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There is a meme doing the rounds on the internet that points an accusing finger at today’s readings: It’s a joke of sorts, that begins with the headline: “God Steps Down Amid Sexual Assault Allegations” The joke continues: “God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth will be stepping down as Supreme Lord of the Universe amid allegations of sexual assault from Mary, the mother of his son. In a guest column of the Jerusalem Times, Mary detailed God’s grooming tactics, exploitation of power dynamics, and physical coercion that ultimately resulted in the birth of their son, Jesus.”
There is another meme that’s been going around the church for centuries. Listen, I think you may know it: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, (wait for it….) born of the virgin Mary, … The Apostles’ Creed…As a progressive Christian congregation…we no longer recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship… Nor do we recite the Nicene Creed…
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.”
In the Evangelical Lutheran Book of Worship and even in the old green Lutheran Book of Worship, the creeds are what is a “may rubric”. Open up your hymnals to page 104
“The Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed may be spoken” The word “may” indicates that the creeds don’t have to be recited, but that they “may be spoken.” The creeds take us back centuries to a time when various factions in the church couldn’t stop arguing about the nature of Jesus’ humanity. These arguments lead to battles in which hundreds and indeed thousands and thousands of people were killed. Historically, the creeds functioned as a kind of laying down of the law, this is what you shall, no “may” about it this with what you “shall” believe. Most Lutheran churches continue to recite the creeds in worship, even though they are a “may rubric”. So, I wasn’t surprised last week, when I attended an ordination service in which our Bishop Michael presided, that I found myself being asked to recite the words of the Apostles’ creed. Nor was I surprised as the congregation around me dutifully recited the words of the Apostles’ creed, that I couldn’t for the life of me, no matter how much I would like to have simply played ball, I just couldn’t bring myself to say the words of the Apostles’ Creed as an act of worship. There’s just something about Mary that trips me up every time I try to say the words, for I do not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.
Jesus’ mother may have been many things, but I do not believe that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. You see, I’ve been to seminary and I have studied the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament and I know that the very best New Testament scholars in the world teach us that our English translations of the Gospels are based on the anonymous gospel storytellers’ incorrect translation of the Hebrew text found in the book of the Prophet Isaiah’s words “Behold the Lord Himself will give you a sign, a Virgin shall conceive and she shall call his name Immanuel.”
The Hebrew word which some men chose to translate as “virgin” is more accurately translated as “young woman” or “young maiden” There is a Hebrew word for “virgin” but that word for “virgin” does not appear in the Hebrew text. Over the centuries the anonymous gospel storytellers’ inaccurate translation has been repeated so many times that Mary’s virginity is now considered “gospel” — pardon the pun.
Today, as more and more women take on the tasks of translating, interpreting, writing, teaching, preaching and imagining, the texture of our sacred stories is 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 fall, a fall for which the penalty was clear, for there was no ambiguity in the law, such fallen women were subject to stoning; stoning unto death. 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. Mary’s story is the story of a deep dark family secret about a young woman, a child who fell pregnant a long time ago and fled for her life. 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’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 anonymous gospel storyteller that we call 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, some refer to them as seductresses, or prostitutes or adulterers. But I like Jack Spong’s phrase, Jack calls them “shady ladies”; women who live in the shadows. 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 woman 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 the anonymous gospel storyteller we call Luke and try to see past our rose coloured glasses. This story is told 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 anonymous 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 its 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 the 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, you 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 anonymous 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. You can 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 mold. 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. 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 anonymous gospel storyteller, that we call 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 anonymous 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. Mary’s song takes on new meaning in a world where rich and powerful men continue to abuse their power to harass, intimidate, manipulate, abuse, and even assault women and girls.
Names like Harvey Wienstein, Matt Lauar, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Gian Gomeshi, Roy Moore, Dustin Hoffman, and Donald Trump haunt our air-waves with stories that cry out for a heroine like Mary, who’s magnificat speaks to the hopes and dreams of all those who continue to struggle for equality and justice for everyone. Perhaps we in the church would do better to institute the magnificat as a “may rubric” ???
The Nicene and Apostles’ have their place in the history of the church. But the magnificat has its place in the hopes and dreams of not just the church, but in the hopes and dreams of each and every person who has every envisioned a world in which the teachings of Mary’s child Jesus are embraced and embodied so that humanity can live into Mary’s hope-filled dream of life without fear, filled with the LOVE that is God. In the words of Mary. Let it be. Let it be so! Amen.