Woman on the Edge
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Isaiah 7:14; 9:2–7
Imagine a woman in the ancient world who all her life longed to have children. She married young, maybe around the age of fifteen. At sixteen, still no pregnancy. At twenty, still no pregnancy. At twenty-five, imagine how she prayed. By thirty, imagine her anxiety as her prayers were mixed with tears of shame and disappointment – for herself, for her husband. At forty, imagine hope slipping away as she wondered if it even made sense to pray any more. Imagine her sense of loss and regret at fifty. Why pray now?
Of course, this was the story of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, back in the book of Genesis. That ancient story was echoed in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us of a woman named Elizabeth who was married to a priest named Zechariah. They prayed for a child, but none came, year after year. One day as Zechariah was doing his priestly duties, he had a vision of an angelic messenger from God. Zechariah’s prayers for a son would be answered, the messenger said. When Elizabeth gave birth, they should name their child John. Zechariah found this impossible to believe. ‘I’m an old man,’ he said, ‘and Elizabeth is past her prime as well!’ The messenger told him that because of his scepticism, he would not be able to speak until the promised baby was born.
In a way, the stories of Sarah and Elizabeth are a picture of the experience of the Jewish people. The prophets had inspired them to dream of a better day. Their prophecies echoed the first promise to Abraham: that everyone everywhere would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. But those promises and prophecies had been delayed and frustrated and delayed again, until it seemed ridiculous to keep the dream alive.
All of us experience this sense of frustration, disappointment, impatience and despair at times. We all feel that we have the capacity to give birth to something beautiful and good and needed and wonderful in the world. But our potential goes unfulfilled, or our promising hopes miscarry. So we live on one side and then on the other of the border of despair.
And then the impossible happens.
Elizabeth had a young relative named Mary. Mary was engaged but not yet married. Significantly, she was a descendant of King David, whose memory inspired the hope of a David-like king who would bring the better days long hoped for among her people. When Elizabeth was about six months pregnant, an angelic messenger – the same one who appeared to Zechariah, it turns out – now appeared to Mary. ‘Greetings, favoured one!’ he said. ‘The Lord is with you!’ Mary felt, as any of us would, amazed and confused by this greeting.
The messenger said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary. You will conceive and bear a son . . .’ And the messenger’s words echoed the promises of the prophets from centuries past – promises of a leader who would bring the people into the promised time. Mary asked, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel replied that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, so the child would be conceived by the power of God. And he added that Elizabeth, her old and barren relative, was also pregnant. ‘Nothing will be impossible with God,’ he said.
Many of us today will suspect that Luke made up this story about Mary to echo Isaiah’s prophecy about a son being born to a virgin, just as he invented the story of Elizabeth conceiving in old age to echo the story of Sarah. It’s tempting to quickly assign both stories to the category of primitive, pre-scientific legend and be done with them. After all, both stories are, to scientific minds, simply impossible.
But what if that’s the point? What if their purpose is to challenge us to blur the line between what we think is possible and what we think is impossible? Could we ever come to a time when swords would be beaten into ploughshares? When the predatory people in power – the lions – would lie down in peace with the vulnerable and the poor – the lambs? When God’s justice would flow like a river – to the lowest and most ‘Godforsaken’ places on Earth? When the broken-hearted would be comforted and the poor would receive good news? If you think, Never – it’s impossible, then maybe you need to think again. Maybe it’s not too late for something beautiful to be born. Maybe it’s not too soon, either. Maybe the present moment is pregnant with possibilities we can’t see or even imagine.
In this light, the actual point of these pregnancy stories – however we interpret their factual status – is a challenge to us all: to dare to hope, like Elizabeth and Mary, that the seemingly impossible is possible. They challenge us to align our lives around the ‘impossible possibilities’ hidden in this present, pregnant moment.
The image of a virgin birth has other meanings as well. The leaders of ancient empires typically presented themselves as divine-human hybrids with superpowers. Pharaohs and Caesars were ‘sons of gods’. In them, the violent power of the gods was fused with the violent power of humans to create superhuman superviolence – which allowed them to create superpower nations. But here is God gently inviting – not coercing – a young woman to produce a child who will be known not for his violence but for his kindness. This is a different kind of leader entirely – one who doesn’t rule with the masculine power of swords and spears, but with a mother’s sense of justice and compassion.
In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered ‘the weaker sex’ that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying: God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant . . . scattered the proud . . . brought down the powerful . . . lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:48, 51, 52, 53)
So Mary presents herself to the Holy Spirit to receive and co-operate with God’s creative power. She surrenders and receives, she nurtures and gives her all . . . because she dares to believe the impossible is possible. Her son Jesus will consistently model her self-surrender and receptivity to God, and he will consistently prefer the insightful kindness of motherhood to the violent blindness of statehood.
That’s what it means to be alive in the adventure of Jesus. We present ourselves to God – our bodies, our stories, our futures, our possibilities, even our limitations. ‘Here I am,’ we say with Mary, ‘the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me according to your will.’
So in this Advent season – this season of awaiting and pondering the coming of God in Christ – let us light a candle for Mary. And let us, in our own hearts, dare to believe the impossible by surrendering ourselves to God, courageously co-operating with God’s creative, pregnant power – in us, for us and through us.
If we do, then we, like Mary, will become pregnant with holy aliveness.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a woman in your life who had a powerful influence.
3. How do you respond to these reflections on the meaning of the virgin birth?
4. For children: Tell us about a time you were surprised in a good and happy way.
5. Activate: Start each day this week putting Mary’s prayer of commitment and surrender, ‘Let it be to me according to your will’, into your own words. Let this be a week of presenting your life to God so that ‘holy aliveness’ grows in you.
6. Meditate: After lighting a candle, hold the words ‘Here I am, the Lord’s servant’ in your heart for a few minutes in silence. Try to return to those words many times in the week ahead.