Who is Favoured?
There is a pecking order in every society. A hierarchy of status, of power, of value, of privilege. There are people who are honoured, and people who are shamed.
Sometimes, most of the time, religion is used to justify that pecking order. God’s name is invoked to uphold our social hierarchies. God is said to favour those on top.
In Mary’s time, God’s name was used to uphold a social system of honour and shame, of patriarchy and ethnic nationalism.
In the middle ages, society was organized along the lines of the Great Chain of Being and the Divine Right of Kings.
After that, it was the Doctrine of Discovery and the age of Colonialism.
In my lifetime, religion has reinforced social hierarchies via church-run residential schools, a male-only priesthood, prescribed gender roles and the prosperity gospel.
Across the ages, God’s name has been invoked and religion has been used to uphold the pecking order in society.
Mary lived at the bottom of that pecking order. Out of favour.
She was Jewish in a land where the Roman Empire ruled by military occupation and oppression.
She was a woman in a patriarchal society which favoured men.
She was from Nazareth, a nothing town of 150 people, in the looked down upon region of Galilee, far from the seat of Jewish power in Jerusalem.
She was young and subject to the will of her elders.
Mary was at the bottom of the pecking order. Society did not favour her. She was, to use her own word, lowly.
But Mary is bright, thoughtful, faithful and theologically-astute. She knows her scriptures, how else could she have composed the great song, the Magnificat, that we read together this morning, a song that draws inspiration from the song of Hannah in the scroll of the prophet Samuel. Mary knows that God sends messengers, angels we call them, she knows the great stories of the angels who appear to Abraham, Jacob and Moses. She also knows that there is an undercurrent in scripture that she doesn’t see in the world around her, that God lifts up the lowly, women like Hannah and Hagar.
So when the angel Gabriel comes to her, Mary is not shocked nor disbelieving as you or I might be. But she is very much perplexed by the angel’s words:
“Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
What do you mean, favoured? I’ve been told, I’ve experienced all my life, that I’m out of favour. Priests are favoured. Men are favoured. The rich are favoured. The powerful are favoured. Elders are favoured. But I’m not favoured.
Why do you say, ‘the Lord is with me?” The Lord is in his holy temple, in Jerusalem. That’s what I’ve been taught. Every year we make the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem, three times a year, so that we can go to the place where God is. And only the priests can go right into the Holy of Holies, the closest I can get is the Court of the Women.
“Mary was much perplexed by the angel’s words and pondered what sort of a greeting this might be.”
It is striking to me that Mary is not perplexed by the appearance of the angel. That’s not what sets her off. She knows that God sends angels, messengers to speak to God’s people. That’s happened before.
No, what perplexes her and starts her pondering are the words themselves.
“Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
How can this be? She has been led to believe her whole life that she is not favoured, and that the Lord is with others, over there, far away from where she is. If it is really true that she, the lowly one, is favoured by God and that God is with her, well, that changes everything. It means that everything her society and religion have taught her about privilege and status and hierarchy is wrong and will have to be reversed. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the lowly will be lifted up. And God is calling her to play a role in that great reversal.
Not that God’s favour will improve her social standing, in fact just the opposite. When she gets pregnant she will be shamed, her planned marriage will be put in doubt and she will risk being stoned to death, in accordance with the law. It’s a risky and subversive mission, this call from God.
No wonder she is perplexed. No wonder that she ponders what sort of greeting this might be. It’s not that she doesn’t believe the angel, it’s just that the implications, once you do start to ponder them, are huge.
And yet, Mary is able to move from being perplexed and pondering, to asking in wonder ‘how can this be?’ to eventually affirming what the angel has said and accepting the prophetic call: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Mary conceives a son. Not long after, she has to leave her hometown of Nazareth quickly, running for the sanctuary of her cousin Elizabeth’s home in the hill-country. There, with the encouragement of Elizabeth, she is indeed lifted up. She finds her voice and proclaims her joy in that great revolutionary song that we call the Magnificat.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant, and has done great things for me.”
Now I realize that for many of us, if an angel did come to visit, we’d probably be so shocked that we wouldn’t even be paying much attention to the words. But suppose we were to get past the shock, and really listen to the message.
When God’s messenger says to you “Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you,” how will you react?
Will you believe it?
Will you be perplexed?
I think that the way we react depends on where we are in the social pecking order. If we’re near the top, then probably, at least subconsciously, we’re used to being favoured, we kind of assume that God is with us, and so the greeting may not have much of an impact. Which would be a shame.
But if we are nearer the bottom of the pecking order, if we are marginalized, or used to being disregarded, if we feel like we lack power or resources, then the declaration that we are favoured may come across as jarring. As a disconnect. Radical perhaps. Even subversive. How can it be that God is with us, when there is so much evidence to the contrary?
And yet the message of this Gospel, the message which resonates beyond the call of Mary, is that God reaches out and looks with favour on those who are lowly, those whom our society would marginalize or ignore, and that God will be with them and lift them up.
Many of us feel like we have been brought low by this pandemic. We have talked before about the challenges facing those of us who struggle with our mental health, by low-wage workers who are exposed to the virus at their workplaces, by racialized communities who are disproportionately affected, by those who have no homes in which to isolate, by our seniors who are experiencing loneliness and the fear of death. To all of you who have been brought low, or feel put down, for whatever reason, hear again the words of the angel:
“Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”
May you know these words to be true. May you know that you are favoured and that God is with you. May you, like Mary, experience God’s presence in your mind, in your body and in your spirit. May you be lifted up, and may you find your voice.
Homily. Yr B Advent 4, Dec 20 2020, St. Albans
Readings: 2 Sam 7.-11,16; Luke 1.46-55; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1. 26-38
Image by Dasha Gaian, Creative Commons