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Reflections on the Annunciation, Mary, and Women of Today by Deacon Peter

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT CYCLE B 2017  Peter Barbernitz

“Let it be done to me as you have said.”

A picture of Mary who is humble and accepting. A key moment in the history of salvation as Mary gives a loving Yes to all of us and to God.

But… This an incomplete picture of Mary.

If we emphasize the humble, accepting, loving elements of Mary that come through in the story we aren’t emphasizing the courageous, bold, adventurous side of Mary that is present as well. The one-sided picture has been used over the centuries to demand that women model themselves after Mary and learn to be humble, accepting, quiet servants.

We can start with the biblical context. Most miraculous births in the bible are to older, barren women. Sarah, wife of Abraham laughed at the idea that she would have a child in her old age. Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist finds herself pregnant in her old age. For these women – there was a humble acceptance (and certainly sadness) about their childless state even while they longed for a child. When they became pregnant there was a response of joy. It took a certain amount of courage to take on the role and work of motherhood even as their age worked against them.

But Mary’s case is different. She is young to have a child. She has not known a man. She has not been praying for a child, longing for a child. Her reaction to the message from Gabriel is to be puzzled as to how this can be. She knows where babies come from, and how they come about. So, how can this be?

But Mary says yes to this mystery. In the face of gossip and enormous struggles to come, Mary is courageous. She will bear and raise the messiah. She will take on all of the doubters. She will take on the gossipers. She will take the ups and downs of motherhood – amplified, I’m sure, by the unique nature of her child.

In short: Mary is courageous, bold and adventurous. And humble, accepting, and quiet. Both sets of attributes are important.

Women have been courageous, bold, and adventurous throughout all of human history, of course. In the workplace – as they took on jobs and professions traditionally male. Learning and excelling in all fields of study. Doing what they understand to be best for themselves – whether in the home or outside of it. No one size fits all. Historically this testing and pushing against boundaries occurred in fits and starts. Two steps forward, one step back and to the side.

But not all is well in our world today, and it never has been. Once again in our culture the reality that there remains a great deal of discrimination and harassment of women is being forced out into the open. As a society we had gotten smug as we pointed to the ways we thought Muslim countries discriminated against women and took comfort that WE didn’t do that. That easy pat on the back should disappear in the wake of the “Me too” movement today.

Women are coming forward - famous women, wealthy women, women of all ages. The movement has not yet reached down to the factory floor and the retail store world or the food service world. But women are refusing to take it any longer. They are not accepting the forced attentions, touches, comments, and even rapes by ignorant and awful men. These are often men with some power over the women, but not always. Men became predators as women felt unable to object, to resist, to make a scene or perhaps hurt the man’s career. For sure, HER work life was in grave danger.

They are not willing to be quiet any longer. Not willing to be ashamed about something someone else did to them. Bold to speak up and to become a target of gossip, of lies, of disbelief. Strong to stand in the glare of spotlights and attempts to discredit them. Not only is the scope of this harassment finally reaching our consciousness, but awareness of the ferocity and tenacity of the forces brought to bear on women who DID and ARE coming forward, willing to talk about it.

Who do you think said: “We’ve had enough of exhortations to be silent! Cry out with a 100,000 tongues! I see that the world is rotten because of silence.” An actress? A TV personality? No, St. Catherine of Sienna in the 1600’s. Her context was more on the evangelism side, but applies here as well - in the world, in the church. Then and now.

Beneath all of this is our relationship to sexuality. Despite many long sermons and much fulmination our religious attitude toward the sexuality of women is not even remotely biblical. Sexuality for biblical women was celebrated and joyous. Certainly not something to be embarrassed by. The rabbis find 613 commandments in the Torah, and the very first comes toward the beginning of the book of Genesis: “Be fruitful, and multiply.” It is very much the expectation, especially in Orthodox Jewish circles, that on the Sabbath a married couple should be together and make love.

Our modern attitudes, which we THINK are biblical and we THINK have always been in effect, are essentially incoherent. On the one hand there is the Puritan rejection of pleasure. And on the other hand, a rebellion against that which can be summarized as “anything goes”. Women get the worst of both of these extremes.

Women raped in some cultures today are themselves blamed, killed, rejected. In our culture often hear an attitude that can blame them for not dressing “properly” or drinking too much or not being careful of where they walked or when.

How to respond? Not to put Mary or other women on some pure and perfect pedestal to be admired from afar, to be protected and sheltered and cared for on the assumption of innocence but pulled down and shamed or cast out when proven to be only human after all.

Women should be treated with the respect that a human being deserves by virtue of being human. Free to be smart. To lead. To be in charge of their own sexuality. To be treated no better and no worse than men. To be equal. To be strong without any apology about it.

These qualities that Mary certainly possessed can be a model for modern women – courageous, bold, adventurous. New roles are possible and desirable. Old roles can be accepted and modified.

We know many real strong women of today. Mother Theresa had an iron will and would not take no for an answer. She could be like a bulldozer. She wasn’t always right and was sometimes infuriating - something we take for granted in strong men, a source of criticism when it comes to women.

In 2012 Malala, a 12 year old Afghan girl, was shot by the Taliban for going to school and encouraging other girls to do so. Continues to advocate for education for girls even today - and the Taliban still seek to kill her.

Less well known but far more common are strong women who are nurses and teachers, attorneys and executives. Those who work in retail and in food services, Single moms.

For the past centuries it has primarily been men who controlled how we see and understand Mary and the role of women in the world. It resulted in the humble, accepting, submissive approach which is so incomplete. It has perpetuated a patriarchal system that has always favored men and held back women. It’s time now for women scholars to take the lead in studying, teaching, writing about Mary and the nature of women. Say, maybe, for the next 2,000 years.

Take a few moments now in silence to pray in gratitude to Mary and the other strong women that have had a role in your life.

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