Dismiss Her Quietly

Matthew 1:18-25 and Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Please pray with me.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise. 1

These are the words from the poet and theologian Maya Angelou. And they pointed me this week to young Mary- the mother of Jesus, the one whose name would later be praised in melody and poetry, Mary…the one who was on track to be dismissed quietly.

That was the plan according to this translation in the Gospel of Matthew. Because in that First Century context, betrothal was equivalent to marriage and even the smallest infidelity counted as adultery. If she Mary was pregnant before the wedding, Joseph’s only real option was to let her go, to break the engagement, to dismiss her quietly and move on.

Christian History and Tradition has made so much out of the other aspects of this story, that we might miss this detail entirely- the default position of the powers and principalities was to cast her off. And maybe because history couldn’t handle the whole truth, what was handed down to us is a dogma, that in my opinion has had dire consequences.

The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, asserts that Jesus had no natural father, but was instead conceived by Mary through a Higher Power. In fact according to this version of the story, the Angel tells Joseph not to worry or fear “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” As if that would make a person feel less worried…

This is the biblical way of waving a red flag to signal to the readers that this baby is something special. We read this in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, citing the text in Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

But neither the Gospels of John or Mark have an infancy narrative at all, let alone a mention of a sort of Divine conception. While it isn’t until the 2nd Century that the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth was universally accepted in the Christian church when it became enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed, even the Muslim faith has a theology that includes the Virgin Birth of Jesus. The idea is pervasive and still repeated among post-modern thinkers and believers…

And yet, in this time on planet earth, at this moment in our shared history, I can’t help but wonder if this idea, if this theology is not just to point out how special Jesus will be, but about dismissing Mary quietly, to minimize her power and plan in what God was doing in the world.

Because that word quoted in Isaiah, the word for virgin in Hebrew is almah and it occurs at least seven times in the Hebrew Bible and mostly it means a young woman who is unmarried, covered and hasn’t yet left the household.

In Greek, the language of the Christian scriptures the word for virgin is Parthenos. And in Greek Mythology, Parthenos was a princess reigning over the island of Naxos. She jumped into the ocean as did her sister Hemithea in order to escape an angry father Staphylos. Together they were they were transformed into goddesses by Apollon. “According to some the Goddess Parthenos was also set amongst the stars as the constellation Virgo.” 2

As historian Jean Markale writes, “When a belief cannot be definitively expunged it is rehabilitated by modifying it in some way so that it conforms to the new ideology.” 3

So Parthenos leapt into the sea and morphed from one kind of Goddess to another, Mary is Maria is Mare which means the sea…

But when she emerges, history reduces her and presents her as meek, head covered, lowly, powerless…and lucky to have a man like Joseph.

I believe we might do well to challenge the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, because I think it was a way to dismiss the Feminine. As if God needs things to be “immaculate” before any good work can be done. As if God needs her to be untouched by the world. Just as she is, just as life is, Mary is an essential player in what God was and is doing in the world!

Mary is Maria is Mare, the sea! She roars and foams with strength, along with all the ones whom the world has tried to dismiss quietly…

"Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still she rises." 4

So instead of reading the text like this: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Maybe we are meant to read it more like this?

“Look, this woman has the strength of a vast and powerful ocean; she is a Parthenos and she shall conceive and bear a son, who will remind the whole world “God is with us.”

This woman holds an ocean of depth and the strength of hurricanes within her and she can stand what will come. Don’t dismiss her; instead believe her!

That is a part of the Christmas story that is not likely to be featured in a movie on the Hallmark Channel- Jesus was on his way into the world, but the young and vulnerable mother-to-be was about to be dismissed, denied and cast aside.

Here’s the long-forgotten, life changing truth of the Christmas story: history hinges on a woman’s word. History hinges on her strength. History’s arc is moved by her. The heart of this story, a core piece of this whole incredible thing begins with a woman who wasn’t believed…

And before we join the throngs who tell the story in a way where Joseph is made out to be the hero for not acting too quickly to shame Mary, let us never forget that it took an act of Divine intervention for him to change his mind.

We aren’t told how long it was between the news of her pregnancy and Joseph’s decision, but what if she waited and wondered and worried for a while? It wasn’t until an angel of the Lord showed up in his dream that Joseph changed directions.

I don’t believe that the miracle of this story is that a young woman magically became pregnant with the One who would be called the Savior of the World. Rather, I am starting to believe that the miracle is about a woman who no one believed, a woman who was about to be dismissed quietly, a woman who believed in herself even when her protection and the safety of her unborn were slipping away.

She held on.

And we are here today, gathered in this way, devoting our hearts to hope and committing our lives to peace and love and daring to default to compassion and courage because of her. This whole enterprise begins with a woman who was to be dismissed.

“You may write (her) down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod (her) in the very dirt

But still, like dust, (She’ll) rise.”

“Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still she rises.” 6

As the prophets foretold, “Look, this woman has the strength of a vast and powerful ocean; she is a Parthenos and she shall conceive and bear a son, who will remind the whole world “God is with us.”

Fear not: God is with us, even you who are dismissed quietly, you who are denied and cast aside, you can still be the beginning of the Holy Spirit birthing something new…

Don’t dismiss; instead believe and come closer. History and hope hinge on it.

May it be so.

1 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise

2 https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/ApotheothenaParthenos.html

3 The Great Goddess by Jean Markale P. 14

4 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise

5 It was an essay by Celeste Kennel-Shank in the December 4, 2019 Edition of the Christian Century who got me thinking in this direction. Thank you!

6 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise

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