You may have heard: Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is “feminism,” which means that “feminism” was the most looked-up word at merriamwebster.com this past year.
According to Merriam-Webster, people started looking up “feminism” in January, after the women’s march. People looked up “feminism” in February after Kellyanne Conway said she didn’t consider herself a feminist, because feminism seems to be anti-male and pro-abortion. (Feminism isn’t necessarily either of those things, but that’s what she said.) People looked up “feminism” over the summer, after watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” on TV and “Wonder Woman” in theaters. And people looked up “feminism” in the fall, after the “#metoo” movement gained traction, when women began sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault.
Back in the time of Mary, the mother of Jesus, feminism wasn’t really a thing. The idea that males and females are equal - which is what feminism is - was not present.
In the first century, women were not considered equal to men. Women belonged in the background. In the shadows. Where they were neither seen nor heard. All public communication involving a woman took place through her husband. She herself was not heard… Remember in the Disney movie, when Mulan complains that her father is too old to fight, and Chi Fu says “You would do well to teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence…” ?
That’s what it was like.
In public, women’s voices were silent.
Yet, in the Gospel of John, Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well, and he - get this - started a conversation with her.
Not surprisingly, she was taken aback.
She said: “How is it that you, a Jewish man, are speaking to me, a Samaritan woman?”
Eventually she realized that he was a holy man... But when the disciples showed up, the scripture says they were “shocked” that Jesus was speaking with a woman.
Women - at least in the presence of men - were expected to keep silent.
The Gospel of John never gives the woman at the well a name. By contrast, the apostle Paul named many women in his letters; he recognized their leadership roles in the early church; and he even addressed them directly; not through their husbands.
Paul, you could say, was a feminist.
I know: you don’t think of Paul this way. Didn’t Paul write that women were to keep silent?
No. He didn’t. Not all the epistles that bear Paul’s name were actually written by Paul. Other writers wrote in Paul’s name. This was an accepted practice in those days. They wrote in Paul’s name, because they were putting Paul’s thoughts to paper...but they just couldn’t bring themselves to accept Paul’s radical ideas about women.
It is thought that Luke was a companion to Paul, so it’s no surprise that in Luke’s gospel, women are named, and their leadership is recognized. It’s no surprise that, in Luke, we learn so much about Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Our scripture today tells us that an angel of the Lord named Gabriel came to Mary. However, it’s not clear that Mary recognized him as an angel.
Angels seem very recognizable to us; they dress in all white and have wings and halos and carry harps.
But Gabriel, for some reason, often got mistaken for a normal human.
When Gabriel appeared to Daniel, Daniel did not realize that he was an angel. Daniel said that he “looked like a man.”
When Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, Muhammad did not realize that he was an angel. According to Islamic tradition, it was Muhammad’s wife’s cousin - a Christian priest - who convinced Muhammad that Gabriel was actually an angel, calling Muhammad to be a prophet.
So it’s very likely that Mary did not, at first, recognize Gabriel as an angel. He appeared to her as a normal man; and he said to her: “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!”...
But Mary’s response to these words was confusion. She was perplexed. She wondered:
Who is this strange man?
Why is he speaking directly to me?
What does he mean by “favored one?”
When a strange, unknown man calls you “favored one...” you might be a little skeptical and suspicious, especially if you are a woman in the first century...
And Mary pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
It’s possible - quite likely, even - that Mary had received from men too many “blessings,” too many unwanted “favors...”
You know what I’m talking about, because it’s been in the news so much these past few months. In our own time, too many women have received too many unwanted, unsolicited “blessings” and “favors” from men. And as a result, too many women have felt intimidation, shame, and fear because of it. So they have held onto their shame in secret. They have kept their voices silent.
Was this man who appeared to Mary just another one of them, intent on using his status to intimidate, harass, and possibly assault her?
But Gabriel said to her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Well. OK! That was different. Not exactly the words of a man who uses his power to harass women.
But Mary still wasn’t completely convinced.
She said to the Gabriel, “How can this be?”
