When we think of significant women in Australia today we could probably name those who have achieved great things in sport:
Stephanie Gilmore – surfing
Cathy Freeman – athletics
Dawn Fraser – swimming
Shane Gould – swimming
or women who have achieved great things in entrepreneurial pursuits, perhaps infamously:
Gina Reinhardt – mining industry and richest woman in the world
and in science:
Fiona Wood – burns specialist and spray-on artificial skin
There are also others who come to mind that have been a part of our history:
Caroline Chisholm – endeavoured to help and house unemployed women in the establishment of white Australia laboured without recompense having to be persistent in asking male authorities for what was and died in poverty
Rose Scott – argued for the independence of women including the right to vote – Rose Scott actually became somewhat despondent with her contemporary women because they seemed complacent about the opportunities that were being offered them
Edith Cowan – advocate for unmarried mothers and the welfare of children. Without the efforts of Rose Scott, Edith Cowan could not have been the first woman appointed the bench of the Children’s Court and first the female Member of Parliament
These women were significant because of the social justice issues they confronted.
It seemed to me that our extraordinary modern women have only been made possible because of the work and efforts of those extraordinary women who have gone before them. Even so, we recognise that there are still many areas in which women are doing extraordinary things to realise equality for women and will pave the way for more extraordinary women in the future and, dare I say it, because behind every great man is a great woman, more extraordinary men, too.
So we find ourselves reading of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I wonder whether we have become so used to her as a part of the story of the coming of Jesus, we forget to think about what an extraordinary woman, if we can call her that, she was and paved the way for the changes our faith calls us to.
First of all, the word we translate, virgin, can also simply mean a young girl, which is kind of understandable – we would expect a young girl to not have had sexual intercourse. It may have been that she was only about 12 years old. In the Jewish tradition the rite of adulthood, that is when they become accountable for their actions, bar (sons) mitzvah for boys and bat (girl) mitzvah for girls is at the age of 13 years.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Mary was engaged to be married at 12 years of age – it wasn’t that long ago, relatively speaking, when the monarchs were being married to brides of this age and it wasn’t until the 1920’s that the concept of a period between childhood and adulthood developed called teenager.
So this young girl finds herself pregnant, she is not married, for which she would normally have been stoned to death, her fiancé has considered quietly calling off the wedding but has changed his mind and continues to be committed to her, and she goes off into the country to spend time with her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who is married to a priest. This woman is extraordinary in her day simply because she is an unmarried mother.
As a female, Mary shows an extraordinary faith. Excuse me, if, by today’s standards, that sounds sexist, but you need to remember that in her time, females would not have been educated, let alone educated in faith; that was up to their husbands. Mary has such a grasp on her understanding of, and relationship with, God that she can rest secure in the situation she finds herself,
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49)
And then, as a young woman, because of her understanding of who God is and her relationship with him, Mary displays an extraordinary sense of justice,
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
It is clear that we see in this child she bears, as he grows into the man and the ministry he does, along with his brothers (and sisters of whom we are told exist but do not hear) that she has passed her faith on to the next generation. She would not have been able to do this if she had not been an extraordinary woman who battled the conventions of her day, simply being a woman.
This is the faith that Jesus gave us and called us to. It is not a faith that is for our own pleasure, but one that inspires extraordinariness. It seems to me, what makes a person extraordinary is not that they are particularly special or gifted, but that they can see the things that are stopping others from sharing in equality and reaching their potential and doing something about it that will enable greater things in the next generation.
From the faith that Mary, and Joseph, instilled in their son Jesus, who shared that with his disciples, who shared that with the next generation, that led to the significant social justice changes within general society, such as emancipation of slaves, and the Church, including the reformation of the Church and the ordination and consecration of women.
It is probably true that the changes I am envisioning for the life of this Parish will be a challenge to what has been experienced and provided security in the past. I may at times feel a little despondent about the struggles of convincing others of their importance. And, I suspect, that I may not see the fulfilment of those changes in this place or, perhaps, in this world. It is my hope, however, that this model of being Church, motivated by my understanding of who God is and how I see the old model holding us back, will provide a platform for others to extraordinary things; taking the next step.
How we understand God to be, in our relationship with him, we will be able to see where there is a lack of justice and begin to do something about it. This is what makes us extraordinary people.