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23rd December 2001

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Scripture Reference

MATTHEW 1:18-25

Tonight is two nights before Christmas. What was happening on the road to Bethlehem two nights before the first Christmas? Mary knew her time had come. Perhaps Joseph had arrived in Bethlehem and was al-ready looking for a room for them among his relatives. He had relatives in this his tribal home. The word we translate "no room in the inn" was usually referring to a guest room in a relative's house. We tend to think the holy family wanted to stay in a guest-house or tavern with accommodation. But the word inn usually meant the guest room in a relative's house. This was how the word was later used when Jesus asked His disciples to go to a certain place and ask if they could use the upper guest room for the Passover meal. In any event, Joseph could find no room for them, even among relatives. So they sought, perhaps a cave, in the sheep fields. In a manger, she laid her new-born.

Two nights before Christmas, Mary was a typical middle-eastern girl. She was young, away from her family, modestly wearing a veil, sitting sideways on the bony back of a donkey that would also be bearing their sleeping mats, food and provisions for the journey, and whatever she had for the baby. Two nights before Christmas, Mary was just like the young women of Afghanistan under the Taliban. They too wear the burka, the veil, which covers them from head to foot. No man except her husband can ever see her face. These women live enclosed in cloth, their hearing and sight muffled. The windows on their homes are blacked out lest anyone see them. They have no education outside the home. No school. No university. 

Her main objective in life is to make her husband happy. Women have no individual rights and cannot change their circumstances. They are owned first by their father, then by their husbands. Poverty and ignorance combine to make a life of hardship. The life expectancy of a woman in Afghanistan is 44 years. Women's health care is almost non-existent. The rate of death in child-birth is one of the highest in the world. A male doctor treating a woman must not look upon her body and must stand in a passage and call out instructions to a female assistant. That is the lot of the women in Afghanistan. They understand Mary, giving birth unaided in a sheep shelter. These women, like Mary two nights before the first Christmas, are living BC…. Before Christ.

All over the world, women in poor and deprived countries live like that. Little education, often despised, used as chattels and unpaid servants, physically and sexually abused, owned and confined. And what about our Western countries? Many women in our enlightened countries still wear a burka. They are not seen in the Boardrooms of large corporations except for sheltered Government positions. Yet the coming of Christ made all the difference to women, to Mary and to women ever since, even though in many Christian countries we have been far too slow to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus had a deep commitment to women. Every woman mentioned in the Gospels is treated with respect. He speaks as if they were educated and spiritually mature. He asks them such questions as are normally asked only of men. He speaks with compassion and concern for their illnesses and embarrassments.

It was the same with His great Apostle, Paul. Paul had a deep commitment to women. Some women deride Paul for what they believe was his attitude to women. They do not know Paul. Apart from the Lord Jesus, no one did so much to liberate women from their cultural and spiritual bondage as did Paul. Every woman, and there are a score, whom he mentions by name in his letters is spoken of with appreciation and admiration. He encouraged women to lead the new house churches, to proclaim the Gospel, and be evangelists. He declared there was neither male nor female in God's sight.

Like the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul, Wesley Mission has a deep commitment to women. Most of our hundred or so Elders are women. As to our senior staff, we have been praised by the Government Office promoting equal opportunity, for our effective policies in recruiting, training and advancing women. Twenty years ago we had few women in senior positions. Today at Wesley Mission 77% of our staff are women and 76% of our professionals are women. 90% of our para-professionals are women as are 57% of our managers. This has come about as a direct result of strong springboard, leadership and management training programs exclusively for women. Our nation has not been as proactive as Wesley Mission. Unfortunately, the numbers of women in the workforce has boomed in part-time and casual work, but the percentage of women in full-time jobs in the Australian workforce has not altered in thirty years. The glass ceiling may be cracked, but it certainly has not been shattered. There are many still mouthing the old excuses and continuing gender injustice. 

Women are still wearing the burka. Women must emerge as integrative, situational leaders and have much more effective power in community decisions. The example of the Virgin Mary can help Australian women move from living before Christ. But Christian men have covered Mary with the veil. Bishops and popes have covered Mary with a burka as mystifying as that given by the Taliban. Feminist theologian, Anne Brown, probes the mythology that has been created about the person of Mary. She demonstrates how far from the Biblical narrative the Roman Catholic views of Mary have travelled. She highlights the way the Catholic interpretation of Mary has provided an ideal to which women should aspire. This ideal is so lofty it has separated her from ordinary women. Brown puts Mary back into a more realistic perspective, and gives ordinary women not a model to live up to, but a kindred soul with whom to identify. The church, dominated by Eastern men, and Italian and Irish popes, not known for their liberated views on women, developed an attitude to Mary and to women that effectively put the burka back on them. What do the Scriptures say about Mary?

