If you look closely at Eastern Orthodox icons of Mary when she receives the news from Gabriel, you’ll see that she’s holding something in her hand, not a book, as in many western paintings, but a spindle. I like to think that Mary was knitting when she got the good news, but I asked someone at an icon show once and she explained that Mary was spinning wool. Close enough. In the symbolism of the iconographic tradition, the wool is lamb’s wool because of the Lamb of God whom Mary is to bear. The wool is red because of the blood that Jesus sheds for us. Mary, who is often seen as the vessel, as a contemplative, was also a woman of action. Spinning, doing what young women did in her time.
Most of us, when someone gives us really great news, want to share it. We call up a close friend or we dash off an email or a text. If we hear news that is unbelievable, or unbelievably perplexing, we probably skip the email, and just pick up the phone, or text a friend asking them to meet us for coffee. Today’s gospel is about that kind of sharing. Mary has just heard the word from the angel Gabriel, the Annunciation that she will conceive and be the bearer of the Savior, the Son of the Most High. Gabriel’s parting words to Mary are perhaps just as incredible: he tells her that her cousin, Elizabeth, who has been barren into her old age, is also with child. Without a phone, Mary goes with haste to visit Elizabeth. And so our story begins with two women, cousins, getting together in one of their homes to share maternal joy, as women have since time began. An intimate, simple, every day domestic scene in rural Judea.
Mary has been called the mother of all things, the mother of us all. We revere Mary for so many reasons: her motherly love, her obedience to God, her faith, her contemplative spirit.
Mary is the icon of absolute faith and obedience, and that is why she is the mother of our Lord. Right? Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God, theotokos, because she was the most extraordinarily faithful, obedient, prayerful, humble person God could find, right?
Wrong. Mary may have been those things, and at the same time, she is as unlikely a choice to become the Mother of God as any of the other people whom God chooses to do God’s work in the world. Mary is as unlikely a choice as any of us would be. And so it is that before Jesus is even born, we get the Good News that God is present in unlikely people, in unlikely places.
Why did God choose Mary? God could have chosen the wife or daughter of a wealthy landowner or a powerful politician. He could have chosen someone descended from royalty, or from a religious ruler, or from a strong military family. But no—Mary is ordinary. Not only is she ordinary, she is, by her own admission, lowly. She is a young, unmarried woman engaged to a carpenter.
Think of all of the things we lift up about Mary, the things that set her apart from normal men and women: her faith, her assent, her great Yes to God, her meditative, contemplative response to God and to others, her willingness to share her beloved son with the whole world. Mary begins as an ordinary person, like you and me, and becomes all of these things in response to God.
In addition to all of the things said about Mary through the ages, I believe Mary is a prophet. A prophet in the classical sense of the word, complete with a traditional prophetic call narrative. A messenger of God comes to her and tells her of her mission. Like Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah before her, she replies “who? Me?” God’s messenger usually counters with a sign. In this case the sign is the miraculous pregnancy of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth. Then Mary says yes. And makes the journey to visit her cousin, where she offers one of the most famous prophetic oracles of all time, the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.
And like the classical prophets, Mary is transformed by God’s grace, transformed by being chosen, into the person God wants her to be.
Mary and all the other classical prophets do not have a monopoly on being transformed by God’s grace into the people God wants us to be. God does this for all of us. The visitation between Mary and Elizabeth is a story of God’s presence writ large. God has given each of them blessings and opportunities they never expected, and made them into people they didn’t think they could be. In this way they are not much different from most of us. Marriage, which we celebrate and consecrate today in Andrew and Stephen, is just one way that God equips us to do great and challenging things, and to be present in ways we didn’t know we could. Marriage is not the only place where this happens. Parenting, living in any kind of community, sharing work space with people with whom we struggle, practicing generosity and forgiveness,…God equips us in miraculous ways to be and do what God would have us be and do. The Almighty has done great things for Mary, Elizabeth, Stephen, Andrew, and all of us.
Mary recognizes that in choosing her, an ordinary young woman of no standing in society whatsoever, God is preparing for the salvation of the people of Israel and of the whole world. As the last lines of the Magnificat tell us:
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his descendants forever.
With these words, Mary places herself and the child she carries into the whole history of the people of God. In this intimate moment shared between two cousins, Mary proclaims her part—all of our parts—in a much bigger story. The story continues later this week; come back and hear the next chapter.