Confidence and Humility: Mary the Preacher

This Advent, some friends and I have been reading Jacob of Serug‘s Hymns On the Mother of God.  Jacob was a fifth century monk, priest, and poet in the Syriac Church, and these hymns display the rich poetic interpretations of scripture that others in his tradition (like St. Ephrem the Syrian) were known for.  And in Jacob’s interpretations of Mary’s life and the Nativity, he has used beautiful poetry to talk about Mary’s virtues and the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation.  She is humble, pure, discerning, and wise and so she is chosen to bear the Son of God.  As Jacob imagines the priest Zechariah telling Mary, “that One whose glory fills heaven is in your womb. / The One who forms babes in all wombs dwells in you, Mary, because of this the babes exult and are glad in Him” (p. 55).

What struck me today in Jacob, however, was his depiction of Mary telling Joseph about her pregnancy.  Jacob has combined Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and has placed Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:39-56) before Joseph’s awareness of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18).  He envisions Mary telling Joseph about the Baby in her womb, interpreting to him the words of the angel Gabriel and the words of the Hebrew prophets as Zechariah and Elizabeth had taught her:

The Virgin also, with loud voice and uncovered face, spoke with him, without a bride’s veil. / And with the revelations and interpretations of the prophecy, she was urging him not to doubt on account of her conception. / He marvelled at her while listening to her, what must he do! The Word is great and who can believe in it without revelation. / She was telling him the words which she heard from the angel, and she was narrating to him how the priests in Judea had received it. / She was also reminding him what the prophets spoke;  he trembled while remaining steadfast, and he firmly believed everything, while hesitating.

Mary is presented elsewhere in Jacob in comparison to the liturgical items of the temple: she’s the ark containing God’s Word, an altar, a mercy-seat. But here Mary is a preacher.  And she presents a beautiful model for proclamation.  First, she’s speaking from a position of vulnerability.  Pregnant before her marriage, she could easily have been ostracized and shamed.  To speak out in such a situation required boldness, a freedom from fear of how Joseph would react.  Mary is humble and modest, but she speaks with confidence, a confidence that comes not from her own strength but because “The Word is great” within her.   She speaks what she’s received from the angel and what she’s been taught by Zechariah and Elizabeth, so she claims no authority for herself.  Yet she speaks confidently in order to inspire faith in Joseph. Altogether, she’s speaking, as the commitments of the House of St. Michael the Archangel say, both “with confidence and humility“.  The two go hand-in-hand.

Modesty and boldness, humility and confidence, are not polar opposites.  Each requires the other.  Confidence without humility is arrogance.  A lack of confidence also does not equal humility.  Mary displayed great courage speaking “with a loud voice and uncovered face” and “urging [Joseph] not to doubt”, and yet she is the epitome of humility for Jacob of Serug.  May God grant us such bold modesty.

  1. Jimmy said:

    That’s an interesting post Chris. It’s interesting here as I have been studying more the life of Jesus, we too place the visit of Mary to see Elizabeth and Zechariah before Joseph’s awareness.

    Mark, one of the team leaders who has traveled to Israel several times has shared with us that in those days, people traveled from Galilee to Judea along a path called the “Kings Road” or something like that. It went east from Galilee and then followed the Jordan river south to around Jericho before heading west again into Jerusalem. He told us apparently it took some 3-4 weeks to travel this distance. We are told Mary is to become pregnant in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Luke 1:26) and she then spent 3 months with Elizabeth after traveling there. With the travel time, Mary likely is at least 4 1/2 months pregnant when she returns to Nazareth and so the way at least we interpret it is that more likely Joseph realized at first glance Mary was pregnant by her bump and that it is the first time Jesus is rejected, by Joseph.

    I’m not sure I really agree with what Jacob says here about Mary’s preaching convincing Joseph, because later in Luke we read about how an angel comes to Joseph and tells him to take Mary as his wife to not be afraid. Why would the angel come if Joseph was convinced? I think it’s more likely that Mary’s explanation was in defense so as to not be cast out from the community. It probably planted some seeds in Joseph’s mind, though I’m sure he thought the whole thing crazy. Joseph from what it says was a man of faith, so he was probably more concerned with obeying Jewish law, thus the plot to divorce Mary. That to me seems more plausible.

  2. Chris Brown said:

    Thanks for the comment Jimmy. You’re right about the angel coming to Joseph. Jacob didn’t ignore the importance of Gabriel and Joseph’s dream either. The quote in the post ends with Joseph “hesitating”. On the next page, Jacob writes about the angel coming to Joseph:

    “Gabriel descended; he comforted him and brought tidings to him and explained to him all the readings of the prophecy. / The man of fire, from whose words fell burning coals, had appeared to the just one, and he trembled while believing and asking him questions. / ‘Who are you my Lord?’ The Watcher answered him saying ‘I am a servant of the child whom Mary bears.'”

    Jacob wasn’t trying to say that Mary convinced Joseph; he was painting a beautiful picture of what their conversation about her pregnancy may have looked like, portraying Mary as someone who bears the Word of God. Jacob’s also much less concerned about historical accuracy than we are. He’s a poet, so he’s interpreting the text as we would a poem. His art is literary and theological, not scientific, which is part of the reason why the church fathers seem so baffling to our modernist minds today. The call for us is to look deeper than the historical details and ask what Jacob’s really trying to communicate. In the quote here, he’s pointing out the beauty of the fact that Gabriel the Archangel bows to the child in Mary’s womb. In the context, Jacob also praises Joseph’s virtue, his reputation as a just man, his receptiveness to God’s Word, and his love for Mary. It’s those virtues that Jacob’s trying to inspire in us.

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