She turned out not to be one of the bookies favourites, indeed no-one had heard of her. She wasn’t someone glamourous or famous from the capital city who was chosen, but a very ordinary woman from an obscure northern town. Well I’m talking about Mary the mother of Jesus who turned out to be the mother of the long awaited Messiah, but I could have also been talking about the Revd Libby Lane, the person who is about to become the first female Bishop in the Church of England. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/17/first-female-bishop-named-libby-lane-church-of-england-women
It is rather fitting that as we approach Christmas God still likes to choose against the expected and in line with Mary’s prophetic words of praise, sometimes called the Magnificat.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
For those who are Anglicans I wonder if these word’s familiarity also makes us forget just how radical they are. Like Jesus words at the start of his ministry in Nazareth they are a statement of God’s manifesto for society. They are a statement of God’s choice against the grain of a society in our day as in Jesus run by rich, powerful, ethnically pure men, in which God sides with the poor, the week, immigrants and women and calls us, if we are God’s followers to do the same. If, for those of us who happen to be white well educated men, like me, this is challenging, it is also potentially liberating. God’s manifesto is one of radical equality because it is one of radical blessing of all people just as they are. If it is a threat to the strong, the rich, the celebrities and those favoured by the accidents of birth, it is only so in that it welcomes all, favours all, celebrates all and seeks to enable all as equally God’s children. God constantly seeks to pull down the mighty and raise up the lowly because all are equal before God and any human structure that says otherwise is an anathema to God. But in this God’s desire is not to see all brought low but all raised up. Mary the common northern girl who no-one would notice expresses these words because she finds against all the odds that she is indeed chosen and in this she speaks out of God’s heart for all people.
We have this year had a number of media stories in the UK about nativity plays. These are an English tradition in our pre-school and junior schools. One of these stories was about pushy parents fighting to get their offspring the starring roles. For any little girl in the UK, playing Mary in the nativity play is a major triumph, it is the Christmas glamour role. How ironic when the real Mary was an ordinary girl called to a very unglamorous role, giving birth in a cattle pen, fearing for her life as an unmarried mother. As humans we are good at taking God’s challenging message and turning it into something that fits with the very different human values of celebrity, glamour and prestige. The very opposite of the message Mary brings. Indeed this is what I fear our celebrity conscious and highly sexist news and social media are already trying to do with women bishops judging by the BBC footage of Libby Lane’s appointment which began with a close-up shot of her shoes and ankles, through to the many negative comments online which are entirely aimed at her appearance. Mary knew that God chose her against any expectation as a rejection of sexism and celebrity culture. As she faces the reality of becoming a public figure in such a culture Libby Lane needs our prayers and for us to challenge this culture.
As I reflect further on Mary, the ordinary girl God chose to give birth to God in Jesus I am reminded of two other stories, one that I heard several years ago at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival and one that is part of my own story that may resonate with many of our stories. Our mothers are deeply important to the people we become, sadly sometimes this is for the ill, but often it is as it should be for the good. 10 years ago at Christmas I saw my own mother alive for the last time before she died in the following January. But as I think on Mary’s role in Jesus ministry I find myself thinking about my mother’s role in my own. She was a person of faith, and though I was a very unreligious child she taught me the values that Mary poured forth in the Magnificat, to care for others, to help those who were weak, to stand by the marginalised and those others rejected. When in my teens I chose the Christian faith as a path for my own life and then that grew into a sense of calling to ministry, one of the first people I talked to about this was my mother. She then told me a story that went back before I was born. She had had several miscarriages before she was pregnant with me and was in Coventry cathedral praying and felt God tell her that not only would she keep this child but this son would have a calling in the church. She had been quietly saving this story and nurturing me in faith all those years and I had not known it.
I can’t help wondering about a conversation something like that between Jesus and his mother, one in which she told him the story of the angel that came to her, of the events of Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas that Luke wonderfully tells us she treasured up in heart. And I suspect that she poured into Jesus the values of the Magnificat as he grew up, the very values that would come to mark his life and ministry.
I do not think I have a calling anything like as significant as Jesus, yet all of us are called as Jesus was called. All of our callings matter to God and are part of God’s plan. All of us need others to support us in our calling, to teach us and nurture us. Whether we are parents of grandparents, brothers or sisters, mentors, teachers or friends we are called like Mary to nurture others in their faith and calling, to see them as God sees them and pass on God’s values.
The other story was one told by the late writer and speaker Mike Yaconelli. It was one from his childhood. Unlike me he was a deeply Christian child but like me he had also learnt the values of the Magnificat, that God choses the poor, the unglamorous and the outcast. At school they had weekly country dancing lessons, as indeed I did at mine. At his each week the boys would be called one by one in order and they would chose the girl they were to dance with. This was of course not only sexist but deeply cruel as each week the same popular, wealthy and glamourous girls would be chosen first and the same unpopular, poor and unglamorous girls always chosen last. Mike’s story was not given a Christmas focus, but the girl who was each week chosen very last was called Mary. Something about the cruelty of this weekly humiliating ritual struck a chord with the young Mike and he felt God telling him that next week he was to choose Mary as his dancing partner as an expression of God’s values. He was, like any boy, also very conscious of his own status and hoped and prayed that he would that week be the last boy to choose so he would have to choose Mary anyway. Needless to say next week he was the first boy asked to choose and somehow, in spite of every desire to be popular, he found himself opening his mouth and saying ‘I choose Mary’.
And in the light of that story I also like to imagine a fictitious Messiah enablement committee in heaven 2000 years ago trying to work out who Jesus mother will be. Which princess had the right bloodline? Who would give the Son of God the right status and education? Who would get the birth the best media attention? And through it all God looks at an obscure young women with none of these apparent attributes and says ‘I choose Mary’.
Libby Lane may well share in Mary’s disbelief at her choice. Justin Welby spoke this morning on UK national radio of how he still feels like an imposter as Archbishop of Canterbury. I also often feel that way myself about my own ministry. Yet God choses people like Mary and therefore keeps choosing people like us. Just as God looked on an obscure town and its people 2000 years ago he looks on us and says ‘I choose ….. ‘ – put your name in the blank space. And God carries on and says that to every one of us, God calls us each by name and says, I am coming to be part of your life, I have called you to ministry as I called Jesus, I want to be born afresh in you this Christmas. You are the person I have chosen. And through you I want to choose those who the world has not chosen, you are the one I have chosen to sing Mary’s song and make it a reality.