The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Reading: Luke 1:26-38
Today is when we celebrate the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of his Son. As I have said in sermons for the feasts of Our Lady over the past couple of years (which are still available on YouTube!), many believers have issues with celebrating the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in our salvation. Today will pass in many of our churches without so much as a mention of the Annunciation. All generations will call Our Lady blessed, but not, sadly, all our churches.
In the Church of England, this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, is also known as ‘Mothering Sunday’. In England, where the Church of England is still the established church, in name at least, it is also Mother’s Day. Mothering Sunday, however, while acknowledging the thanks we owe to our earthly mothers, celebrates ‘mothering’ more broadly, including both that of our physical and of our spiritual mothers, and, especially, that of our mother church.
St John, in his Gospel, describes Jesus’ care for his own mother, even as he is dying on the Cross. St John writes:
‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’ (John 19:26-27)
It is particularly appropriate, then, that this year the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary is very near to Mothering Sunday. The Annunciation, while being uniquely about God’s choice of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of his Son, is also about God’s affirmation of the gift of mothering. For some, however, ‘mothering’ is something of an unwanted gift that they don’t know what to do with.
One of the things that you frequently hear repeated in our churches at the moment is that the Church is a ‘patriarchal institution’. I use the word ‘repeated’ advisedly because many of those who say this of the Church are simply repeating a phrase they have heard without stopping to think about what it means. It has now been repeated so often that it is just assumed to be self-evidently true without there being any need for further justification and explanation. If an explanation is attempted, it normally takes the form of a recitation of examples of the terrible things that it is believed that women have suffered in the Church and because of the Church as a result of male power and privilege.
There is no question that women have suffered both in the Church and because of the Church. However, simply listing examples of the harm women have suffered as a result of the abuse of male power and then blaming it on ‘patriarchy’ is a bit like listing all the harm caused to people by the abuse of drugs, and then blaming it on medical science. Those who argue like this are just being intellectually and spiritually lazy.
I have no wish to defend male power and privilege, indeed, I think the abuse of power and privilege by men has done great damage not only to women but to the Church as a whole and that it still is doing great damage. Women are doing the Church a great service by calling it out.
What many male and female critics of the patriarchy seem to assume, however, is that for women to find freedom from male oppression and to achieve equality with men, women must compete with them. It seems reasonable to question why, for women to be set free from the abuse caused by the misuse of power and privilege by men, women must themselves become part of the patriarchy or, at least, should pursue the advantages and opportunities that historically patriarchy is believed to give. Paradoxically, for women to find freedom from oppression by men, it is simply taken for granted that women must become more like them, taking on roles traditionally reserved for men and receiving the same rewards for playing them.
It should be obvious to anyone that someone doing the same work should get the same pay and that this still does not happen with women being constantly discriminated against in the workplace is just wrong. Where the problem occurs for women who want to do the same work as men, however, is that women are not the same as men.
The fact is that biologically women and men are ‘sexually asymmetrical’. Erika Bachiochi, whose book, The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision I have recommended recently on our Church Facebook page has written:
‘Women and men are biologically and reproductively dissimilar. This sexual distinctiveness gives rise to a “sexual asymmetry”—the fundamental reality that the potential consequences of sexual intercourse are far more immediate and serious for women than for men.’ (Christian bioethics: Non-Ecumenical Studies in Medical Morality, Volume 19, Issue 2, August 2013, Pages 150–171)
To put it plainly: it is women who have babies.
Rather than a woman’s child-bearing potential being viewed positively, however, it is more often seen as a major disadvantage. For the purposes of this sermon, I did a simple search of recent articles in the Economist, which is hardly a radical newspaper of either the left or the right. The articles that appeared in the search had headlines containing such words as ‘penalty, perils, and pains’. A major issue for those writing the articles was the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’, which is defined as:
‘… the amount by which women’s earnings fall compared with their earnings a year before giving birth.’ (Economist, May 31, 2019)
Not only do women get paid less after giving birth, many women deliberately choose to take work that pays less money in order to spend more time with their children. That this is something that women would voluntarily choose to do horrifies the writers and, they argue, something should be done about it. It simply isn’t fair and not fair apparently whether it’s a woman’s own choice or not. That women should make such a choice is again blamed on the power of patriarchy to condition and influence women’s thinking and choices. It never occurs to those arguing like this that what they are saying may be more than a little patronizing towards the women making these choices.
I will leave the economics to the Economist and economists, and I will save the philosophical and theological discussion of patriarchy for another time and another place. I would, however, like to protest against the idea that motherhood should be seen purely as a problem causing women penalty, perils, and pains.
