Imagine a teenage girl. She’s kneeling on the floor, angelic light filling the room before her. She’s just learned of her calling – to become the Christbearer, the Mother of God. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all, all she can do is worship, worship amid the shock and the fear and the awe and the worry.
We tend to see her reaction as being passive, quiet, meek; she accepts her fate and becomes a mother, a wife, an eternal virgin, and she’s immortalised every Christmas by little girls in blue dresses clutching a doll that represents the Saviour.
But that’s not the case, is it? This imagery robs Mary of her power, her agency, her prophetic fire. We trap her in a Christmas card and stop her from singing.
This week, the theologian Cheryl Bridges Johns, writer at the Junia Project, tweeted that “we often forget Mary was a prophet. Before she gave birth to the King, she spoke of the subversive Kingdom.” This is true. She visits her relative Elizabeth, and as they talk Mary lets rip with a spontaneous eruption of praise and passion and prophecy.
But this isn’t a worship song born out of comfort and religious respectability. This is a song from below, a burst of praise to the God who lifts up the lowly while toppling the powerful, who feeds the hungry while plundering the rich, who sends the proud running for cover. Remember that Mary lives in an occupied land, she’s an unwed mother living in a patriarchal world. This is the sort of song that draws worried glances, this is the sort of song that could put Mary on a list of troublemakers somewhere, and maybe even as she sings, someone’s having a quiet word with Joseph to suggest that he keeps his betrothed in line.
But Mary sings anyway, because she’s a prophet, and she’s the Christbearer, and so it’s her calling to hear from God and act on what he says. She’s no coward, no fool, she’s someone who’s already experienced the weight of divine calling and the knives of local slut shaming, even while she’s just a teenager. Later on she’ll lose her husband at an early age (to violence or illness, who knows), and she’ll see her son brutalised and nailed to a cross. This is a woman with a strength of faith that’s incredible – how else would she survive all this and still believe?
The Irish singer Frank Harte once said that “Those in power write the history, those who suffer write the songs.” Mary’s song is rooted in the knowledge of suffering and occupation, but also in a vision of liberation and hope and transformation. Her history isn’t written by the powerful; that history is undermined by God working in the lives of the poor, the hungry, the people on the margins. Mary sings a subversive song and joins the chorus of Miriam and Hannah, a legacy of women who hear from God and sing of what they heare, and when we speak of Christ being born of a virgin, let’s never forget that he was also born of a prophet.