4 Advent B – 21 December 2014 – Mary’s Challenge
Works of art in the Western world depict the Virgin Mary in different ways. In early Christian art Mary is a queen surrounded by angels and heavenly stars. During the Renaissance she looks more motherly, often nursing her son Jesus. After the Protestant and Catholic Reformations Mary was portrayed as the powerful mother of God who intercedes for us.
In most of these sculptures or paintings Mary does not look us straight in the eye. Rather, her eyes are cast down or focussed upon her son. The Catholic religion claims her as a symbol of purity, humility and submissiveness. 
Today we heard a familiar narrative about Mary, one that is probably the most rendered in the art world — the Annunciation. This very young woman is caught in a dilemma that all too often may be experienced by women today — being asked to do something Mary believed in her heart was not right.
The angel Gabriel (the name literally means “divine husband”) tells Mary she will give birth to the messiah. She is confused and ashamed. This teenager has not had sex and argues there must be some mistake. This awkward situation also will embarrass her family and Joseph to whom she is betrothed but not yet married.
This biblical text, written by the evangelist Luke, about a hero born of a virgin, is similar to the births of other heroes found in Greek mythologies.  Our story continues. Sensing that she was losing the argument to a messenger from God Mary acquiesces and submits. According to the customs of her time women had little to say about matters that pertained to their lives.
During this festive season when our our dreams are full of Victorian images of Christmas, what can we make of this story? After all the whole Christmas event hinges on Mary’s response. What if she said “no?” But, she didn’t. Something happened that convinced her to say “yes.” Was it the grace of God? Was it the promise that her child would do great things?
Much of what we know about Mary has been prescribed by patriarchal authorities. Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, “In modern Catholicism to call women to become Mary-like has been a call to repressive purity and submissiveness that hardly any woman could actually achieve.” 
This image of a submissive Mary is grounded in Greco-Roman culture and has been sustained for centuries by our acts of devotion and piety. However, there are other examples that portray quite a different Mary.
In her Magnificat she thanks God for lifting up her lowliness and doing great things for her. She was a liberator, an advocate for powerless people and a protestor who sought to bring down incorrigible and imperialistic leaders. She sings of promoting the insecure and dispensing justice far and near.  There are reasons for us to focus on these other attributes of Mary.
Current events will not let us forget that women are still considered unequal to men regardless of the rhetoric. Whether in boardrooms or bedrooms, supermarkets or religious sanctuaries, college campuses or military bases, young girls and women have to prove themselves in ways that boys and men do not. But, this Annunciation story is not for women only.
Contemporary images of Mary make her less statuesque, less romantic and more like a spouse, a mother, a sister, a friend. These new images look us straight in the eyes inviting us to let the spirit prevail in our lives as it did in hers. How that story plays out will be different for each one of us. What is common is having trust in God and in others in the face of uncertainties.
1 Prospero. “Holy Mary, Drenched in Symbolism” in The Economist December 11, 2014
2 Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. (NY: Harper Row) 1983, 1048-9
3 Radford Ruether, Rosemary. “Why Do Men Need the Goddess?” in Lipsett, BD and Trible, P. (Eds) Faith and Feminism: Ecumenical Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2014, 247-248.
4 Winter, Miriam Therese. “My Soul Gives Glory to My God” in The New Century Hymnal (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press) 1995, No. 119