My friend Katie is a nurse midwife at Planned Parenthood. What this means is that she walks WITH women through a wide variety of reproductive journeys. Sometimes she sees women who have gotten pregnant as soon as they started intentionally trying, and they are thrilled to be having a baby! But… that scenario is relatively rare. More often my friend works with women who are experiencing complications associated with their fertility journey. Some of the these women have received a positive pregnancy test when being a mother is the LAST thing that they can imagine doing. Others are 2,3,4,5 miscarriages into their journey to have a child— and each loss devastating. Some women that Katie sees have been victims of sexual abuse or violence which has impacted their ability to have kids— and they feel re-victimized by what has been stolen. Others have medical conditions that make future fertility complicated or unlikely. Katie also sees women who already have children who are nearly grown when they have an “oops” pregnancy YEARS after they thought their fertility window had closed. And still others that she has journeyed with over the course of her career, have given birth to a long-awaited child, only to find that they are struggling to bond, or that postpartum depression has set in.
Her work is complicated and diverse—AND these journeys are being lived out around us every day… individuals and couples and families quietly grieving losses that are hard to talk about in public, OR making tough decisions that carry social stigma but are the right choice for their family at that time. I know a woman who quietly grieves the would-be-birthdays of the children she has lost. I know others whose lives revolve around ovulation kits, hormone shots, and endless cycles of hope and disappointment as they continue to try. There are those in this community who have become parents through adoption, and others who are raising grandkids or nieces and nephews because their biological parents were unwilling or unable…. I ALSO know folks who would tell you, confidentially, that they love their children, but that they are not sure being a parent was the right choice for them and that they might have chosen differently if they had it to do over. The fertility stories of the women around us are as numerous and diverse as the people in this room.
So, back to Katie, one of the things that is so striking to me about HER story, is that she was was at this job when she herself was struggling to conceive. For four years, she and her husband tried to get pregnant. Their desire to have a child was so great that they went into tens of thousands of dollars of debt attempting every fertility treatment available. Meanwhile, every day she went to work and held space for women whose authentic journeys were the inverse to her own. In her position, I imagine I would have been OUTRAGED at God— what justice is there in one person wanting nothing more than to me a mother, and another person wanting nothing more than to be freed of that burden? Katie’s ability to see the sacredness in each woman’s journey, rather than imposing her own narrative onto others, was awe inspiring to me. And so today, in honor of the good work that Katie and others at Planned Parenthood are doing, and in honor of the many fertility stories that are here are in this room, I want to invite us to look at Mary again, though new eyes.
When it comes to fertility, the Bible, can be REALLY triggering. In the Ancient Near East, the chief value of a woman was, first, her chastity, and then after marriage, her fertility. Throughout the Bible we are given stories in which God blesses someone who is experiencing infertility by making them magically pregnant: Rachel, Hannah, Sarah, Elizabeth… in fact, one article I read cited over 300 female characters in the Bible who are infertile until God “blesses them with a child.” Women’s infertility is used as a literary trope— a way of propelling the story forward and highlighting God’s goodness: woman is infertile, woman is pious and devout and prays for years for a child, God gives woman a child, child is extra special because they were a gift from God. So, what message does this send to woman who can’t get pregnant despite years of hoping and praying— OR what does it say about women who don’t want to become mothers— because they envision giving birth to something different in their lives? If God blesses the faithful with fertility, does child-less-ness suggest that one is NOT favored by God?
In these biblical stories, when a woman’s fertility journey is highlighted it is done so as to bring the reader’s attention to an important character (a MALE character) who is about to be born. Which brings us to our story today—one of the most unusual fertility journeys in the bible.The annunciation story of the angel visiting Mary to announce her pregnancy, mirrors the story that comes just before it, when the same angel visited Zechariah and told him that his wife Elizabeth, despite her late age, would soon conceive a child. That child, grows up to be John the Baptist… the outspoken rabble-rouser who paves the way for Jesus’ ministry and message.
And so, with that as foreshadowing, when the angel shows up in our passage for today, the listener can guess where the story is going: an unexpected pregnancy heralding the arrival of someone who will be important to the faith. But THIS time, the miracle of the conception is NOT that the mother-to-be is old, or that she is barren, but that she is unwed and, at the time of the angel’s visit, a virgin. Which IS, admittedly, a pretty good plot twist. Especially in this context when women’s central value is their virginity and motherhood, BUT it is impossible for these things to happen at the same time! And that impossibility signals to the readers that something BIG is underway.
