Any of you who were fortunate enough to watch the performance of our parish children last Sunday evening at the City of Canning Carols by Candlelight – and especially the scene in which Nathan and Kelli (as Joseph and Mary) set out for Bethlehem carrying their donkey – would realise that this is a very fragile story indeed – a story beset with fearful risks and epic journeys undertaken on the whim of an imperial ruler. Journeys, of course, can be undertaken for all sorts of reasons but this one was under compulsion, Kelli with a pillow stuffed under her robe and Nathan set out on a perilous journey through the badlands and the desert roads that lead down from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in the hill country south-east of Jerusalem because the occupation forces have decided on a head-count, presumably in order to ensure they are getting as much tax as they can possibly squeeze from the peasant population. What happens in Bethlehem, of course, subverts the imperial rule in ways that even today are still being worked out – but that is another story, and you will have to be here tomorrow night to hear it.
But it's still Advent, the promises of prophets and angels are still coalescing in the cluster of cells taking vague shape within the uterus of a girl of perhaps 14 or so who has just had a mystifying conversation with an angel. Let's face it, the account of Mary's encounter with the angel Gabriel in Luke's nativity story does rather keep the human details of our Lord's conception shrouded in mystery, whatever it reveals about Mary's equanimity. Translated into the teenspeak of today, learning from the angel (whom at the least we might think of as an archetype of holy insight and intuition) not only that she is pregnant but that the child she is carrying would be the holy messenger of God, Mary says, 'whatever'.
Two renowned Bible scholars, Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, have recently released a new book called, The First Christmas, in which they point out that Luke and Matthew each begin their Gospels with a sort of prelude, the nativity stories in which they introduce the major themes and theological purposes of their accounts of Jesus' life. In Luke's gospel, the nativity story gives us notice that he is interested in emphasising the role of women, the poor and marginalised, and the wild card of the Holy Spirit which like a breath of fresh air blows wherever it will. We do need, of course, to remember that there were no photographers or historians present when Mary had her sassy interview with the scary archangel, and Luke wrote his imaginative account of the conversation perhaps 80 years later, but the gist of it is this: as a girl child in the poorest part of Palestine – and proper Judeans looked down on Galilee not only as a rural backwater but as a suspiciously mixed-race and religiously unorthodox province – Mary was of no account whatsoever. Her only real value – her only real hope of living a secure and happy life – lay in marrying a tekton – the Greek word basically means tradie – maybe a carpenter, or a stone mason, but in any case, even though her betrothed Joseph wasn't a landowner at least he had a means of earning a living. Becoming pregnant without an adequate or convincing explanation means disgrace, goodbye to any sort of marriage prospects, and a lifetime of hand to mouth scratching out a living. The ultimate penalty of stoning for adultery was still on the books, though rarely carried out. Mary, so her inner encounter with the angel of God assures her, has a problem. But she also understands that the new life even then taking form within her is the initiative and holy purpose of God, the one who would incarnate God's character of shalom. So, 'whatever', Mary concludes. 'Whatever God wills for me, I'm up for it'. You see when we look at the story like this, when we focus a bit less on the mystery of the Annunciation or the precise mechanics of how Mary becomes pregnant, and just a bit more on what she does next, we realise that this young woman has courage and fierce resolve. How much of Jesus' own character, and his vision of human life, does he get from his mum?
'Whatever', says Mary – and she sets off on a journey across country. What the story doesn't say – significantly, I think – is what her mum and dad thought about it, or what the presumably peeved Joseph made of it (and peeping into Matthew's version of the story doesn't help us at this point). The ancient Church tradition that Mary had devout and supportive parents named Anna and Joachim is, I suspect, hogwash. My own feeling is that Mary sets out for the hill country of Judea, alone and pregnant, because she has realised that the one person who can really understand and share what she is going through is her aged and equally improbably pregnant relative Elizabeth. And probably because being alone and 14 and pregnant back in Nazareth suddenly isn't much of an option.
So this is the first of Mary's epic journeys, and she sets out not at the dictate of a provincial governor, or because she is tagging along behind a parent or probably equally aged fiancé, but because she is filled with questions and uncertainty and new life – and with joy – and because she has to do what women all through history have had to do in such circumstances, which is to attend to relationships, to share her story with an older woman, and to prepare for the miracle of birth. Mary, in short, is filled with the Holy Spirit, which is the breath of God that swirls around the questions and new possibilities that always accompany our journey into an uncertain future.
Luke has already told us the story of what has been happening for Elizabeth in the meantime, and the readings were set for our daily Eucharist during the week – and it is one of life's little ironies that the official priest Zechariah, to whom the fortunate Elizabeth was married, had lost his voice. Literally, which as any of you who have the fortune to be married to one would understand, is the very worst thing that can happen to a priest. We are told Zechariah didn't quite believe the angel's good news – or perhaps being a man with a responsible position and a reputation to think about he focused more on its negative implications than on the holy joy that was its main theme – but at any rate the irony is that when Mary meets Elizabeth on her well-swept front step after perhaps a four or five day journey on foot, Zechariah is out of sight and out of earshot. This is a day for holy women who understand that God's purposes are known in the small and intimate experiences of missed periods and morning sickness, and the sudden jab of a tiny foot making its demanding presence felt on the inside.
Luke, you see is a feminist – which means that he swims against the tide of his own culture in noticing and celebrating the voices and the all-too-often invisible experiences of women – and as in this liturgical year we read through Luke's Gospel I would invite you to notice how time and time again Luke emphasises women's points of view. It goes beyond gender politics, however, because what Luke is really saying is this: that God's purposes are more often revealed in the dreams and the experiences of those the world thinks of as insignificant, than in the privileged voices of political or economic or – yes, even priestly – authority. If you want to know what God thinks is important, look at the fringes of society, listen for the voices in our community that are generally suppressed and ask yourself – what matters most, from the point of view of somebody who doesn't have enough to eat, or any chance of a decent education, or of an average life expectancy? Those are God's real priorities, and they are supposed to be ours, as well.
Yes, Mary in her song of joy announces the overturning of inequality, the reversal of fortunes where those who are downtrodden are lifted up and those who are rich and powerful get a taste of the daily experience of the two-thirds world. We know, of course, because we are pragmatic realists, we 21st century types, that it is an announcement whose realisation is somewhat delayed. You know the old song? The things that you're li'ble to read in the Bible … Mary's song is the subversive promise of the Incarnation, the claim that God's inbreaking into human history changes everything, sweeps injustice aside and ushers in a new deal where women and men and children can live in shalom – can live in dignity and peace and sufficiency. But it aint happened yet. This type of prophecy needs to be heard afresh by every generation, need us to hear it as the demands of God for our won time, and for us to believe in it as the promise of God, and for us to put it into practice in our own lives and relationships and to work for it in our world, knowing that it is the inevitable goal to which God draws all creation.
Mary is a prophet, and like all prophets we know she will suffer for her clear vision of what God intends for human life. In the meantime she and Elizabeth sustain one another with their common experience of the miracle of pregnancy which of all human experiences perhaps reveals most clearly the wonder of God with us. I like to think that during the following three months – which means Mary stayed up until the time of Elizabeth's delivery – as the two women went about their daily business of cooking and cleaning and making preparations for the birth – comparing notes about the changes in their bodies and perhaps their hopes and dreams for their unborn children – I like to think that the still-silent Zechariah joined in with good grace, listening and learning from the timeless silent wisdom of women and unborn children.
I wonder what his sermons were like, after that?