It is precisely this sort of thinking that has led many women to decide not to have a baby when they are young and to wait until they are older before trying, only to find when they are older that it is then much harder to conceive. Women are delaying giving birth when they are young because, when they are young, they are constantly being warned of the ‘motherhood penalty’ they will pay if they do, often only to suffer later another type of penalty as a consequence.
I realize that I am already taking a big risk as a man in talking about this, but there is a point to my risk-taking: the suspicion with which motherhood is viewed has also affected us for the worse in the Church, so that we are infected with the same virus of suspicion, when it comes to mothering, that exists in society as a whole, and it is precisely for this reason that we need the help and example of our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
When God planned to enter our existence to save us, he determined to do so by being born of a woman as one of us. The woman he chose was a young Jewish woman. When the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to conceive and give birth to God’s Son, the Blessed Virgin Mary saw it as the honour it was. She not only believed it, she accepted it and made it her choice. Her words may be well-known, but they are still moving and powerful. She says to the Angel:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)
But in God’s choice of her and her choice to obey not only is Mary blessed and honoured, but mothering and motherhood is also affirmed and sanctified. When God created men and women in his own image, God determined that it was through childbirth that the human race would continue and thrive. After God has created men and women, his first commandment to them is:
‘Be fruitful and multiply …’ (Genesis 1:28)
In the incarnation, however, God has lifted mothering to a new level by choosing a mother for himself. Not for nothing is the Blessed Virgin Mary called theotokos, God-bearer, the Mother of God.
This is not for moment to justify limiting women’s choices, paying them less, holding them back in their careers, keeping them out of the boardroom and corridors of power in our world, or any of the discriminations still suffered by women. It is to say that motherhood and mothering for all its penalty, perils, and pains is a gift of God to both women and men.
Regrettably, for some in the Church, issues of gender still come down to the question of whether women can be ordained and take up leadership positions in the Church. We need to see that discussions about gender have now moved way beyond arguments over which roles in the Church should be open to women. The issue of gender has become much broader and now concerns the nature of human identity itself.
Others in the Church, in their attempt to keep up with secular society, and at times to get ahead of it, are arguing, not only for a particular understanding of gender as it relates to us as humans, but also as it relates to God. This leads them to demand, for example, a radical revision of how we think about God and of the language we use especially in worship. It is now a very real question as to whether the God who is worshipped in many churches has any more than a passing resemblance to the God of the Bible and church tradition.
The choice we find ourselves offered in the Church is, on the one hand, from those who argue for a very limited and limiting role for women and, on the other, from those who want us to adopt a version of secular feminism. In neither of the choices on offer is mothering valued or given the honour it deserves.
In previous sermons, I have argued that the Blessed Virgin Mary offers an alternative paradigm for both men and women. It is one that recognizes the equality and dignity of both men and women as made in the image of God, while respecting their sexual asymmetry and its consequences.
One of the encouragements to me at the moment is that there are several outstanding women in the Church who are developing and arguing for such a paradigm. They are showing how we can break free from the sterile arguments between so-called traditionalists and progressives and from the constraints and limitations both seek to place on women. In the process, they are advocating for an understanding of gender and identity that goes beyond name calling and a limited fixation on ecclesiastical positions. They describe how both women and men can fulfil their calling as sons and daughters of God. It is perhaps no coincidence that the women I am referring to come from within a tradition that honours and venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary.
After the angel’s announcement to her, the Blessed Virgin Mary celebrates as a woman both the great things God has done for her and that God is the One who ‘has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts’ and ‘brought down the powerful from their seats’. In just a few short sentences, the Blessed Virgin Mary challenges the powerful and privileged while affirming both her identity as a woman and the value of motherhood.
As believers, we need to stop seeing motherhood as a disability to be overcome, and instead to see it as a calling to be valued and affirmed. This doesn’t mean going back to seeing a woman’s place as being in the home, unless, that is, the woman herself sees it as being there. It does mean that the Church should have the courage to affirm the dignity and worth of women as women and that includes a woman’s capacity to give birth and to be a mother.
And so today, we honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as the mother of our Lord and thank God for her, but we also seek to listen to her and learn from her.
There is much more that needs to be said, but the least the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to women who are mothers or who are contemplating becoming one is to pursue whatever career you feel God is calling you to, but not to be afraid also to value motherhood and to see it as integral part of God’s calling.
The Blessed Virgin Mary would remind men that God lifts up the lowly but brings down the powerful. It is in service that men are to fulfil their own calling. Men need to stop seeing motherhood as a handicap that holds women back and makes them less valuable either in the home or in workplace and to see instead the gift of motherhood as the God-given way for us to share in the creative power and activity of God.
Above all today, the Blessed Virgin Mary would ask us all, both women and men, to follow her example of obedience and to say together with her:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.