate mamzer for fear of reprisals. I won’t translate it for you now, not out of fear but rather because there are children present. I’ll let you guess the English term we used to use to describe a child born without benefit of wedlock a term that is now used to describe many a man. Could Jesus’ neighbours have been offended that this mamzer had dared to occupy their pulpit?
Deuteronomy 23 is clear, “A mamzerim shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” The writer of the Gospel of Matthew alluded to Jesus status as a mamzer in his very first chapter. The writer traced Jesus lineage back through four women who could be described as fallen women. These four women by the standard of the day in which this story was told, these four women were sexually tainted women, “shady ladies” a couple seductress a couple of prostitutes and an adulterer. These women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, were all under the shadow of scandalous sexual activity and the inclusion of these women in Jesus genealogy should alert us that we should expect another women who becomes a social misfit by being wronged.
But if imagining Jesus as a mamzer is offensive to you, set it that aside for a moment and let’s look at the Gospel according to Luke and try to see past our rose coloured glasses. The Gospel of Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary. Over the years generations of listeners and readers have taken the author’s depiction of Mary and created an image of Mary that is larger than life.
The popular image of Mary paints her as the ideal woman, the ideal woman that none of us could ever live up to. The image of Mary is that of both virgin and mother, meek and mild, obedient and perfect. She is impossible as a role model of course and totally unreal.
In order to see Jesus we have to move beyond the popular image and look at what the author of Luke actually wrote about Mary. It’s in the words of the Magnificat that the author reveals the revolutionary Mary. The Magnificat is the song Mary sings when she meets Elizabeth. When read in its original Greek it is clear that Mary bursts into song. The text of the song is a revolutionary text full of historical meaning that would have been clear to it’s first century listeners, but the radical nature of this song has been lost as successive generations have set it to music and prettied it up as best they can. But in the first century Mary was a revolutionary figure. The author of the gospel of Luke, does not intend her to be “mother Mary meek and mild.” The references, with which the author and his audience would be familiar, are to heroines of Israel, to revolution and to war.
The song of the Magnificat is written in the style of two other songs from the Scriptures that would have been so familiar to the gospel writer’s audiences. Elizabeth addresses Mary as “Blessed…among women.” This was not a normal greeting. There are only two other texts in the Scriptures where this phrase is used. In the Book of Judges, Deborah, who was herself a prophetess and a judge of Israel sings, “Blessed among women be Jael”. And Deborah’s song goes on to tell us who Jael was and what she did. “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked for water and she gave him milk she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workman’s’ mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. He sank, he fell, he lay still at her feet; at her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell dead.” Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army. Deborah the ruler of Israel promised her general Barak, that Sisera would be delivered into his hands. So, Barak summoned up his troops and went into battle. As the Israelites seemed to be winning Sisera fled to the camp of his ally Heber the Kenite—who was married to Jael. Jael invites Sesera into her tent, offers him hospitality, and after a meal of milk and curds he falls asleep. While Sesera the enemy of the Israelites lies sleeping, Jael bashes a tent peg through his skull. And for this Jael is heralded as a great heroine of the people as Deborah sings her praises calling her blessed among women.
The second woman in the Scriptures who is hailed as blessed is Judith. Judith is also a heroine of Israel. Her story takes place as the Assyrians are laying siege to the town of Bethulia, where the Israelites have almost run out of water. Judith leaves the city, allows herself to be captured by they Assyrians and taken to their leader Holofernes. Judith pretends to be fleeing from the Hebrews and offers to betray them to Holofernes. Holofernes welcomes Judith and offers her hospitality.
Judith then seduces Holofernes. After taking him to bed, while he is sleeping, Judith chops off his head with his own sword. She tucks his severed head in her food bag, escapes and returns to the Israelites. When she returns Uzziah, one of the elders greets her with the words, “O daughter, your are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth.” Later at a party giving to celebrate her victory, Judith sings a song to God in which God’s support for the oppressed is proclaimed, just as Mary proclaims that the rich and mighty will be brought down.
The author of Luke makes other references in his narrative, which would have been equally clear to his first century audiences. Starting with that angel who appears to Mary. Read Judges 13 for a similar story of an angel appearing to a woman and declaring that she will conceive and bear a son. There you will find the story of Manoah ‘s wife and the miraculous conception that led to Samson’s birth.
