Mary the kick-starter of our divinity

Frances writes on Sunday’s Readings :- Some of us, unfamiliar with the Book of Numbers (6:22-27), may be wondering what exactly this Reading is all about. Numbers is composed largely of material from the Priestly writers of the Temple, reformers in the 6th century BCE after the Babylonian exile, for whom order and rules for right living were essential after the construction of the new temple. Naturally they amalgamated much earlier material into their accounts and adjusted things to suit their purposes. For these men, the Judaic law was everything, and those who fulfilled it properly could expect God’s favour. The law was their saviour and redeemer, and they would expound this belief through a lengthy exegesis of Exodus and the failings and redemption of Israel on that journey to the Promised Land. Herein I think is the clue, for we are about to undertake a study of the significance of Mary as Mother of God, both from within her Jewishness and from the viewpoint of her radical breakout from that background. Her and our story is the meeting of Law and Grace, and of the triumph of Grace as it speaks of the universal power and goodness of God to his entire creation, as his grace goes out beyond Judaism to the world.

Mary is among those women of Judaism who break the mould. In Luke’s Gospel, we have already met her, newly pregnant as she goes off to visit Elizabeth to be acclaimed by her in the great words ‘Blessed are you among women’, a title and honour only awarded to two other women in the Old Testament, warrior women whose unexpected interventions ‘saved’ their nation at a time of war; and Mary herself of course responded to that greeting with the Magnificat, heavily dependent on Hannah’s song from Samuel, the story of a barren woman who harassed God for a child who would take away her disgrace, her childlessness; and whose outburst so shocked Eli at Shiloh. So then, they are all women who break the mould, whose interventions altered the course of history. No shrinking violets here then!

In our portion of Luke’s Gospel (2:16-21) this theme is continued. For unlike Matthew with his foreign, powerful magi, Luke gives us the visitation of the shepherds. Now we are so used to this scene that it just fits into the crib set with no comment: all part of the pretty pretty. Yet this account was utterly shocking to the ancient world. We have to remember that shepherds were among those classed by Jewish law as ‘sinners’, anawim, the poor of the land and excluded from the worship of the temple. This was not a moral proscription, but a classification based on all those rules so beloved of Numbers and Leviticus. Their job, caring for herds of sheep and goats meant that they were usually out in the countryside, away from ‘civilised’ society. They would have been dirty and smelly and unable to perform the regular ablutions of devout Jews. They would have been continually defiled by animal excrement and birth products; and been accompanied by large fierce dogs whose job was to protect the herds from wolves, bears and the other carnivores that stalked the countryside at that time. Rough men, they did not fit into a well regulated society and probably eluded the authorities, priests and tax men, Pharisees and law makers, whenever they could. If Jesus was later to become the crony of tax men and harlots, then his mother’s first visitors set the pattern of disruption and outrage which so marks the Gospels and defines Jesus’ ministry, and the bursting of the bonds of Judaism as he goes out to the world. And it is these undesirables who are the first witnesses to the infant Saviour of the World, born of Mary, Mother of God. Luke could hardly have picked on any other means of illustrating the collision of Law and Grace. He has ruthlessly laid before us the smashing of the boundaries so carefully contrived by the law of Moses, yet so neatly hinted at in the distant past by Deborah and Jael. This is not a celebration of demure, compliant women, but of those who take the faith in the God of Israel out to the world, who mock the ordered world of men, and who think their rules have the power to control and sort things.

This breaking of the link between law and grace was no easy task, as Paul realised when he converted and nurtured the Christians of Galatia in central Turkey. (Gals 4:1-7) Paul’s converts were being got at by the Judaisers from Palestine who dogged his ministry and insisted that only by full adoption of the Jewish law could they be saved by faith in Jesus. Paul was furious, as Chapter 3 of this letter makes clear, as he takes his radical stance against the law in favour of grace as the only means of salvation. His view of the purpose of the Jewish law at this point is merely disciplinary: it is there to highlight our faults but has no power to redeem us at all. Only the saving power of Christ incarnate in Mary, whose Yes to God has so radically altered the Jewish understanding of the God-man union, can rip through all the blocks and boundaries we so carefully erect to shield ourselves from the dynamic of Emmanuel, God with us. Immediately prior to our Reading, Paul has laid out in stunning terms the significance of the Jesus event as he insists on the downing of all the boundaries Jews and we take as given: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. Through Mary, rightly acclaimed as Mother of God, the world with all the boundaries and rules we set up to keep us apart, has been swept away; and now each of us stands alongside Christ as an heir to God’s kingdom, his life. Well indeed do we honour Mary as Mother of God, for it is she and no other who kick-started the entire adventure of our divinity!