I trained for ordination in Durham and Durham Cathedral is still now probably one of my favorite places in the world. Next to the tomb of the historian of the English church, the Venerable Bede, stands a figure. Next to Bede, one might have thought of the need for grandeur next one of such ecclesiastical greatness, but no. Controversially stands the diminutive stature, the slight frame, the delicate features not quite grown into yet of a teenage girl.
There is a gracefulness and yet awkwardness about her as she stands almost coyly next to the English saint. This is Mary - the shy, unassuming girl edging with some difficulty into womanhood whom you still see coming out of Boots at 4.30pm with her school uniform untucked, who spends hours with her friends trying out the cheap make-up she bought in the bathroom mirror. That said, by Jewish standards, she will have been a woman socially, legally, and religiously.
Secondly, the religious context. Mary as a good Jew, was expecting the Messiah who would redeem God’s chosen people and liberate them from the Roman tyranny. The Messiah would be David’s son - a political tour de force with the heavenly armies at his command. This divine leader would exercise the righteous judgement and wrath of God over people and nations. The expectations of most seem to be that this person would come from ‘above’ as an exalted leader and would certainly not be born fragile and delicate in our midst ‘with us.’
Mary must have wondered about the future and what it would bring after her angelic visit - for the child she was carrying promised the world much, as what the angel said challenged her own hopes for her baby, but the angel’s words also challenged what her faith told her about the nature and action of God. In her discussions with angel, we also learn something fundamental about this adolescent and her radical obedience to the will of God.
The Mary’s we see probably every day are often very self-conscious and extremely image conscious. So if Justin Bieber or some other teen idol had spoken to her today, my guess is Mary would have been terrified, excited, and embarrassed all at once. It is hard to begin to imagine how one feels in the presence of an angel but I suspect that it must be all that multiplied to eternity. Either way, after the initial rush of emotions, most of us would be very perplexed at being called ‘favoured one!’
This ordinary girl some extraordinary news. She has found favour with God. Why should she - she not holy, in fact she may have seen herself as wholly unremarkable, but she is exactly the sort of person that God likes to give status to - where the poor and humble are lifted up and the rich and proud are brought down. Gabriel comes with a commission, literally a co-mission with and from God. She is to bear a son and to name him Jesus which means saviour. It is a a joint mission with God as this child will be given the throne of David by God and his kingdom will last to eternity. This child is the promised redeemer, but He, like Mary, is not the person that people will expect God to use and he will redeem people for God, but not in ways that they will expect.
What is remarkable with this Mary, compared with her peers in today’s world, is that she has not had sex with Joseph or any other man. This she tells quite calmly to the angel. Gabriel reassures Mary that all this will be the work of the Holy Spirit - God’s doing. This is supposed to reassure Mary. How can she be pregnant - even if it is the work of the Holy Spirit? What will people say? What will Joseph say more importantly? This is it - the marriage is over - in Joseph’s eyes, this will be the consequences of sleeping around. She will bring shame on herself and her parents. She will be an outcast. Mary is not the sexually active or even curious teen of today she will somehow just have to come to terms with the social and religious stigma of having a baby outside marriage. Gabriel tells her that this child will be holy and called son of God. So what, who will believe her and how will she cope? The road ahead must have seemed confusing, complicated, even objectionable, but God will see to it Gabriel's says.
Gabriel directs attention to Elizabeth for proof of what he says - by revealing that she is pregnant. If old, barren Elizabeth is already in her 2nd trimester, then certainly God can work with the opposite problem - a young girl who happens to be a virgin - for nothing will be impossible with God. Mary exclaims to Gabriel the ultimate obedience to God - let it be to me according to your word - God’s word which proclaims a vision where the impossible is possible where He looks with favour on the lowliness of his servants and yet does great things for them. He shows strength with his arm; he scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly; he has fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
In Mary the teenager, God takes something very ordinary and does something extraordinary in the miracle of the conception of the Christ child. The truly extraordinary thing though is not what God does, but I believe it is what Mary does - that she hears the Angel’s words, believes, and obeys, despite the concequences of what others will think of her.
We can learn much from Mary. The Orthodox Church call her Theotokos - God Bearer. As we celebrate the fulfilment of gabriel’s words in her, in us today, we have a choice, a co-mission with and from God. Either we can resolve to hear and obey God’s call to bear Christ to others in our whole lives, for as Christians we believe that God made a permanent and lasting difference to the world in this child. We must not shy away from the consequences of being Christian, and God using even us to tell others in our words and actions of His love. Let it be to me according to your word. Or, we can do nothing leaving it all to to others, besides what might others think of me - thank God Mary didn’t. Amen