(The source for this homily is ‘The Cultural World of Jesus’ by John J Pilch)
The intention of this homily is to look at the human aspects of the story of the Annunciation to Mary that we have just heard. This will help us to have a better understanding and appreciation of what this remarkable 14 year old girl was invited to do by God and, thus, why St Luke presents her as the heroine of the Christmas story.
To begin with, listen to this:
A woman’s wantoness shows in her bold look,
And can be recognised by her sidelong glances.
Keep a headstrong daughter under firm control,
Or she will abuse any indulgence she receives.
Keep a strict watch on her shameless eye,
Do not be surprised if she disgraces you.
Like a thirsty traveller she will open her mouth
And drink any water she comes across;
She will sit in front of every peg,
And open her quiver to any arrow.
Although this passage from the Old Testament dates from around 170 BC, it reflects how a woman being alone in the company of a man was still viewed at the time of Jesus’ birth. Without this knowledge, it can be difficult for us to imagine how women in first century Palestine could never do anything alone. They either had to be always in the company of other women and children, or under the watchful care of their father, brother, husband or some other responsible male relative. It was automatically assumed then that a man and a woman who found themselves alone together would inevitably have sexual relations.
In addition to making sure that a woman was always in the company of other women and children younger than the age of puberty, a family home would have an inner room, blocked off from public view, reserved for unmarried women.
It’s worth knowing this because it looks as if it is a male angel who visits Mary who seems to be alone. It’s highly likely that she is in the inner room of her family’s home. If so, then the male angel is something of an intruder and this would strike any first century reader as highly suspicious, whether or not it actually is an angel who visits Mary.
Moreover, Mary is betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal then was a family event rather than the private one it is today between two people. A marriage then was arranged by the parents. So as soon as Mary reached puberty, her family and Joseph’s would have exchanged contracts before witnesses; Mary and Joseph would live apart (Mary living with her parents) until Joseph could provide for her; and sexual intercourse would not be permissible.
Thus with the visit of the angel Mary finds herself in a difficult situation. Should anything happen to her in the family home, her father and brothers would be shamed for not taking proper care of her, as this Biblical text explains:
Unknown to her, a daughter keeps her father awake,
The worry she gives him drives away his sleep;
In her youth, in case she never marries,
Married in case she should be disliked,
As a virgin in case she should be defiled
And found with child in her father’s house,
Having a husband, in case she goes astray,
Married in case she should be barren.
Your daughter is headstrong? Keep a sharp look-out
That she does not make you the laughing stock of your enemies,
The talk of the town, the object of common gossip,
And put you to public shame.
In reply to being invited to become the mother of the Son of God, Mary asks the angel “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”- i.e. I’ve not had sexual intercourse with my husband yet so how can this happen? She would be aware of the consequences of the angel’s message; and she’d recognise the problem and the crisis into which this pregnancy would throw not only her own family but poor Joseph and his family as well.
The angel then tells Mary, ‘Nothing is impossible to God’ and goes on to say how the pregnancy and birth will come about. People in that part of the world would have understood from the angel’s explanation that God was going to play the role of traditional husband for Mary. God, not a man, would bring about her pregnancy (“the Holy Spirit will come upon you”) and, furthermore God would be her protector (“will cover you with its shadow”.
Although Mary eventually replies: “let what you have said be done to me”, at this stage there still remains much for her to face. What is she going to say to her future husband? Will he, his family and her own family believe her? (According to St Matthew, Joseph did not believe her and was going to divorce her until he heard God ask him in a dream not to do so.)
Mary was just a young 13 or 14 year old girl when this took place. What else do we know about her? She was probably born in Nazareth, a town in Galilee of about 1,600 people. She would have spoken Aramaic and have a strong local Galilean accent (the broad Geordie of her day). She belonged to the peasant class which was about 90/95 per cent of the population. With her family she would have lived in a large, extended family unit where three or four houses of one or two rooms each were built around an open courtyard. These family members would have shared a cistern for water and a millstone for grinding grain. Domestic animals would have lived with them as well. And Mary, most likely, would have spent 10 hours a day doing domestic work like drawing water, gathering firewood, cooking meals and washing clothes and utensils. And, like Jewish and Palestinian women today, Mary probably had dark hair, dark eyes and a dark complexion.
From what the Gospel tells us and what we can reasonably surmise about Mary, it is very unfair to this young and full-time working peasant woman – who would have had calloused hands and broken fingernails, and who carried her baby to full term – to think of her as pale, fragile and delicate. There had to be much, much more to her than how artists, however lovingly, have portrayed her down the centuries.
This look at the culture in which Mary lived and the difficulties she encountered in doing what God asked of her will help, I hope, to deepen our understanding of just what a remarkable person she was. She must have been a woman of strong character and robust physique while, at the same time, being a woman ‘full of grace’, as the Angel Gabriel described her.
Given our difficulties during this pandemic, what is this tough woman, now at God’s right hand, saying to us?
Holy Name, Jesmond
20 December 2020