She, the mother of God, has embodied views of femininity, sexuality, motherhood, and faith in ways that have both fed and disrupted our worst constructions of these things.
Mary, the virgin mother, singularly sexed — un-gendered in some ways with her sexuality erased. Or, she is grossly gendered by a patriarchal church that loaded her with all of its culture’s loathing of women’s power and mistrusting of their bodies. Mary was chaste and pure, she was submissive and obedient, and she was the perfect mother and the perfect servant. She was gentle, mild, accepting, and ready to sacrifice herself for this unlikely command to gestate God.
In most Protestant liturgy and theology, Mary is often ignored perhaps because of her complicated past with misogynist culture. She is probably avoided also because of the way she is revered and used as a spiritual medium in some expressions of Roman Catholic piety.
So, we in the Reformed faith traditions have been left sometimes not really knowing what to do with Mary. We bring out her meek and mild countenance at Christmas time … and we leave it at that!
I, myself, have had a conflicted and frustrating relationship with Mary. She has, at times, induced my anger and at other times, inspired my awe. I played her as a child in the Christmas pageant. I remember the light blue headscarf I wore and the lullaby I sang to my baby Jesus. I was too young and distracted by all the adult faces staring back at me at the Christmas Eve service to get much of a feel for what it felt like to be in her shoes. But, I remember feeling nervous that I couldn’t sing strongly and quietly at the same time.
Then during my radical years of college and early on in divinity school I began to engage her with my feminist hermeneutic of suspicion. I deconstructed and unpacked, I interrogated and I exegeted and I parsed my verbs and I came to the conclusion that this whole virgin birth thing was something that had just been too destructive to have a redeeming purpose.
Then I started reading liberation theology. I read about how Mary spoke for the poor, how she was the embodiment of God’s preferential option for the poor. I learned how she filled up a space for women who were rejected and defiled by society, a space of redemption and compassion, a space of hope. God cared for Mary and found favor with her even though she was a young woman of humble beginnings, pregnant under suspicious circumstances. She was in a position of shame and God took her and made her the mother of our salvation.
Then I started to pay attention to her in a different way — Mary the liberator, Mary the heroine of faith, Mary the promise of God’s care for those who society casts out.
But still I avoided really encountering her as a woman — a woman who had a body like mine, a woman who found herself pregnant, a woman who must have been confused and afraid and embarrassed. What would it have been like to be her? What would it have been like to have your world turned upside down like that by a baby you didn’t plan on, by a God you didn’t know all that well, in a world where your options were limited and your friends were few. Who would you trust, where would you turn, how would you go on?
Mary is a model for all of us, but not because of all the ways she’s been used and abused by the church. She is a model for us because of the way she surrendered to this pregnancy, because of the way she allowed herself to get tangled up with God.
Mary did surrender. I like that word better than “submit.” Surrender is a choice that comes from some sense of power. It is a place where one is able to drink in power in the very act of surrender itself. She was not simply obedient, she was courageous and receptive. She went with her gut. She listened to an angel, she received God’s good tidings, she pondered all these things in her heart, and then she sang.
She went to the only person who could possibly believe what had happened to her, Elizabeth, a woman who was also gestating a miracle, and she told her and then she sang. She sang a song of thanksgiving, she sang a song of liberation and transformation. She sang a song of her new relationship with God.
“Generations will call me blessed!” she says. She can see the blessing that she is, she can see how God has chosen her and filled her up with the promise of a new world. She can hear the call, she can see the wonder of it, and in all of its complication she gives herself to it.
Her “Magnificat” is not the song of a meek woman; it is not the song of someone who will let herself be erased by history. It is the song of a woman with utter and chilling resolve. She will see this through, she will labor with God, she will give herself to God’s love for this world. And she will not be erased, but she will be consumed into its wonder. She will cooperate, she will blossom, and she will be utterly present in its unfolding.
I didn’t really understand Mary until I had been in labor. Then when it was done, I thought, this is what it was like to be completely consumed by a divine purpose and to give one’s self to it — one’s whole self — every cell, every muscle, every ounce of willfulness, every kernel of concentration becomes locked into this God-given purpose … and new life is born.
Mary is our paradigm for that kind of surrender — and for that kind of song. She sings her surrender, and her song is full of wisdom and full of faith. She knows God to be ordering her life. She knows God to be the One who ushers liberation and goodness and love into the world. She knows God’s story and she sees herself in the middle of it. She is thankful and she is strong.
Mary defines these last hours of Advent for us. She is ready, she is resolved, and she gives herself to this Jesus with all of who she is — empowered and emboldened by a promise she truly believed was for her. Oh, that we could be so bold.
Marcia Mount Shoop of Chapel Hill, N.C., is theologian in residence at University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, and is moderator of the Presbyterian Multicultural Network national board. She can be reached by clicking here.