Something about Mary

by Elouise

The Anunciation, by Fra Angelico

~~~The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. Cortona altarpiece, c. 1433

Advent. Time to consider our bodies. The text for today’s meditation puts it in our faces. You can find the entire story here.

…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.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered,
“May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Then the angel left her.
 (Luke 2:30, 31 and 38, NIV)

Part I
Mid-1980s. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The choir is singing special Christmas music. Mother is in the choir, standing at the end of the front row, singing her heart out. I’m in my 40s; Mother is in her early 60s.

Embarrassment, shame and anger flood over me. It’s not the music. It’s the way Mother looks. Even the most coordinated colors wouldn’t have added much color to her face, especially next to the well made-up women of the choir. Mother wears little or no makeup.

She sings her heart out, proud to be in the choir and to have her oldest daughter back for the holidays. I can hardly bear to look at her face. It carries, as does the rest of her body, signs of being a polio survivor. I desperately wish Mother’s body were different, like the ‘normal’ women of the choir.

Mother carried grief, pain and scars in her body. My hypercritical eyes couldn’t see this. Nor could my heart understand that beneath my discomfort with her body lay even deeper discomfort with my body.

Female bodies weren’t celebrated in my family. My body was shamed, ridiculed, punished, controlled, feared, dismissed, hidden and denied.

My father, an ordained minister, knew how to affirm and celebrate Jesus in the flesh. He didn’t, however, know how to affirm that we, his daughters, came in the flesh, or that our embodiment as women was worth celebrating. Female bodies were a problem. A disquieting reality to be minimized, or better yet, hidden beneath layers of modestly simple styles and colors.

When it came to daughters, the family honor was at stake. No woman raised in this house was going to become pregnant out-of-wedlock. Only Mary could have gotten away with that one.

Part II
Mary was different. God did it; she was appropriately submissive. The angel Gabriel’s announcement made it OK. It was part of God’s mysterious plan. God would never have chosen Mary if she hadn’t been a really good girl—way high above the rest of us daughters of Eve. Besides, didn’t you notice that this happened without anything sexual between her and Joseph? Case closed.

Or is it? Perhaps more than other seasons, Advent and Christmas beg us to pay attention to bodies. After all, this is about the incarnation—God taking the supreme risk of sending his only begotten Son, Jesus, to live as a fully human being in a fully human body.

The incarnation is also about Mary’s body, including her unplanned pregnancy and real, live labor in childbirth, and breasts filled with mother’s milk.

And, yes, it’s about Jesus’ body—that infant who did all the things babies do: sleep, cry, eat, belch, spit up, deposit a mess in swaddling clothes, drool, wave arms and feet aimlessly, coo, grimace, fart, speak gobbledygook, and charm everyone.

Perhaps to soften the messiness of Mary’s body and pregnancy, some classical European paintings have almost obliterated her body. They haven’t done very well by Gabriel either, who may have looked like an ordinary human being.

We see Gabriel standing in front of Mary, swathed in flowing gowns and robes, wings coming out of his back.  Sometimes he has long curly hair and a halo; often he holds a symbol in his hand—a palm frond, a scepter, an orb.

And we see Mary. She’s also in long flowing garments, with beautiful skin, gorgeous hair and yes, the halo. Frequently she’s reading or holding scripture—even when she’s standing in the doorway to greet Gabriel. Sometimes her hands are delicately crossed over her breasts, face submissively turned down just a bit.

The paintings are beautiful—packed with churchly, cultural and political symbols. There’s much to see and appreciate as art.

Part III
But do we recognize the real woman Mary in all this? More important, does any of this help us recognize what’s going on here in Luke’s account?

Yes, there’s a big announcement to Mary. But even before this, Mary found favor with God! What does this mean? And what does it have to do with Mary’s everyday life?

First, I don’t think it’s about Mary’s womb. God isn’t shopping for a vacant womb capable of incubating a fetus. Maybe that sounds blunt and disrespectful.

But for some, then and now, women’s bodies are valuable as baby-making machines. Consider her now pregnant relative Elizabeth, supposedly out of favor with God for most of her life because she couldn’t bear children.

I also don’t think God rewards Mary for being a good girl and staying out of trouble. God’s favor for Mary seems to come out of the blue. We don’t know the kind of girl-child Mary was. But we can assume she was a woman as we are. She didn’t descend from heaven as a perfect female; she was born to human parents into a fallen world.

Mary is a Jewish woman in a concrete body, living a human life. Not a life without sin and regrets, joy and sorrow, happiness and pain, disappointment and grief.

Part IV
So what’s happening here? This is about Mary’s character. She’s young, yet she has learned what God wants from her. It’s precisely what God always wants. We use many words to point to it.  Here are two of them.

The first is obedience. A good and true word for what God wants from us. Often we confuse it with keeping rules. If we say ‘obedience from the heart’ we’re closer to what God wants. But even that doesn’t always work; life is about more than rules.

It’s about faith-filled improvisation, playing by ear. Every day we wake up to circumstances we didn’t expect or foresee. The circumstances of our lives. Not necessarily due to our good or foolish decisions (though we make those, too). In these situations, God offers us opportunities. How will we respond?

The second word we use is surrender. God wants surrender. Not perfection, promises or good intentions. Just surrender—a wonderfully relaxed way of being! The kind that follows God’s lead and is willing to make mistakes.

This isn’t about being doormats. It’s about being faithfully proactive, accepting instead of fighting the sometimes heart-stopping circumstances of our lives. God doesn’t force Mary’s hand or ours. God just keeps inviting us to surrender faithfully to circumstances, whether we like them or not. Are we willing to risk this kind of surrender? Play it by ear?

God doesn’t look for perfection.
God looks for us within our messy everyday lives.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 November 2014, updated 3 December 2015
Written in December 2009 for the women of Narberth Presbyterian Church, Narberth, PA
Image from