When you think of Mary do you have a particular image in your head?
Is she young, innocent, demure, quiet, willing, obedient, meek and mild?
When you think of Elizabeth, what do you see? And old woman, beyond her prime, perhaps slow on her feet?
When you think of an unmarried mother; do you shrug to yourself? Do you simply put it down to experience and move on?
In our generation a number of things have happened; well actually many, many things have happened; the world has changed beyond all recognition.
Who would have imagined women choosing to have a baby alone; no man required, just an appointment at a clinic. Who would have thought that women in their sixties could become pregnant by the application of science? It’s preposterous really isn’t it?
Yet. These things are now possible. It’s not a miracle, (though maybe it is?) it’s the progression of scientific research. It means fertility can be extended and the natural order disrupted.
The Victorians have a lots to answer for – the images of sweet innocent child mother Mary; the perpetuation of the demure young woman, weak and acquiescent… are far from the reality of what really happened.
Scripture of course doesn’t help us much; there is sparse detail; we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves. There is an assumption that we know what’s missing. That we can fill in the gaps from our own experiences.
But. Let me disabuse you of some of these notions.
Mary – sweet, demure and innocent; weak and mild.
She, as a devout Jewess would have known the punishment for being pregnant outside of marriage: the sentence could be death.
It would be a huge scandal. She would be outcast; she would be ostracised; and likely abandoned by her intended, who would not want to have anything to do with her if she were pregnant not by him.
Mary’s “yes” was brave and bold; it was rebellious and strong; by saying yes, she was accepting the risks that came with it. and she was stepping out into the unknown.
Now. If you had been met by an angel; told that you were to become pregnant; accepted all that that would bring – what would you do next?
Would you call your loved ones and explain? Would you perhaps see about bring the wedding forward so that no one would know?
Or would you undertake a perilous journey from one end of the country to the other to visit your cousin who it seems is also miraculously pregnant.
Of course! that’s exactly what you would do!! Of course, maybe the very fact that it was the angel who told you that your cousin was pregnant prompted this particular response. But to gain a little perspective, the journey from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, which is around Jerusalem is anything between 80 and 100 miles.
Having done some research, we can estimate the journey took her between 3 and five days depending on whether she joined a caravan or did entirely on foot.
On foot. Pregnant. Alone. On roads where travellers were frequently set upon by robbers and bandits. weak, timid? I don't think so!
Elizabeth’s baby is also a miracle – she is barren and beyond child bearing. I’d like to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean she was ancient. She could have been in her fifties. Whatever for her to suddenly conceive after all those years was nothing other than a miracle.
The first person to recognise that Mary’s baby was indeed holy was Elizabeth’s baby – she felt him jump in her womb as Mary approached.
The phrases announcing Mary’s condition, and responding to this first encounter are combined to make the Roman Catholic prayer “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” and “Blessed art though among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”
The Holy Spirit reveals this to Elizabeth. How else could she know? Mary hasn’t told anyone at home yet; all of that is still to come.
To me, it seems, Mary needed the comfort and companionship of another woman who would understand and not be angry with her. She was brave and bold; she was strong and determined.
And, her response when Elizabeth greeted her is this wondrous song of praise, known universally as the Magnificat and immortalised in the song – “Tell out my Soul” which we shall song to close our worship today.
This song of joy praises God; but more than that it acknowledges that Mary knows absolutely what is happening and what will happen. That her son is God; that her son will save the world. She also underlines all that God has done throughout history – it is truly magnificent.
Mary – strong, determined, faithful servant of God
Never underestimate the power of a determined woman!