The story of how Mary became Jesus’ mother is difficult. It’s crammed full of miracles that we find hard to believe in, and angelic figures, who might be even worse, and, to top it all off, it is layered over with hundreds of years of religious art and saccharine Christmas cards and frankly sexist attitudes towards women. The story manages to be both so familiar that we can’t hear it for what it is, and simultaneously even more alien than John the Baptizer in the Judean scrub dressed up like a caveman.
But Mary is important for salvation history, and an interesting character in her own right. So where do we find the good news for us in this passage? Is it just a pretty story, or is there something gritty and real – and even redemptive going on here? What does it mean that Mary said “yes” to God?
We don’t know where Mary was, or what she was doing as the story opens. Was she praying? Gardening? Weaving? Daydreaming about marrying Joseph? Hiding from Saint Anne, her mother, to avoid household chores?
Suddenly, Gabriel is with her.
He has come to bring the “yes” of God. As the scene begins, God says “yes” to Mary.
In our art, Gabriel is always beautiful – a graceful, ethereal figure, generally with wings. We’ve got a bit of a sentimental idea about angels – we tend to envisage them as unthreatening, or even cute figures. A long way from the terrifying apparition whose name means something like “the Lord is my strength.”
Our domesticated angels go with our domesticated God. God is so awe-inspiring, which is to say so terrifying that even Moses, the friend of God, can only see God’s back, because if he sees God’s face he will surely die. If you’ve ever looked up at the night sky and shuddered with an awareness of its unfathomable immensity, then you’ve had a glimpse of the awesome majesty of God.
To be visited by God – it’s no small matter.
The angel Gabriel greets her: hail, highly favoured one! The Lord is with you!
Understandably, she is both amazed and puzzled.
Highly favoured? That sounds like a princess in a royal palace, not the daughter of no-one of note, living in a boring rural village. The point isn’t that she is somehow in poverty and despair – rather, that she is not particularly important. She is ordinary. She could be any of us. That’s the starting point of understanding Mary. Before her statue stood in tens of thousands of churches all over the world, before her portrait was painted in beautiful renaissance colours, before she showed up in Christmas carols, she was an ordinary human woman.
Then Gabriel, like all good messengers from God, continues with arguably the most important bit first: Do not be afraid.
It’s a good point in itself. “Do not be afraid” has a good case to be one of the main things God has to say to us. The world is beautiful and terrifying, full of wonderful and deadly things. And so God says to us: do not be afraid.
In Mary’s case, it’s particularly relevant because God is about to ask her to do something very, very frightening and particularly difficult.
Specifically: you are going to conceive a child, who is going to bear a child, who will be the new David, who will be known as the Son of the Most High.
This is a lot to take in.
Mary, however, sticks to the practical issues. She, understandably, responds: “how can this be, for I am a virgin?”
This is a famous sticking point for a lot of people, so let’s look at it very briefly. Could Mary really have a child while still a virgin? I have to say that my first impulse is to say: why not? Perhaps as a result of the time I spent in the world of IVF, as far as I’m concerned children born without anyone having sex – without the parents even meeting each other – is not especially hard to wrap my head around.
But, of course, Mary’s is a pre-modern world. If it happened, it wasn’t IVF: it was a miracle. It’s not the only one we are asked to believe – the resurrection is central, and compared to that, virgin birth doesn’t seem like such a big ask.
Perhaps the best thing to do with this miracle, if you can’t bring yourself to believe in it, is to put questions about its literal truth aside for the moment. The point of miracles is that they are signs from God. And the purpose of signs is to point to something.
Specifically, the purpose of miracles is to point to God, and to God’s ongoing work in the world.
It’s the meaning of Mary’s virginity, rather than technicalities about her sex life, that is the primary point here.
So then: what is the point of Mary being a virgin?
Here’s one reading: in Mary’s context to be a virgin means that she isn’t married. It means that she has not yet cast in her lot with someone else. She has not yet committed her life to a particular path, so she is available to say “yes” to God.
Mary is someone who can say yes to God. But will she?
It’s a risky path. The ancient world was, to put it mildly, not sympathetic to unwed mothers. Even now, there are circumstances where there is a certain stigma attached to being a single mother. But with the improved status of women, easy access to birth control, no-fault divorce, and the welfare state, it’s a much easier path than it would have been for someone in the ancient world.
The worst case scenario is that Joseph could have had her stoned to death for adultery.
We know, from the story, that he was “minded to put her away quietly”, because he was a good man. But even that would have been a punishingly hard scenario – shunned by her family, without wealth to support her, cast out from village society – what on earth would she do?
What would have happened had Mary said “no”? Would God have had to find someone else? Would God have gone ahead anyway? What would it have been like for Jesus to be brought up by someone who resented him, someone who really wasn’t ready for what God wanted from her – for what God, now dependent child, needed from her? It would have been… different, to say the least.
The final thing I want to draw your attention to is that when Mary puts up her objection, she is acting precisely as prophets act in Scripture. Think of when Moses was called by God: he pointed out what a terrible public speaker he was, and wouldn’t his brother in law Aaron be a better choice? When God appeared to Isaiah in his vision in the temple, Isaiah was reluctant to be involved. Samuel assumed the voice calling in the night was for Eli.
Mary said “yes.”
Yes, to the risky, terrifying, impossible thing that God had asked her to do. Joseph didn’t divorce her, but they got married, and they brought the child Jesus up, and played a vital part in God’s salvation plan.
That was then. This is, obviously, now. We don’t live in an age of angels and miraculous births. We live in secular, practical, pragmatic Australia. The story of Mary seems strange and distant to us.
But we, too, live in a world where the presence of God seems like an impossibility. Mary was a virgin, her cousin Elizabeth was old – yet nothing shall be impossible with God.
We feel the impossibility keenly. Church attendance seems to keep on dropping. The world seems less and less interested in the truth about God and us. This whole horrible year has made a difficult situation even harder, taking fragile things and destroying them. We might feel a bit more like Elizabeth than like Mary – a bit past it, rather than poised on the beginning of things.
But here we are, called by God. Called by God to be his church in this place, with our unique set of strengths and weaknesses, our particular gifts and graces.
God comes to us, God sends her messengers to us, to ask: are you ready? Are we ready to see what God wants to bring to birth in us? Like Mary’s call, it will probably be risky, with no guarantees of an easy life. Are we ready to say “yes” to God?
Mary wasn’t someone powerful or famous. She simply responded in faith and trust to what God asked of her. Her “yes” was not made up of long speeches or strategic plans, but lived out in embedded faithfulness in the mundanity of her life. She was committed to a long road, a road with some very painful experiences, but a road in which God was faithful to her.
Mary said “yes” to God. And God said “yes” to Mary.
As this year draws to its close, we ask ourselves once more: what must we do to be faithful to the God who is faithful to us, the God who is at work in the world even here in suburban Melbourne?
How do we say “yes” to the God who says “yes” to us?
 Exodus 33:20
 I’m not sure whether it makes philosophical sense to ask “what if” questions of God – if God is “absolute act”, which is to say God is outside of time, then I don’t think it makes sense to say that God “might have” done something. God only does. At least, that’s how I attempt to understand it.