A few years ago, as the “Me too!” movement was beginning to take shape, I came across a retelling of the Christmas story which continues to resonate with me. Listen to the way Tanner Gilliland, tells Mary of Nazareth’s story:
“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. “I was still just a maiden,” Mary recalled. “I had never been with a man, let alone a deity. Then one day God sent one of his angels to tell me he was going to get me pregnant. This was a huge shock. God is the father of my spirit, so I had never considered that kind of relationship with him. “He tried to flatter me, telling me how favored I was. I was frightened but couldn’t say no. I’ve heard about what God does to people who refuse him. I figured it was safer to just go with it. “Then one night, without any kind of warning or petition for consent, I was overshadowed by the spirit. Nine months later, out came the son of God. You can’t imagine how terrible it is to see everyone celebrating Christmas and not be able to express what really happened.” God, who had been previously unavailable for comment for 2,000 years, issued this statement: “I was a total mess. It’s not easy to micromanage an entire universe with a temper like mine. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. At the time of the incident, approval ratings were at an all-time low and having a son seemed like my only shot at redemption. It was a terrible thing for me to use my position as Sovereign Creator to coerce Mary like that. Henceforth, I relinquish my position as Lord God Almighty, forfeiting all dominions, principalities, and powers associated with that office. My children are hereby free to govern themselves. Let’s hope they do a better job than I did.” God declined to answer reporters’ questions, but a spokeman did say he plans on spending his new found time on his old passion—gardening.”
Tanner Gilliand’s parable of Mary may leave some people tut-tutting about poor taste. But I would challenge you to think carefully about Mary before you begin to sing the praises of Christianity’s nativity parable. Our traditional ways of heralding Mary’s role in the nativity parable are childish at best and at their worst they leave most inhabitants of the 21st century shaking their heads at the hypocrisy of those of us who claim to follow Jesus. I believe that the ridiculous ways in which we portray Mary, make it impossible for people to take the teachings of Jesus seriously. This coupled with our infantile portrayal of the actions of the DIVINE MYSTERY, have more than a little to do with so many followers of Jesus, walking away in droves from Christianity. So, let’s take a long hard look at Mary’s story, so that the DIVINE MYSTERY is not reduced to our wayward, infantile imaginings. I believe that a closer look at Mary’s story might just resurrect ways of understanding Mary which provide signposts to direct us toward following Jesus in ways which will bust the DIVINE MYSTERY out of the prisons of our miss-rememberings.
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. So, let me 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. It is a retelling which begins with the name Miriam, a strong, powerful Hebrew name which has three meanings, beloved, bitter, rebellious. Miriam becomes Mary in English. Our modern images of Mary tend to focus on Mary’s role as the beloved mother of Jesus. So, let us turn our attention to an image of Mary which does not shy away from Mary the bitter rebel.
Our story begins thousands of years ago in the occupied territories of Palestine where 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 wasn’t always just a random crime committed by isolated individual men. Then like now, rape was a power tactic, sometimes employed by the military 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 which 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 as evidence 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 Jesus’ birth attest to it. Historians do not even dare to translate the word “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, 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, were sexually tainted women. These women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, all lived under the shadow of scandalous sexual activity and the inclusion of these women in Jesus’ genealogy is extraordinary. The mere mention of these women would have alerted first century listeners to pay attention. 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.
Luke’s story is told from the perspective of Mary. Over the years generations of listeners and readers have taken the author’s depiction of Mary to inspire generations of miss-rememberings. This popular image of Mary paints her as the ideal woman, the ideal woman that no woman can 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 unbelievable. To see Jesus, we must move beyond the popular image and look at what the gospel-storyteller wrote about the bitter rebel Mary.
It’s in the words of the Magnificat that the gospel reveals the revolutionary Mary. The Magnificat is the text Mary defiantly shouts when she meets Elizabeth. The Magnificat is a revolutionary text full of historical meaning which would have been clear to its first century listeners. But the radical nature of Mary’s shouts has been lost as successive generations have set it to music and prettied it up, robbing Mary of her powerful defiance. The author of the gospel of Luke, does not intend her to be seen as “Mother Mary meek and mild.” Mary’s shouts would have reminded first century listeners, of other heroines of Israel, of revolution and of war. The Magnificat is written in the style of other declarations from strong women in Israel’s history. 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.
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 Judith 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 gospel-storyteller 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. 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. First century audiences would have been very familiar with the parallels being drawn. Mary is 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 and power, military might. A tune intended to rouse the troops and inspire revolution. The gospel-storyteller knew exactly the kind of Messiah the people were waiting for. Two thousand years ago in the dusty streets of Jerusalem, revolutionary ideas passed from house to house. The bitterness of Roman bondage 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. This revolution was linked to the coming Messiah; the promised Saviour they were counting on to free them from oppression; the longed for a Saviour to lead Israel to freedom. No one was looking for a personal messiah to save them from their sins. They were looking for a messiah to liberate their people from oppression, oppression by Romans. The gospel-storyteller 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:
Mary cried, “My soul magnifies the HOLY ONE, and my spirit rejoices in GOD my SAVIOUR, for GOD has looked with favour on the lowliness of GOD’s own womb-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 loving-kindness is for those who fear GOD from generation to generation. GOD has shown the strength of GOD’s own arm; GOD has scattered the arrogant in the intent 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 own child, Israel, a memorial to GOD’s mercy, just as GOD said to our mothers and fathers, to Hagar and Sarah and Abraham, to their descendants forever.”
Mary’s song takes on new meaning when heard within the context of violence and rape. Mary’s child would grow to respond to violence and rape by calling not for more violence, but for justice. Jesus’ way of being LOVE in the world holds the promise of ending endless cycles of violence by delivering justice. Tragically, news of sexual assault charges levied against powerful men continue to haunt us. Women continue to shout out for a heroine like Mary, a rebel whose Magnificat speaks to the hopes and dreams of all those who continue to struggle for equality and justice for everyone.
Mary’s Magnificat speaks to the hopes and dreams of each and every person who has ever 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 which IS DIVINITY. In the words of Mary. Let it be. Let it be so!
Our traditional image of the DIVINE MYSTERY as “GOD the FATHER”, is not fit for the Me Too Age. But the image of Mary as a bitter, rebel, whose Magnificat echoes the cries of untold millions of victims of abuse, speaks volumes, if we only have ears to hear! In light of the charges of sexual assault, “GOD the Father” needs to be relieved of “His” office. For those of us living on a tiny planet swirling around in a Cosmos so vast our minds can’t even begin to comprehend it, “GOD the Father” is not fit for service and needs to be banished to the distant garden of our imaginings, to live out “HIS” days in peace. Mary the beloved, bitter, rebel who dared to demand change, is a heroine whose voice commands our attention!
The DIVINE MYSTERY which we call “GOD” is the ONE in whom ALL that IS IS, the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being, and such a ONE as this deserves more expansive ways to describe its DIVINE ESSENCE. Let us begin with Mary’s Magnificat to imagine new ways of BEING human, new ways of living within the ONE who IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also. Let it be. Let it be so! Amen.
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Thank-you. Your sermons continue to broaden my horizons….