Friday, December 17, 2021

Mary - the feminisation of the World! Advent 4

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 quote).

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.


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