By Dr. Susan M. (Elli) Elliott, Analyst Westar Think Tank | 12-14-2020
Red Lodge, Montana
Christmas is coming and with it the many images of the Virgin Mary, Meek and Mild.
In the time before COVID, there were Christmas pageants. A little girl or a young teen might kneel demurely at the manger if she is cooperating, blue shawl over her head, opposite the boy in the bathrobe as Joseph, standing firm. They form the manger scene. Sweet and angelic Mary gazes on the baby Jesus.
The popular nativity scene at Christmas: Sweet and angelic Mary gazes on the baby Jesus.
Or we may think of Christmas cards with images of Mary in pale blue, gazing downward, hands in a posture of prayer.
Or we may recall works of art we have seen, statues and stained glass in church buildings and museums.
Our Lady of Perpetua, 15th c. Byzantine, date unknown.
Mary, hands folded in prayer or Mary holding the infant Jesus, appears as devout, meek and mild, an image of womanly perfection.
The Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus.
The beatific Mary of these images appears as silent in the still beauty of the Christmas night.
Is Mary silent, however, or silenced?
This image of Mary the mother of Jesus bears no resemblance to the image presented by the author of the gospel of Luke.
In the opening narratives of the gospel, Luke carefully constructs a contrast between Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Each receives a divine messenger, later identified as Gabriel, who announces the birth of their child. Both are surprised, Zechariah because he and his wife, Elizabeth, are old and beyond the childbearing years, Mary because she is a virgin.
Each responds differently, however, and the outcome is different for each.
The parallel narratives in Luke 1 follow a form found in Hebrew scriptures when a leader or prophet receives a divine call. The gospel author clearly follows the sequence of elements that Norman Habel* discerned in those narratives to present a telling contrast.
Each account begins with an introduction to the character. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are presented as virtuous individuals from good family lineages. Zechariah is a priest, and the scene opens in the sanctuary of the temple as he is fulfilling his service.
The description of Mary’s location is terse in contrast, and her location is described simply as “a town in Galilee called Nazareth.” Her lineage is not mentioned, but she is betrothed to “a man named Joseph of the house of David.”
The action begins in each with the first element of the form, a divine confrontation. A divine messenger appears to Zechariah in the temple and he shakes with fear.
The divine messenger who appears to Mary is named as Gabriel.
The messenger speaks to each of them using phrases characteristic of call narratives in elements of the form labeled the “introductory word” and the “commission.” Language familiar from birth announcements in the Hebrew scriptures is also incorporated.
The messenger assures Zechariah with the characteristic “Don’t be afraid” and gives him the news that his prayer is heard, that Elizabeth will bear a son. The messenger instructs him to name the child “John” and tells of the important mission John will have.
Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is one that often indicates that a call to a mission will follow, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”
The narrative then portrays her contemplating the nature of the greeting. Then the divine messenger explains her commission, beginning with the assurance “Don’t be afraid.” He tells her that her mission is to conceive and give birth to a son and name him Jesus. Jesus is announced as the one who will rule forever on the throne of David.
As is typical in call narratives, the one called objects. Zechariah asks how he can be sure of what Gabriel has said since he and his wife are both old.
Mary asks how this can happen when she has not known a man.
In each case, the messenger responds with a sign, a usual element in call narratives.
Because he did not trust the divine messenger’s words, Zechariah is struck dumb, unable to speak until the events are fulfilled and he later delivers a prophetic speech after the naming of his newborn son, John.
This narrative concludes with a description of Zechariah unable to speak and instead adds a response from his pregnant wife, Elizabeth, that indicates that the Lord has taken away her disgrace.
For Mary, the divine messenger explains that she will conceive by the holy spirit and the sign is Elizabeth’s pregnancy now six months along. Mary responds with an affirmation of her enslavement to the Lord and the prayer that the messenger’s message be fulfilled.