Today the angel Gabriel is usually portrayed as a white effeminate male in a flowing white gown. But this depiction is not one that would have been recognized as Gabriel in the first century. Back then Gabriel was understood to be the angel of war and he was associated with metal and metal workers. The mere mention of Gabriel would have conjured up images of a fierce warrior clothed in amour, ready to do battle on the side of the Israelites.
The name that the warrior angel insists on for Mary’s child is Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew, Joshua. Joshua succeeded Moses, conquered Canaan and established the twelve tribes of Israel in the Promised Land. Joshua was a hero and a warrior. The author of the gospel of Luke makes a deliberate link suggesting to his readers that Jesus will follow in the same mould.
First century audiences would have been very familiar with the parallels being drawn. Mary is being clearly established as a revolutionary heroine, in a nationalistic and violent tradition. And the Magnificat is a song of revolution which proclaims the downfall of the prevailing order. The Magnificat is a rallying cry to overturn the established order of wealth; a tune intended to rouse the troops.
The author of the Gospel of Luke knew exactly the kind of Messiah the people are waiting for. Two thousand years ago in the dusty streets of Jerusalem, revolutionary ideas passed from house to house. The bitterness of Roman bondage had robbed the Jewish people of their ideals but not their Messianic hope. Jewish eyes continued to peer through the darkness imploring hands were still lifted towards heaven and the plaintive cry of Israelites begged the question: “When will the dark night be over?” In their despair, the idea of revolution was born. It was linked to the coming Messiah; the promised Saviour whom they were counting on to free them from oppression; the longed for a Saviour to lead Israel to freedom. That was the kind of Messiah the Jews living in the first century wanted.
The author of the gospel of Luke knows his audience well and he plays to their expectation of a Messiah who will lead them in battle; a military hero. The author presents Mary as a woman, who has a vision of what God will do. Mary’s song is the song of a heroine of Israel, for blessed is she among women. Mary’s song echoes the words of the Hebrew Scriptures: “My soul magnifies the Most High, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, who has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant: Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who revere God from generation to generation. God has shown strength with God’s arm, and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants forever.”
Mary’s song takes on new meaning when heard within the context of violence and rape. Mary’s song takes on new meaning in our world where rape continues to be a military tactic. Let me give you the figures according to a report by the United Nations dated this past June. In Rwanda more than 500,000 women were raped during the genocide that ravaged that country. In Sierra Leon 64,000 women were raped as part of an attempt to impregnate women in order to shift the racial makeup of that war torn nation. 40,000 military rapes were reported in Bosnia Herzegovina. In the first six months of this year 4500 rapes were documented in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UN estimates that every day 100 women are raped in Darfor. This past summer the government of South Africa released statistics that reported that 28% of South African men polled admitted to having committed rape in the past year, many of these men admitted to having raped more than one woman.
I need not tell you that the fate of women who are raped is one of shame and isolation, more often than not disease. Indeed in some places in Africa rape ends in death. The children of rape are stigmatized, abandoned and in some cases left to die. The world remains a cruel place for the mamzerim.
The church has told the story of Mary in it’s own particular way for centuries, holding up the image of unattainable femininity to women and men; an image that offers as an example of the perfect woman as both virgin and mother. That image may have suited the purposes of an institution that had a vested interest in having women behave in a certain way, but the time has come to tell Mary’s story differently. For in a world were over half the population is oppressed by attitudes that kill, maim, terrorize, oppress and enslave in poverty, isn’t it time we heard the story of a God who can do great things against all the odds. Isn’t it time to hear the story of God told in ways that liberate, empower those who have been most afflicted. Isn’t it time to hear Mary’s story told in ways that proclaim God’s plan for justice in a world obsessed with violence?
We can re-inscribe the image of Mary as the passive handmaiden of the Lord or we can tell the story of Mary a victim of abuse who with steely grit, courage and support struggles to raise her son not as a mamzer but as a child of God. The choice of how we read and tell Mary’s story will affect how we read the whole Christian story, and how we understand sin, sex, holiness, and redemption. But, perhaps more importantly, the way we tell this story will impact the reception women receive who continue to flee from their abusers.