Text: Luke 1:39-55
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
There is a slogan that is popular in some circles that reads: “Well behaved women seldom make history.” It’s actually the title of a book written by a Mormon Feminist named Laurel Ulrich.
And there is some truth to her statement.
This slogan is often quoted as a way of encouraging women not to behave well, not to be submissive, but rather to question and to buck authority. For if one’s goal is fame and fortune in this world, if one desires to “make history” –one is more likely to succeed by behaving badly. One only needs to consider women who are considered great in pop culture to see the truth in Dr. Ulrich’s quip.
The very first woman, our common ancestor Eve, made history by not being well behaved. Eve was created to submit most immediately to her husband, and also to God. She had her place in the order of things. But Eve was convinced by Satan not to accept this patriarchal hierarchy, and she behaved badly. She disobeyed. She grabbed hold of that which was denied to her – and she demanded to leap over the authority of both her husband and her Creator-Father. She desired to be like God.
She made history all right.
Eve – along with her equally-guilty husband who did not protect her, who did not assert his masculine leadership of the family – brought death to the world. The two of them destroyed the perfect communion between God and man, devastated the ecosystem of the planet, and brought sickness, suffering, and death to our own lives. They invited sin into our universe. They certainly made history.
God promised the serpent who tempted that first badly-behaved woman that the Seed of that same woman would not only make history, but would define it. In the fullness of time, He would crush the serpent’s head. He would vindicate and redeem the badly-behaved woman and all of her offspring, not by condemning Eve, but by dying for her forgiveness and for the redemption of all her descendants. And He is the beginning and the end of history, the Alpha and the Omega.
In fact, all of history is divided between BC and AD to this very day.
Our Lord Jesus took flesh in a unique act of history. He walked among us. He taught. He preached. He worked miracles. He proclaimed the good news of freedom from Adam and Eve’s sin, and from our own. For Eve’s children, “for us men and for our salvation,” He took up the punishment of death that we have earned, bore it in our place on the cross, shed His blood sacrificially for the sins of the world, died, was buried, and rose again. And this He did as a matter of history.
Jesus behaved well, not merely in obeying the law perfectly for us (which He did), but also in sacrificing Himself for us in perfect love (which He also did) and being present with us, as He is and ever shall be, even to the end of history.
And on this holy day, the Christian world honors the greatest woman in history. She not only changed history, but carried History in her virginal womb. She not only obeyed God, but became the mother of God. She not only behaved well, but became a model of the kind of submission and humility that would shock and appall many women who would wear Laurel Ulrich’s quote on a t-shirt.
For Mary has a quote of her own: “My soul” sings the Blessed Virgin, “magnifies the Lord.” Notice that she does not exult in her own deeds. She does not call attention to herself. She doesn’t seek to make history. Rather she submits to the Father and to their Son. And by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, she proclaims: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Like St. Paul, St. Mary’s boast is in her Savior. Her glory is in her Son’s cross.
Blessed Mary made history not in being a bigmouth, not in her swagger, not in being great in the eyes of the world, not in showing that she is “as good as any man,” (as though that would be a step up), and certainly not in vulgarity – but rather in her humility, obedience, and purity. She is great for what she receives in humility rather than what she achieves in self-esteem. She confesses: “for He has looked upon the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.”
Indeed, history is most often made by scoundrels of both sexes: by the selfish, by the loutish, by those filled with the lust to dominate, by those who see themselves as great, by those who will not submit themselves to any man nor to any God who would call Himself “Father.”
Seldom is history made by a well-behaved woman.
But in the case of the one whom all generations call blessed, our “most highly favored Lady,” the one who bore and nursed the only perfect Man in all history, the one whose heart was pierced by a sword at His crucifixion, the one who bore Jesus in shame so that He could bear His cross in shame – all to take away our shame – she is history’s greatest woman.
Her simple act of submission, humility, and obedience was used by God in the Creator’s redemption of Eve, for she conceived and bore Him, “the Seed of the woman,” whose own act of submission, humility, and obedience redeemed all of mankind.
And what better understanding of the Christian life, the life of God’s mercy, the confession that we are truly justified by grace and not by works, can one find than this: “He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name”? In God’s kingdom, greatness lies not in what one does, but rather in what God does for us; not in making history, but being a humble instrument for the Lord to act within history. In God’s kingdom, history is not made by ill-behavior, but rather through confessing such ill-behavior as sin. History is not made by being assertive and loud, but rather in submission and obedience.
“And His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” For those who put their faith in disobedience and rebellion, seek not mercy, but rather desire to go down in history.
Eve went down in history. Our first mother, who was created by God out of a man and made perfect – she made history by bringing death into the world. But our new and greater mother, the blessed mother of our Blessed Lord, she conceived a man and was in turn made perfect by grace, by His defining act of history in bringing life back to the world. For that is the Lord’s goal of history – to remake the entire world perfect by grace. To be made perfect by grace is what it means to be a redeemed and forgiven sinner.
For it isn’t the ill-behaved Eve who made history by being hailed by the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” And it isn’t the anti-patriarchal Eve who is immortalized by St. Elizabeth with the words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” But it is rather the humble, submissive, pure, and blessed Mary who holds this highest of all maternal honors.
Most of our own dear mothers will never be mentioned in history books. Most never did anything great in the eyes of the world. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers may well have been overshadowed by the words and deeds of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers – but our mothers and grandmothers gave us life, nurtured us, and gave of themselves sacrificially for us. Maybe they were too well-behaved to make history. That may not make them heroic in the sense of a clever feminist slogan, but it does make them spiritual daughters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, women entrusted with precious life to bear and to raise. Billions of daughters of Eve have carried out this highest and noblest calling of all with no mention in history. And thanks be to God that this was not their ambition.
For Laurel Ulrich does not seem to understand the kingdom of God as confessed by St. Mary: “He has shown strength with His arm, he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, he has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” Those who seek to make a name for themselves by making history in this world will be humbled.
By contrast, to be great, to “make history” in God’s kingdom, is to follow Blessed Mary’s example. She submits. She obeys. She behaves well. She points to the divine and holy fruit of her womb at every opportunity. Her soul rejoices in her Savior.
And we sing anew to this most humble of all maidservants, this icon of all that feminism loathes, this woman most hated by Satan and by the world, in the words of the church’s ancient historical liturgy:
O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises: Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th’eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord, Alleluia!
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.