Text: Luke 1.39–55 (Mary visits Elizabeth, and signs 'the Magnificat')
Why is it, I wonder, that more women seem to be attracted to worship than men? At least, that is the general picture across the breadth of traditional churches. Actually – I’m not sure that it is true for us here at St Faith’s. I haven’t done an actual count – but we certainly have a larger than average number of men in our congregation.
Church sociologists have wondered, from time to
time, whether the larger number of women, on average, might be to do with what’s
known as the ‘feminisation’ of churches.
The theory goes that after the First World War, especially, when men
were in short supply, women started to gain power over the way the church looked.
This led, it is suggested, to a greater emphasis on flowing robes,
trimmed with lace, heavily decorated Altar coverings, and the rise of the
scourge of Vicars everywhere, The Flower Ladies! (Again – not here, I have to say!). It is suggested that this ‘feminisation’
process ultimately led to men turning their back on the church. They sought a more ‘muscular and manly’
expression of faith. Lacey cottas, serene music, and fabulous flowers just
weren’t what they were after. They wanted uniforms and metaphors of war. The Salvation Army, the Church Army, and
Onward Christian Soldiers!
There may be some
truth in these observations – although, in my experience, there are plenty of
men who also enjoy the more beautiful aesthetics of worship. Just get yourself invited to a gathering of
Anglo-Catholic clergy, and you’ll see what I mean! It’s also worth saying that we must always be
careful of assuming that either men or women all think alike, or that they have
the same aesthetic tastes. That’s
clearly nonsense. There are huge numbers
of men for whom soldiering, football and beer are undiscovered countries. And there are plenty of women who don’t sew,
knit, or arrange flowers, and who choose to join the army!
The Bible, on the other hand, comes to us largely as
a product of men. It was written by men, and it tells the doings and deeds of
great men, by and large. Its heroes tend
to be men who have conquered something, or someone, by great strength or
through manly planning, cunning and guile. The Saviour of the World even comes
to us as a man – not least because had he arrived as a woman in such a
patriarchal society, he would not have been given the time of day. He certainly wouldn’t have had the right to be
a Rabbi, or to teach in the male-dominated synagogues and temples of the
day. The Temple in Jerusalem, for
example, had an outer Court of the Women.
Only men could enter the inner courts.
Only men, by and large, could be the leaders of society, and wield the
power of both religion and the state.
But into this male-dominated, patriarchal society, a
process of feminisation begins. And it
starts with the startling story of Mary and Elizabeth, bearers of the Saviour
and his Proclaimer. The male characters in the birth stories are largely
silent. Joseph says nothing, in any of
the Gospels: no words of his are recorded.
Zacharias, the father of John the Baptiser, is actually struck dumb by
God! Instead, Mary and her cousin
Elizabeth are brought to the fore…and Mary’s tongue is inspired to speak the
magnificent Magnificat, filled (as it is) with powerful language about the
overthrow of manly systems of power.
Mary’s powerful entry is of course preceded by her
virginal conception – something I’ve always treated, frankly, with some
hesitation. I have often dismissed the
idea as being implausible, and as an attempt to bypass the messy issue of sex. But I’m grateful to Frank Hillebrand for sending
me an article by theologian Brian McLaren, which has offered a new and helpful insight,
and which I’d like to share.
McLaren suggests that (and I quote) “the doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns
out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power
of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counter-violence but by the creative
power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered “the weaker
sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world” (end quote). In the Magnificat, Mary exults that through
her Son, God is inaugurating a new world, in which the mighty men of power are
to be put down from their thrones. In
what, in her world, was undeniably a more feminine
action, the humble and the poor would be lifted up. The feminisation of the world was underway,
through the womb of Mary. As McLaren says,
(and I quote) “Mary presents herself to
the Holy Spirit to receive and cooperate with God’s creative power. She
surrenders and receives, she nurtures and gives her all, because she dares to
believe the impossible is possible. Her son Jesus will consistently model her
self-surrender and receptivity to God, and he will consistently prefer the
insightful kindness of motherhood to the violent blindness of statehood” (end
I want to avoid stereotypes, as much as
possible. But it is undeniably true that
rule by violence and power is generally a male characteristic. Occasionally, we men are capable of producing
a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King – but more often than not we revert to violent
words, or violent actions to gain power over our world, or our problems. But in
the New Testament, the feminisation of the world begins, first with Mary. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, women are raised
up and acknowledged. The woman caught in
adultery is pardoned and blessed. The
Samaritan woman at the well is most unusually
spoken to by the Rabbi Jesus, and given the honour of announcing him to her
people. Mary Magdelene is given the
honour of being the first to witness the resurrected Jesus, and the first to
tell his story to the male disciples.
Time and again, in a radical, earth-shattering re-balancing of male and
female power, women are given power by Jesus.
Creativity, nurture, self-surrender, and receptivity to God become the
new normal in the Kingdom of God.
And so, on this Fourth Advent Sunday, when the first
of our three Advent Candles have been lit to honour men, today we honour Mary. Let me give the final word to McLaren: “Let us, in our own hearts, dare to believe
the impossible by surrendering ourselves to God, courageously cooperating with
God’s creative, pregnant power—in us, for us, and through us. If we do, then
we, like Mary, will become pregnant with holy aliveness. . . .” Amen.