“He will be called great…Son of the Most High…inherit the throne of his father David…reign over the house of Jacob…his kingdom will have no end…holy offspring called the Son of God.” Can you imagine receiving a birth announcement like that through the mail? The wording itself would seem pretentious; coming from Mary it would seem ridiculous. Mary is a young, unmarried, Jewish peasant girl living in an insignificant village in a backwater region of the Roman Empire. Something is happening here that cannot be captured on your standard piece of stationary. It would take a book to unpack this news.
I spent Christmas Eve of 1987 in Cambridge, England. At the center of that university town’s celebration of Advent and Christmas stands Kings College Chapel. It is a massive stone structure. On overcast days, its spires are buried in the clouds. Its vaulted ceilings are chiseled like ivory. The organ pipes from on high fill the space with sound as if they will drive out the air itself. Its stone columns appear to be able to carry the weight of the whole creation and not collapse.
It took five kings to build the place. Henry VI began construction of the chapel to honor Mary, that unmarried peasant girl from that village who got that awkward birth announcement. Henry’s vision was that her chapel would be a place of prayer. His inspiration was Mary’s song in verses 46 to 55 where she sings of her humble estate and wonders at the great reversal God is engineering:
A close inspection of the building tells the story. Among the religious symbols and stained glass windows portraying the stories of faith are carvings of royal symbols and swords, knights on horses attired for battle. Mary’s chapel is littered with the emblems of empire and conquest, war and wealth. The fingerprints of patriarchy are unmistakable. Henry’s chapel honoring a humble peasant girl became a monument to the kings who funded it, each king outdoing his predecessor. The irony is palpable. This chapel dedicated to a powerless teenage girl who courageously gave herself to God’s will became a shrine to the bloodletting and arrogance of monarchy. The place came to honor Kings who held in contempt all that Mary stood for.
The irony goes even deeper, in 1987 the chapel was the possession of a male-dominated church. That Christmas Eve all the clergy and choir were male. For much of the history of the chapel, Mary would have been compelled to sit silently behind the organ screen bisecting the building. I suspect that Mary would have been very self-conscious in her own chapel. She likely would have been drawn to a simple parish church in the countryside with a thatched roof and roughly-hewn pews at the end of an unpaved road.
Mary was the type of person who finds no place in the history books; her voice is rarely heard. She was a Hebrew, a race thought to be crude, untrustworthy, and clannish by the broader world. As a young woman she would not even have had a voice in her own family about her own life; she was facing an arranged marriage. She represents all those people whose lives are carried along by the whims of others, her days shaped by the convenience of the powerful.
What is Mary’s response to this disruptive piece of news? “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said,” she responds. People like Mary are more prone to trust in God because they have found the world to be, for them, such an untrustworthy place. Her song of praise betrays what she believes about God: God looks with favor on the lowly; scatters the proud; dethrones the powerful; lifts up the humble; fills the hungry; and sends the rich away hungry. In a world that is stacked against people like Mary, she gives herself to a God who is clearly for her. In this God, mercy and power are wed; justice and love join forces. Mary cannot say no to a God like this.
Don’t Get the Wrong Idea
We might want to idealize Mary, put a halo on her head and wrap her in glowing garments. In this way we can distance ourselves from her. What if she were not so special? What if she were a bit like the rest of us? Then we would hear a challenge in her words: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” If Mary is not a haloed saint, then we too are capable of saying things like that. When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth does not call Mary extraordinary or fantastic. Rather Elizabeth calls her blessed. Blessing is not something you earn or deserve; it is all gift all the time. Mary was receiving a gift.
Maybe the real power of this story lies not in Mary’s extraordinary character but in her ordinariness. This would mean that we are not so different from Mary. God can work through us; Jesus can, in a way, still be born in us. And it all comes as gift to those who can’t resist a God like this. Who among us cannot do that? Maybe Mary is not so special, but the God who gives to her this gift is the one who is so special. Mary had the good sense to recognize this.
Back to the Chapel
I sat in that chapel full of contradictions on Christmas Eve. I contemplated the two stories writ large there, Mary’s story being overwritten by the royal story. The space was lit by candles masking the details of both stories. Mary’s song of praise was read loud and clear. Hers was the only voice in the place. In that moment I realized the enduring quality of people like Mary. The Kings who scribbled their vanity on the walls are mostly forgotten, their feats buried in history books somewhere. Yet the song of this peasant girl, first heard only by God and Elizabeth, is still being sung. It echoed off the walls that night: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me as you have said.” Christmas belongs to people like Mary, and someday her story will have the last triumphant word.
May Christ be born anew in us this Christmas. May our stories come to sound a bit like her story.