There’s something about the Virgin Mary that’s been totally missed by most of us, Protestant and Catholic alike.
I used to visit an old lady, now long gone, to whom I often refer as a saint. She was sweet, but with a backbone of tensile steel. She had suffered much in her life at the hand of an uncaring and philandering husband, but I never once heard her raise her voice, nor did I ever hear her say an unkind word to anyone, or about anyone.
I could rattle on all day about my old friend, but the odd thing was that, while she did frequent a little mission hall not a mile from where she lived, I don’t think she ever participated in Communion. ‘Why?’ I once asked her, and she shocked me by saying that she didn’t consider herself worthy.
At one level I could argue that of all the people in my world, if any were worthy it would be Peggy, but I know that it is not a person’s actions or beliefs that make a person worthy. Perhaps she had been infected by the religious teachings of her youth, for religion teaches that we’re bad people. The 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards struck fear into the hearts of his unfortunate listeners as he pronounced: ‘Satan stands ready to fall upon you and seize you as his own, the moment God permits him.’
According to Edwards, who demonstrated scant understanding of grace and mercy, mankind deserves nothing less than the unrestrained wrath of God, regardless of the fact that we stand clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.
So what about the young Mary, who might have been as young as 15 when we’re told that the angel delivered the message: ‘Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women’?
What could have been going through Mary’s young head right then? Could she have foreseen the nightmare of rejection and stigma she was about to endure, for she would soon be a single mother; the man she was engaged to was planning to leave her; and indeed he might have, had not an angel intervened.
Could she have known that when she was perhaps still in her forties she would kneel at the foot of a cross as life ebbed from the broken body of her firstborn son? Perhaps, but what never crossed her mind was that she wasn’t worthy to give birth to the Messiah.
Whoever Mary’s parents were, they had her well schooled in the message of God’s unconditional love and grace, for the words, ‘I am not worthy,’ never passed her lips. Nor did she say, ‘Why me?’
She said, ‘How can this happen? I am a virgin.’
Mary was an extraordinary young woman, for even though she didn’t understand why God had chosen her, her spontaneous response was: ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.’
This Christmas, let’s reflect on what Mary can teach us about grace and mercy; about learning to receive good things from our Father without having to feel we deserve them; that his giving has nothing to do with us being worthy.
That’s an aspect of the Christmas story that we don’t hear much about.
I wish you all a very happy Christmas.