When we get to know someone, we get to know them even better when they invite us into their home, especially when they introduce us to their mother. So, if we want to know Jesus better, and I hope we do, then getting to know Mary better will help us in our task of understanding more fully who Jesus was and how best we can respond to him. Our problem is that all too often Mary is shown in pictures and statues as almost unreal – quite unlike any real woman that we have ever known. Nowadays feminism has encouraged women to become more outwardly assertive, but that doesn’t mean that in the past women have been as quiet and modest as some men wanted them to be. If you know the stories of Rumpole of the Bailey, you will know that the quiet wife back home was always described by this brilliant lawyer as “She who must be obeyed”.
This is true of women even further back in history. Men wrote that history, and have presented themselves as the major players, but every now and then they have had to mention women whose role could not be ignored. In English history that would include a couple of our greatest queens – Elizabeth 1 and Victoria. In the history of the Jews too, the Old Testament part of the Bible, although the leaders and prophets are largely men, some women are hugely significant. There is even a book named after one foreign woman Ruth, telling the story of how she became the grandmother of King David. And one of King David’s wives Bathsheba made absolutely sure that her son Solomon, though not the first- born, became the king after his father died. There are also two other stories of women, Jael and Judith, who unusually for women, resorted to violence to save their nation.
Each of these last two was described in the same terms used by Elizabeth when she welcomes Mary. (Luke 1:42) She greets Mary and says “Blessed are you among women” and she says it “With a loud cry”; and Christians have used that greeting ever since when, in asking Mary to pray for us, we say “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” – the greeting of the angel – and then the words I have just mentioned – “Blessed are you among women.”
Mary had to be a tough young woman if you think of all she had to go through – the stigma in those days of being an unmarried mother – the journey to Bethlehem heavily pregnant and the birth in a stable – then the flight into Egypt and so on. Later on, some mothers would have retreated into their home to weep, as their son was arrested and crucified; but not Mary. She stands at the foot of the cross whilst people mock him, and almost by her defiant presence there reminds us of the words God spoke when Jesus was revealed in all his glory at the Transfiguration : “This is my son. Listen to him” (Matt 17:5)
Our Gospel today reminds us Mary had a lot to think about once she became a mother. The arrival of the shepherds with their tale of a vision of angels (Luke 2:16-21) leads her not just to “treasure” what they say, but to “ponder them in her heart” – in other words to think long and deep about the significance of this child that she has just given birth to. We only have to think of the intelligent, brave and insightful person that her son Jesus became to see her influence at work; teaching him and praying with him as a tiny child so that by the time he was 12 he could impress the teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem with his questions. “All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:47) Joseph was busy at work a lot of the time. It would have been Mary who did most of the teaching.
So when Paul asserts in our Reading today from his Letter to the Galatians (4:4-7) that Jesus is “born of a woman”, he is not only emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, a human being like all of us; but he is perhaps also subtly referring to the influence women have in the upbringing of their children – of what they are like when grown up. Indeed, later on he shows that he is thinking of the significance of women, when he speaks of two other women from the Old Testament – Hagar and Sarah. Mary, like Sarah, is the free woman, and just as Sarah bears Isaac, the significant and only son of Abraham, so Mary bears Jesus the significant and only son of God.
So when we’re faced with troubles in our life. When we feel like creeping away and weeping over all we and our poor troubled world has to face, let’s remember the brave strong young woman who stood against the whole world to bear her son, and to bring him up to be a light for the world. But not just a light but, as St John says in his Gospel, THE LIGHT “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” You might ask where does John gets these wonderful words about Jesus that begin his Gospel? Maybe the answer lies in the words of Jesus from the cross to the two people standing beneath it. He says to John, of Mary as she stands there “Behold your mother” ; and what do we hear next? “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (John 19:26-27)
May we take Mary into our hearts as John clearly did, and thus. Like John, learn even more about Jesus “Of the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)