The Bible teaches the Virgin Mary, conceived Jesus, without sexual intercourse. The virgin birth means Jesus had no human father. The virgin birth is taught in two Gospel passages: Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38. The belief in the virgin birth is found in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. But much later Roman Catholic tradition states Mary's virginity was physically preserved during the actual birth process: her hymen was not broken. Today that is questioned by some Roman Catholic scholars. eg. Karl Rahner. 

The New Testament teaches Mary remained a virgin until birth. Matt 1:25 "But Joseph had no union with her until she gave birth to a son." But in the following century the belief emerged that she remained perpetually a virgin. The "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned by locals: Matthew 13:55-56 "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us?", were said to be either Joseph's children from a previous marriage or Jesus' cousins as Jerome argued. They stated that her marriage with Joseph was never consummated. This view was opposed by Tertullian and others. The cult of Mary burgeoned during the Middle Ages. She came to be seen as Queen of Heaven, a title not found in Scripture. She became increasingly venerated. Mary is further called Mediatrix. In the Middle Ages the practice grew of praying to saints. Mary became especially popular to mediate between the believer and a stern Christ. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII said: "Nothing is bestowed on us except through Mary. Therefore as no-one can draw near to the supreme Father except through his mother." Mary was elevated further in Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. 

In the Middle Ages it was believed that Mary had lived without sin. In 1854 Pope Pius IX proclaimed: "We declare, pronounce and define that the most blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin." This has no scriptural basis. From the 19th century the veiling Mary was stimulated by alleged appearances of Mary at Lourdes, Fatima and elsewhere. There arose the legend that Mary had been assumed into heaven, like Enoch and Elijah. 

In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared she did not die, but God just took her up into heaven. Other growing attributes to Mary include that she is Co-Redemptrix, the co-redeemer with Christ. It was declared in 1965 that she "was united with Christ in suffering as He died on the cross' and co-operated 'in the Saviour's work of restoring supernatural life to souls'. Finally, at Vatican II, Mary was seen as Mother of the church and mother of all Christians. Pope Paul VI used this title in 1964. The Second Vatican Council affirmed all Marian doctrines, particularly calling Mary "The Mother of God." theotokos Mary is called in Luke 1:43 "the mother of my Lord." Some Catholic scholars translated this as "mother of God". Protestants reject these doctrinal deviations of recent times. Many people see in all of this nothing but superstition and mediaeval practises made doctrine.

I have many women listening now who have willingly taken the veil for Mary's sake. They have becomes nuns, devoted to Mary, and the service of the under-privileged, the ill and the Church. They pray for me devotedly and constantly. I admire and thank these women for their devotion and piety. But I notice among these nuns with whom I speak, a new understanding of what the liberty of the Virgin Mary means, despite a life-time of commitment beneath the veil. 

We can overlook the excesses of those who honour Mary, and the doubts of those who dismiss her, and recognise Mary was a Virgin who conceived. She was a young woman, utterly dedicated to God. With the birth of Jesus Christ, women everywhere, were lifted in status, significance and spirituality. The Old Testament was clear that the Messiah would be virgin born. 

Isaiah said: Isa 7:14 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." In Mary, that prophecy was fulfilled. We honour her as a servant of God. But we do not place on her the veil that removes her from our acquaintance. We need her kinship for our commitment to God. Men and women can realise in Mary we have a young woman who has utter trust and faith in God and who is willing to be used by God however God wills. Her commitment meant she is not a woman who lives "before Christ" but always in the presence of her Lord. Two nights before Christmas, Mary was just another Eastern woman. But she became the first to embody the Gospel of God: the Son of God who came among us to save us from our sins. 

Her commitment to Jesus Christ became the means of liberating her as a woman. She lived a fulfilled life and found eternal life. Men since have covered her with a burka of superstition. But her commitment to her son, Jesus Christ, meant that she was a free spirit regardless of what men may have later done. Men and women can find in her commitment to Jesus Christ an example of how we can be free from superstition and fear. Two nights before Christmas, Mary was just another Middle Eastern woman. But from the time she recognised Jesus as the Saviour of the world and carried her commitment within her heart, she became a new person, free from the customs and traditions that enveloped her. She is a kindred spirit with whom women and men can identify. By our faith we too can embody the Gospel within us. Like Mary we can recognise Jesus as the One who can save us from our sins. Like her we can treasure these truths within our hearts, and find the liberty of life in Christ.
Anne Brown, "Apology to Women: Christian Images of the Female Sex." (IVP, 1991) 
"New Dictionary of Theology." IV Press, 1988

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes


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