Zechariah, the temple priest, is silenced while Mary, called to conceive and bear the son of the Most High, speaks her assent to carrying out her assigned mission.
In the next scene, Mary really speaks. Proceeding immediately to the house of Zechariah in a city in the hill country of Judah, she greets the pregnant Elizabeth.
The power of Mary’s voice in greeting causes Elizabeth’s baby to jump in her womb in response. Then the holy spirit empowers Elizabeth to speak, blessing Mary and identifying her as the mother of the Lord and as one who trusts in the divine promise to her.
The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth. Wellcome Library
Mary then speaks the thundering prophetic message about how she herself has been raised from being a “slave girl” to an elevated status, someone to be congratulated for generations.
Then she goes on to prophesy about the smashing of the rich and mighty and the elevation of the poor and lowly.
Is Mary humble? Silent? Demur? Meek? Mild?
This fiery and revolutionary prophet proudly claims her elevated position. Then she denounces the mighty and proclaims their downfall and the raising of the lowly.
Imagine, then, the girl in the pageant, kneeling by the manger with her hands together in prayer. What would happen if she stood up, threw back her light blue shawl, raised a fist, stomped her foot to get our attention, and shouted out the Magnificat.
Artist Ben Wildflower’s depiction of Mary speaking the words of the Magnificat. This piece appeared in the Washington Post, 12-20-2018.
THAT girl would be the Mary of Luke’s gospel!
* This blog is based on an unpublished paper written during my doctoral work in the 1990s. That work was based on the elements delineated in Norman Habel, “The Form and Significance of the Call Narratives,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 77 (1965): 297–323. I have not researched this topic since. References to the content of Luke 1 use translation choices made in the Scholars’ Version.
Writer, Workshop Leader, and Environmental Activist in Red Lodge, Montana
Susan M. (Elli) Elliott is a writer, lecturer, workshop leader, and environmental activist based in Red Lodge, Montana. She began her doctoral work after years in urban ministry in Chicago where she served a local church, directed human rights organizations, worked in grassroots economic development, and organized direct actions on local and international justice issues. For several years, she managed construction companies and a mailing service as ventures to employ and train urban young people in Chicago. She also spent a year in a village in Mexico assisting with the economic development work of the Arizona Farmworkers Union.
Elli Elliott’s scholarly work focuses on the pagan and Roman Imperial backgrounds of early Christianity, including Greco-Roman mystery cults—particularly the cult of Cybele—and central Anatolian popular religiosity. Her first book explores Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the relation of the circumcision controversy to the practice of ritual self-castration. Her current book project is based on a lecture series offered in local churches and uses George Lakoff’s work on the family metaphor in political discussion to understand early Christian family language in the context of the Roman Empire She is the author of scholarly articles and reviews that have appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Biblical Research, Semeia, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and Listening, and a contributor to Eerdmans’ Dictionary of the Bible and The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.
Cutting Too Close for Comfort: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in Its Anatolian Cultic Context, 2003/2008.
B.A. equivalent, The Institute at Prescott College, Prescott, Arizona
M.Div., Jesuit School of Theology at Chicago
Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago
Adjunct Instructor, Humanities Department, Northwest College, Powell, Wyoming, August , 2010 to present
Faculty Member in New Testament, Lay Ministry Institute, Montana Association of Churches, August, 2008 to closure of institute
Faculty Member, Theological Education Institute of the Central Rocky Mountain Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1999–2003
Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1997
Lecturer of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, 1993-1996
Minister, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Fairmont, Minnesota, 2005–2007
Minister for Faith & Learning, Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2003–2005
Pastor, Zion United Church of Christ, Sterling, Colorado, 1997–2003
Director, Justice and Peace Network of the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1990–1992
Pastor and Community Program Director, Douglas Park Church of the Brethren, 1987–1990
Director, Interfaith Coalition for Justice to Immigrants, Chicago, 1981–1982
Coordinator, Alliance to End Represssion, Chicago, 1978–1980
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