Today was the official Sunday to remember Mary being told by an Angel that she was going to become the mother of the Messiah, and that this was going to be a miraculous rather than human conception. Officially within the church this is called the “Annunciation”. Old technical term, but that’s the church for you. You can read the full story in Luke 1:26-38.
But I love the whole story in Luke 1, because it puts Jesus’ conception and birth in to a family context. The first person Mary tells is not (perhaps understandably) Joseph, but her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who has also miraculously fallen pregnant (though by her husband, the even more elderly priest, and recently dumbstruck Zechariah). In fact, Elizabeth’s baby (who will become John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus’ ministry) recognises that Mary is carrying the Messiah and kicks out in Elizabeth’s womb.
Two ordinary women, sharing the joys and fears of imminent motherhood, as women do the world over. Yet in that sharing, they realise that they are at the centre of something amazing that God is doing. And that God breaks in to such mundane and ordinary lives in such unexpected ways is truly amazing. There is another side to this as well; God being born as man to an ordinary, teenage peasant girl in a backwater town in a disregarded edge of empire province seems the most bizarre way to bring about the work of salvation of mankind. Surely it requires a palace, great signs in the heavens, kings and leaders from all over the world coming to acknowledge the birt?. Actually, we see that in Matthew’s account, but much more low key – the travellers who find Jesus were actually Zoroastrian Priests (Magi) and astrologers following celestial signs, not kings. And they have to slip out under cover of darkness to avoid giving the game away to a tyrant and mass murderer. Luke tells us that the first to greet Jesus were shepherds – people on the outskirts of society – one step removed from vagabonds and beggars. Hardly an upbeat, glorious heralding of the King of Kings, born in a barn.
But in such a humble birth, Jesus lifts up the humble, and in being born naturally, with all the blood, pain, indignity and mess of human childbirth, He lifts up the value of women and mothers too. In this arrival, Jesus shows us the value of all our arrivals, the dignity and value of all our births.
Which is why this passage gives me pause. Because at the same time we remember this miraculous pregnancy and birth and the value God places on each life brought in to the world, and each mother who brings that life forth, thousands of women the world over are dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Poverty, lack of proper facilities and care, poor diet, war, disease – all contribute to an appalling daily death toll of women and their babies. In Niger, 1 in 7 women will die in childbirth. In Sweden that’s one in 30,000. That is enough to give pause for thought. It is even more worrying when you consider that the nations of the world in 2000 agreed universally to reduce this terrible toll by two thirds by the year 2015. It is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. And it is the one goal that is least likely to be met – in fact if anything the toll is worsening in many countries, and barely improving in many others. It seems that, while God values women, children, pregnancy and motherhood, we do not. Almost all of those deaths are avoidable – it is our negligence and lack of will that is letting this hidden holocaust go on.
Mary’s prayer when she visits Elizabeth is known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – and talks of rulers being brought down, the humble and poor being lifted up, filling the hungry with good food, yet turning away the rich and unjust. She saw then that the child she carried was going to turn the world upside down.
Will we be the rich and powerful who are turned away from His Kingdom because we neglected justice?