Any liturgy associated with Mary seems bound to be littered with words such as ‘obedience’, ‘humility’ and ‘lowliness’’. Presumably the ‘lowliness’ comes from Mary’s song, The Magnificat,: for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’. But if you look at this passage in the original Greek, the word is ‘humiliation’. This word is used on only one other occasion in the New Testament, in the third chapter of Philippians where we read ‘[Jesus Christ] will transform the humiliation of our bodies to be conformed to his glorious body’. Here, it is clear that there is a contrast between our human, earthly bodies and the glorious, heavenly bodies of our resurrection. So, it seems that this word, which we usually read as ‘lowliness’ is more to do with the state of being human – all these words begin are related to the word ‘humus’ which means ‘earth’, or ‘soil’. For he has regarded the humiliation of his handmaiden. Perhaps we should read ‘for he has regarded the human condition, the humanity of his handmaiden. This is nothing to do with modesty or being self-effacing, but to do with being a human, a mortal being. Mary is reflecting on carrying divinity in her humanity – thus she becomes our model as followers of Christ – we too must carry God within us and bear GOd into the world.
Then, we are often told that Mary was obedient. I struggle with this, as ‘to obey’ means that there has to be an instruction. This was not the case.
Here is the encounter as recounted in Luke’s Gospel:
‘God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
There is no instruction or ‘law’, so there can be no ‘obedience’. Mary agreed, consented – and that is a different thing. And this consent demanded great courage – quite apart from social norms, Mary agreed to carry within her ‘The Son of the Most High’ – that’s quite something to take on board. She must also have been a woman of great faith, to agree to such a request, made by an angel who was suddenly there, standing before her. She also demonstrates independence of mind; she makes this momentous decision on her own. Mary was far from home when she gave birth to her child and made an uncomfortable journey in the last days of her pregnancy; she must have been physically tough – she was no frail woman of delicate constitution. She rejoiced with her cousin, Elizabeth with great joy, because of the children they carried – joyfulness was one of her gifts. She stood at the foot of the cross of her son and watched him die; she must have been a woman who could face pain and suffering with fortitude and dignity.
These, then, are the characteristics that I associate with Mary: courage, faith, independence of mind, physical toughness, fortitude, and dignity. I wonder why these words don’t find their way into our liturgy? I suspect an outdated stereotyping of women. Time for a review, I think!