I’m just about to finish the book A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why It Matters. I’d only recommend the book to certain people. Not because of the conclusions the author comes to, but because I don’t think the book is all that helpful in formulating your thoughts on the virgin birth. It’s not a bad book, but the center of gravity is mostly on how theologies of the virgin birth and incarnation have duked it out with a special emphasis on avoiding a sort of docetism where Jesus doesn’t sweat, stink, spit, etc. like we do. So, the book is especially valuable for people interested in the development of theology around these issues. It may also be useful for people who don’t believe in the virgin birth and wonder about the ramifications for their Christian faith.
But in one of the chapters, the author talks particularly about Mary and how she achieved the place she did in theology, especially Roman Catholic theology, as well as specific cultures such as Central and South America. He also discusses the primary lens that male-dominant theology has seen Mary through – emphasizing her submission and meekness and valuing her for her virginity, and in this, he also brings up certain feminist takes on Mary that are challenging and insightful.
I’ll admit up front, I’m not a big “-ist readings of X” kind of guy, but I like being confronted with readings that challenge my status quo, whether I end up agreeing or not, and one of the things pointed out was a certain revolutionary tone in Mary’s Magnificat – the prayer/song she bursts into when she visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth recognizes that Mary will give birth to the Lord.
The song is found in Luke 1:46-55:
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor 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 forever.”
Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)
Look at that last half. In the arrival of Jesus, God has shown strength, scattering the proud. He brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. He fills the poor and sends the rich away. He helps Israel according to the promise He made to Abraham.
Mary, who is a girl probably between the ages of 12 and 16, sees in the prospective birth of Jesus an act of God whereby the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the fortunes of Israel will be reversed. It’s a very subversive and political song. Mary believes that Jesus will be the beginning of God bringing down the powers that dominate Israel and putting the poor and humble faithful back on top.
In my mind, this actually helps explain why Mary reacts to the birth the way she does. She is not some victim of forces beyond her control, and she just has to grit her teeth and deal with it gracefully. She is instrumental to the revolution. She is favored and all will call her blessed because of her role in bringing down the rulers from their thrones, sending away the rich, and liberating Israel. It is not difficult at all for me to imagine a teenager with this sort of idealism and passion.
In the original Terminator movie, a woman named Sarah is told by a man from another world (well, the future) that she will carry the child who will liberate humanity from their oppressors in the future, so it is imperative that she stay alive, give birth to the child, and prepare him for his role. In the later movies, we find Sarah becoming something of a survivalist and a soldier, acquiring the skills she needs to pass on her son.
This is 100% speculative, but I wonder what Mary taught her son Jesus in preparation for his role in God bringing rulers down from their thrones and exalting the oppressed of Israel. Maybe she didn’t teach him military tactics or how to do a field dressing, but I’ll bet she passed along stories of the promise God made to Abraham, the glorious days of Israel under David and Solomon, and the weight of the Exile that, while technically over, was still going on. I’ll bet she explained to him why they were poor and why Israel was poor and about the Romans. She explained to him why some of his own people had become loyal to the Empire. She explained the lure of riches and comfort what it does to a man’s heart when the alternative is poverty and death. She explained the importance of loving his people and sticking by them on their side and not crossing over to the side of the rich and the powerful, of maintaining the faith of his forefathers and not giving it up for paganism or civil religion.
In other words, although I don’t know this and there’s no text I know of that says this, when I read those lines in Mary’s song, knowing her hopes and expectations, I can’t help but think she was instrumental in raising Jesus the prophet who would save his people, preparing him for his mission.
Yes, she was submissive to God’s will and obedient and a lesson to all of us in that way, but it’s not simply because she was a submissive person. It was because she foresaw a great revolution at God’s hands, and she was going to play her very instrumental role in the movement.