Then Gabriel explained it to her, and he mentioned that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, was also pregnant.
Well, how could any normal human know that? Perhaps this was no ordinary man, but a heavenly being, a messenger from God, and perhaps what he was saying was true.
It is then that Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
Now, Mary believed, but at the same time, she still had some doubt. Wouldn’t you?
So she journeyed to her cousin Elizabeth to see for herself that Elizabeth was, in fact, pregnant, which confirmed that Gabriel told the truth…
Mary is tough and scrappy. I’ve also heard her described as raw, wild, and courageous. She challenged the angel’s words until she knew they were true, until she knew that he was who he said he was.
And then, once she visited her cousin Elizabeth, once everything was confirmed, then, she spoke out. She broke the silence. She became a silence breaker.
And even though it was a time when women’s voices were silenced, Luke, astonishingly, recorded her words.
Mary said, “With all my heart, I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
This is not the poem or song of a meek, mild, docile woman! It is the poem of a silence breaker. The words she proclaimed are nothing short of revolutionary.
In her poem, Mary announced that the unjust structures that have fashioned her and her people into a lower state of existence were being reversed. In her poem, she praised the God of the Israelites who had freed her people from the slavery of Egypt and Babylon.
Freedom. Liberation. Revolution.
In her poem, as Rachel Held Evans points out, Mary declares that “God has made a home among the very people that the world has cast aside.”
Spiritual activist and writer Ryan Kuja points out that over the centuries, Mary’s words have been seen as a threat to dictators, power brokers, and autocrats. These words have been banned by authoritarian governments throughout history; governments which tried to silence her.
They were banned from being read or sung in India during the British colonial administration; banned in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980’s; banned in Argentina during the Dirty War years, when the mothers of disappeared children put Mary’s song on public display and in response, the government forbade the words in public places.
Why do most of us not notice how shocking, how revolutionary, Mary’s words are? Why have generations of church leaders tried so often to silence her song?
We know the answer to that. Mary’s words have been banned and silenced because the church has been led mostly by men through the centuries, men who have tried to align the church with the powers and authorities of the world.
Church leaders throughout Christian history have chosen power over piety. They have sought power for themselves, yet Mary’s song talks about the powerful being pulled down from their thrones.
Mary is a threat to that, so the church ignored her words and re-imagined her as mild, meek, docile, and obedient - the perfect woman, as far as they were concerned. They presented her this way to the world, even though it’s the exact opposite of Mary as she is described by scripture.
And certainly today, there are still far too many leaders in the church who seek to align themselves with the powers and authorities and rulers of this world. There are still far too many leaders in the church who twist and distort what the Bible says about the poor, about scattering those with powerful thoughts and proud inclinations, about pulling down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.
That message, which is at the core of the gospel, is a threat to their desire for power, so they twist the gospel’s message into something else.
Which is why, this year, we need to pay special attention to Mary. We need to pay attention to Mary in a way we’ve never paid attention to her before.
Mary is a silence breaker. Mary breaks the silence that has been forced upon her by men. Forced upon her by society. Forced upon her by religion. Forced upon her by government. Forced upon her by centuries of theological malpractice committed by those who seek to twist the gospel into something that supports their own selfish desire for power.
Yet even after all these efforts to silence her, Mary cannot be kept silent. She is strong. She is in control of her own life. She demonstrates that she doesn’t have to accept unwanted “favors” from men in order to receive blessing.
This is not what we were told about Mary. But go back and read the scripture closely, and see for yourself.
In a world where women had no control over their bodies and no control over their lives… Mary took control.
In a world where women were supposed to be meek and mild, Mary was strong and bold.
In a world where women were silent… Mary wasn’t.
And so it’s no surprise that the child she would give birth to, the child she would nurse, the child she would raise into a man… would himself follow God’s call to challenge the social order which favors the powerful, and that he would proclaim a new world in which the first become last and the last become first, a new world in which the powerful are brought down and the weak are made strong, a new world in which the blind see and the deaf hear. A new world in which everything is changed.