Thursday, 6 December 2018

Looking for Maryam by Philippa Linton

Will the real Mary please stand up?  (Pixabay)
Mary. Maryam. Miriam.

Will the real Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, please stand up?

When I was looking for images of Mary on Pixabay, I wasn’t surprised by what I found.  So many standard, traditional portrayals – statues of a serene young woman with a placid expression, often dark-haired but sometimes blonde, and usually wearing a white or blue headscarf, like many a modern religious woman today.

No surprises there.

There’s a Renaissance painting of Mary I especially like (not shown here) which shows her as extremely curvy, positively buxom in fact, as she tenderly nurses the baby Jesus at her breast – she has a kind, smiling face and her glorious golden ringlets cascade over her crimson gown.  Yes, crimson, not the usual blue.  Here Mary looks far more like an earth mother than a pale virgin.

But will the real Mary, mother of Jesus, please stand up?

Luke, the gospel writer who pays especial attention to women, pays the most attention to Mary.  Only Luke writes about the manner of Jesus’ conception.  Only Luke writes about Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, whose pregnancy is almost as miraculous as Mary’s.  Only Luke records Mary’s song, the Magnificat.  We’re so used to hearing lovely chants of the Magnificat in lovely cathedrals that it’s easy for us to overlook how radical the words are.  Here is this unmarried, teenage, Jewish mother-to-be, praising God and also singing about him overthrowing the rich and the powerful.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.   (Luke 1: 51-53, NIV-UK 2011)

If I preached a sermon along those lines, I’m not sure how some people in my respectable, middle-class congregation might take it ...

God’s coming to earth turns everything upside down.  God entering his own creation as an embryo in the womb is a game-changer.  And Mary, sometimes seen as a meek, submissive, docile woman, is not just a passive recipient in this audacious divine strategy.  She actively takes part in God’s salvation plan.  She could have said no to the Angel Gabriel’s message.  If she had refused, did the Almighty have a backup plan, a plan B, an alternative Maryam in mind?   Who knows? 

Mary was in the right time and place to be the mother of the Messiah: her fianc√© Joseph was a descendant of King David himself and of the tribe of Judah, the tribe of the lion.   Her bold ‘yes’ to God’s will was everything.

She is of course named in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, along with four other women who break convention in unique ways: Tamar, the widow who slept with her father-in-law (Genesis 38: it’s quite a story); Rahab, who was both a prostitute and a woman of great faith (yes, really); Ruth, who was a Moabitess and therefore non-Jewish (again, not quite what one expects to find in the Messiah’s family tree); and Bathsheba, with whom King David had an affair (another shocker).   And, finally, Mary.   Or Maryam, to give what might be the original Aramaic form of her name, derived from the Hebrew Miriam.

Valiant, unafraid, teenage mum-to-be.  Saying ‘yes’ to becoming the Messiah’s mother, despite the risk to her reputation and even her safety.

Quietly observing her extraordinary son Yeshua as he grows up and eventually detaches himself from her and his earthly family as he launches his brief, blazing ministry: pondering so many mysteries about her precious boy in her heart, sometimes puzzled by him but staying with him right to the bitter end … the last time we see her is after the Ascension, when she is in a room in Jerusalem, praying with other faithful women and the apostles, not long before the Feast of Shavuot, when God’s Spirit came to change the world yet again, just as God had already changed hers.

Her ‘yes’ to God is everything. 


  1. Superb reflection - thanks Philippa.

    1. Thanks, Gill! I'm not logged into my personal Google account at the moment, because I'm at work, so am replying 'anonymously', lol.


  2. That was really fascinating. In the ACW Lent anthology, I wrote about her alongside Zechariah and Elizabeth as the little people whom God elevated and gave big voices to. I too think the Magnificat is a stunning example of God just tipping everything upside-down. Fabulous.

  3. Very thoughtful piece, Philippa. Had God a back-up plan? What a thought! I think he knew Mary well enough to know what her answer would be.

  4. Loved this! Pete Grieg gave a fantastic sermon based on the Magnificat at the 24/7 prayer conference last year. Really eye opening and inspiring. I loved how you shared about the different images of Mary too. Would love to see that Renaissance one. Good to be reminded about how powerful and revolutionary the woman in the genealogy are too. You packed a lot in. Thank you :)