But while it makes for a good set-up, I don’t actually think that Mary’s virginity— or the impossibility of her pregnancy— is what makes the story so powerful. And yet, if you were to go out into into town and ask people what they know about Mary, I would put money on the fact that her virginity is the first, and maybe the ONLY thing they would come up with. She is the “perfect woman,” both a Virgin and a Mother, all of the purity and none of the sin. AND, when that is what you highlight about her, no other woman can ever emulate her. But for most folks, that is where her character stops— which I think is a real disservice, not only to Mary, but to what she has come to mean to the rest of us.
Mary was a young teenage girl, maybe 12, maybe 15… but definitely young. She lived in Galilee, which was not an important city, but rather a rural border town— a place we might describe as the “middle of nowhere.” She was betrothed, but not yet married to, an older respectable man who, in essence OWNED her. In these circumstances she found herself pregnant in a culture in which coercive control of female sexuality was a common measure of masculine honor. That she was pregnant with a child without having consummated that marriage to Joseph— would have been an affront to his honor, and grounds for punishment— most likely, her death by stoning. Or at least exile: being kicked out of her family, discarded and left to beg for a living. And what could she REALLY tell her husband, “Look, I know you have a deal with my dad, and that I am to be your wife— and that you negotiated a deal based upon my virginity… which I still am… but here’s the thing, an angel visited me and, it turns out, I am pregnant…” I know we are used to this story, but try, if you can, to imagine being that young teenage girl. Try to imagine how terrified she must have been when she received this news. Her entire value was linked to her virginity and fertility, and she has control of NEITHER of those things, and has just found out that she is pregnant— and not by Joseph.
The angel has come bearing news that could, literally, end her life. She must have been TERRIFIED. And with that in mind, now listen again to what she says:
“My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servants. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—and holy is God’s name.”
Let me be honest, this is not, how I would have responded if I were I in her shoes… at all… Mary’s response is known as the Magnificat deriving from the Latin translation of this passage, which says: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” which means “my soul magnifies the Lord.” It is the longest direct quote from any woman in the New Testament— and one of the most powerful passages in the bible. Carolyn Sharp, Episcopal Priest and professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale University writes this about it:
“Mary’s Magnificat is a powerful poem that holds together the grittiness of life on the margins and the resilient hope of those who trust in God. I don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat, but as a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future. Mary’s courageous song of praise is a radical resource for those seeking to honor the holy amid the suffering and conflicts of real life…”
So I guess for me, the miracle of Mary’s story, is NOT that she was an the impossible virgin mother. The miracle is that this girl whose life hung in the balance, a girl who was reared in a patriarchal culture that saw her as property, a girl who for all intensive purposes should have been voiceless; the miracle is that SHE believed that she was BLESSED by God. Seriously, think of the audacity of her believing that her own life not only had value but was blessed by God.
AND then, the NEXT miracle is that her betrothed, Joseph, who was a respected man and had his reputation on the line, chose, against all odds, to believe her… to take her voice seriously and listen to what she had to say about her fertility journey AND the fact that she is blessed. (pause) We are in a much more progressive culture than the Ancient Near East, and we STILL have a hard time supporting and trusting women’s choices around their fertility journeys… we STILL have a hard time believing women— so much so that someone went into a Planned Parenthood last week and murdered three people for the choices they were presumed to be making or supporting.
THEN, the next miracle is that together, Mary and Joseph decided to let go of their preconceptions about what parenthood SHOULD look, to set aside fear, to trust one another, and trust what was unfolding in their lives. But here’s the thing, trusting what is unfolding does not mean that one will be shielded from pain— no, Joseph and Mary raised a willful child who defied them at every turn and got himself into one scrape after another, and chose a really dangerous career path. And eventually, they had to go through the thing that every parent most fears, the violent death of their child, whom they loved more than anything in the world.
Mary’s story is what the journey of parenthood— and really, what the journey of LIFE, is all about. Her story is not really about her being a miraculous virgin. It’s about the courage and audacity of a young, scared woman. It is about the trust and support of the people who believed her when she shared her story. It is about life unfolding in unexpected ways and the ability to still witness God in the midst of it all. It is about wild improbability of believing that, no matter your social location or the way other people may see you, that you, and you, and you, and ALL of you are worthy of being blessed by God.
So back to my friend Katie, the midwife. She and her husband are now parents to the chubbiest cheeked little boy you can imagine. They have turned the corner in their fertility journey— and are now in the next phase— the part that is about the sleepless nights and chronic physical exhaustion—and even though the journey to get here looked nothing like what they had planned— they know, without a doubt, that they are blessed.