Advent Pt. 1: On Virginity & Favor

During this season of Advent, Sanctuary Dinner Church conversations are focusing on learning from Mary of Nazareth leading to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

Text: Luke 1: 26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

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On Virginity & Favor

There is a thought experiment that Nadia Bolz-Weber proposes in a sermon (you can find the full sermon HERE): What if there were a bunch of women Gabriel went to first, who all said, “No,” and perhaps Mary was just the first to say, “Yes,” to God’s crazy commission. There is no evidence of this story as something passed down, but perhaps it would be a needed corrective to Mary as pure, sinless, otherworldly, perfect recipient. And that being the reason why God’s Word, promise, prophecy, and Son were entrusted to her. 

 

During the season of Advent— which begins today— our invitation is to learn from Mary of Nazareth. To see, hear, and seek to understand Mary leading up to the birth of Jesus without being steered by sentimentality or cynicism. In this “annunciation” story— this announcement to Mary that she will conceive a child who will be great, called Son of God, and be King over an endless Kingdom— I want to focus on two important words: Virgin and Favored. 

 

Let’s begin with what has been for centuries the most loaded: Virgin. Mary is called a virgin in Luke’s text before she is called by her name. Three times we are reminded Mary is a virgin. For a very long time in the Western church, both Catholic and Protestant, Mary’s virginity has been emphasized as purity. Jesus needed to come from a pure woman to be holy, the reasoning goes. A woman who had not been defiled through sex. But Matthew’s genealogy shows us that God isn’t very concerned with Jesus’ pureblood status of only sexually repressed or religiously virtuous women. The women in Jesus’ genealogy include:


Tamar, who tricked her unfaithful-to-his-promise father-in-law into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute.
Rehab, a prostitute, who—if we read through a theology of purity— would have been problematic both because of issues of sexuality and religion.
Ruth, a Moabite, a person religiously and ethnically outside of Israel, who it could reasonably be read seduced an Israelite man on the threshing room floor.
”Uriah’s wife,” Bathsheba, who was a victim of a coercive and adulteress sexual relationship with the King of Israel.

Then Mary of Narazeth, the virgin. Mary does not serve as some corrective to the sexual and religious impurity of Jesus’ line. She is rather an extension of God choosing those on the margins, those women who live in the risky in-between of men’s protection, desire, and ownership.
 

Virginity at this time was about social status more than our modern notion of sexual purity. A virgin was a woman, who was beyond the start of puberty but not yet married. Likely a virgin as we understand the term today, but the point was the liminal space. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. She was in between stages in her life of belonging to her father and belonging to a husband. Mary was in the space between responsibility to men. And her pregnancy is likened to Elizabeth’s— who follows a more common Biblical narrative— an older woman, assumed to be unable to conceive, who becomes pregnant by God’s grace and has a remarkable child that plays a key role in God’s liberate and redemptive plan.

 

Mary is like a barren woman, but without the shame that entails. For Mary, pregnancy would be shameful. Her in-between state of virginity, of belonging solely to no man, of no expectations of childbearing, yet being considered a woman, no longer a child puts her in a unique liminal space. It is from this place that Mary hears God’s Word and commission, and she can decide how to respond to it. And unlike the barren woman, the risk is in saying yes to what the messenger calls God’s favor.

 

This risk is very real. Mary in this in-between place called virginity, somewhat belongs to two men— her father and her future husband— but really is responsible to both while belonging under the care of neither. Her pregnancy, especially as poor woman, could easily wreck both protections. Yet, to not accept God’s commission to bear the Messiah, would be to accept a life of poverty as a Jewish woman in occupied Palestine. A difficult life to say the least. 

 

Mary, the angel says, is favored by God. Graced by God is another way to translate it. Mary is favored, chosen, as the prophets are in the Hebrew Scriptures. She is not more than human, but she is seen and known and loved and specifically set apart by God to play a particular role in the story of God’s liberation and redemption. Perhaps what makes her favored is that she is ready to play that role in the same way as Samuel was ready to play his and Isaiah was ready to play his, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” echoing the priest and the prophet. Mary, as a poor woman betrothed in Nazareth, perhaps was more ready than anyone for God’s promised Messiah to come and liberate God’s people from oppression. She responds to Gabriel— at first with a troubled look, considering what in the world was happening— but ultimately with the trust and assurance of a priest and prophet. Mary trusted God’s liberate and redemptive plan and was willing to play her role in that story at the risk of her own wellbeing. She never was going to be guaranteed a comfortable life. She was not favored by the world. And she threw her lot in with God the way that many prophets and priests called by God did before her. 

 

Mary has much to teach followers of Jesus. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was achieved in the body of Mary will happen in the soul of everyone who receives the Word.” There may have been others who said no, or maybe not, but we certainly have a choice of reaction in our own liminal spaces, in the places in between belonging, in between safety, in between differing paths. It’s in those places that God’s Word often finds us. God’s commission comes to us. That God’s favor— underserved grace and calling— reach us. And if received and trusted, that Word, grace, and call place us in the story of liberation and redemption.