Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Annunciation to St. Mary

Sermon / Homily on Luke 1:26-38

Mary, Mary, Not Contrary

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, / How does your garden grow? / With silver bells and cockleshells, / And pretty maids all in a row. For a few hundred years this nursery rhyme has been featured in children’s books and sung in preschools and nurseries throughout the Englishspeaking world. But like so many of its poetic peers, this rhyme is not innocent kids’ stuff.

There are several different interpretations of the poem ranging from the malevolent to the benign. On the benign end, it has been pointed out that the Queen Mary referred to had a lovely garden at Hampton Court Palace in London, and the rooms that overlooked the garden featured doorknobs in the shape of silver bells and decorations in the shape of cockleshells around the door plates. The pretty maids all in a row were actually portraits of her ladies-in-waiting.

Many interpreters find religious significance in the rhyme: They say that ‘Mary, Mary’ is Mary Stuart, the Roman Catholic queen of Scotland. The silver bells would be those rung in the Mass, the cockleshells are the shells worn as badges by pilgrims traveling to the shrine of St. James in Spain, and the pretty maids refer to the four girls named Mary who attended the queen.

Other, darker, interpretations suggest that the queen is actually Mary Tudor, commonly known as Bloody Mary for her violent suppression of English Protestants. ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary,’ then, is a way of saying that the queen is a disagreeable Catholic tyrant. Her growing garden refers to the graveyards that were becoming filled with the graves of Protestant martyrs and opponents of the queen’s rule. The silver bells and cockleshells are actually implements of torture, and the pretty maids are the precursor to the guillotine used against the queen’s enemies!

The only thing these interpretations seem to have in common is that whichever queen she was, there was something controversial, conniving, or corrupt about Mary, Mary, quite contrary.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, turns out to be the very opposite of everything suggested by the famous nursery rhyme. The virtues she displays are ones from which we can all learn and model for us a life of complete faith.

The story begins simply enough: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk. 1:26-27). Luke tells this story as though he were looking through a telescope in reverse, beginning with the God who created the universe sending his messenger Gabriel to the district of Galilee where there was a town called Nazareth, to the home of a virgin who was engaged to a man called Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary. And just as Luke brings the focus onto the little, insignificant town of Nazareth, so he brings the focus onto the fact of Mary’s virginity. Luke could have called Mary pais, meaning ‘girl,’ or paidiske, meaning ‘little girl, maiden,’ or even korasion, ‘maiden.’ But Luke insists on calling Mary parthenos, virgin. Luke’s insistence on this points to Mary’s purity and chastity.

Of course, at this point in her life, Mary was little more than a child. Girls were usually engaged at the age of twelve or thirteen, and their marriages were arranged by their families. Romantic love typically did not figure into such arrangements, and “In any case, the girl was too young to exercise much independent judgment.” 1 I imagine that Mary, like other young women engaged to be married, must have been busy making plans for her wedding. She must have wondered what life would be like with Joseph: living in a different home and with a different man. Perhaps she dreamed of having children: whom they would look like and whom they would take after. Maybe her sons would be carpenters and artisans like Joseph, and her daughters kind and good like Mary herself. Surely Mary could not have imagined the kind of thing the angel said was going to happen in her life.

The angel “came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:28- 29). Even in the world of the Bible, it wasn’t everyday that an angel of the Lord appeared to preadolescent girls. The phrase ‘much perplexed’ is actually a Greek word that means “utterly confused” or “greatly troubled,” and can suggest no little amount of fear. If a popular folk tale of the time was to be believed, Mary had good reason to be afraid. The story told of a jealous angel who appeared on a bride’s wedding night each time she married and killed the groom. Hence Mary’s fear is all the more understandable. According to the marriage customs of the day, if anything were to happen to Joseph before their wedding, Mary would be considered a widow. 2

In spite of her fear, however, Mary was attentive and thoughtful and open to the angel’s message, for Luke tells us that “she pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29). What did it mean that Gabriel had called her “favored one,” almost as if he had called her by name? Mary wasn’t a princess or a prophetess or a priestess. She had never been anywhere exciting or done anything extraordinary. She was only a small girl who lived in “a small town, of small regard.” 3 And yet one thing set her apart: “The Lord is with you,” the angel said.

Mary’s status as the “favored one” is the result not of education or training or hard work, but of sheer and surprising grace. Luke Timothy Johnson describes how surprising is this grace: [Mary] is among the most powerless people in her society: she is young in a world that values age; female in a world ruled by men; poor in a stratified economy. Furthermore, she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. That she should have found ‘favor with God’ and be ‘highly gifted’ shows Luke’s understanding of God’s activity as surprising and often paradoxical, almost always reversing human expectations. 4

No one, least of all Mary herself, could have expected God to choose her. But God did. For reasons hidden in the purposes of God, He chose Mary who had received God’s grace and favor.

Mary is favored by God for the task of participating in the salvation of the world. Gabriel announces that Mary will have a son to be named Jesus (v. 31), who will be the Son of God and occupy forever the throne of his ancestor David (vv. 32-33). In the face of such tremendous promises, Mary’s only question is, How? How can this be, given that she has no education or preparation? How can this come about, given that she is a virgin not yet gone to live with her husband? The angel replies that Mary will have a son because, as Fred Craddock puts it, “God is able.” Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35). The angel was not concerned with our preoccupations of biology and mechanics and chromosomes, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37).

That was all Mary needed to hear. Mary accepted the promise of God and said, “Yes.” It is an amazing step of faith for someone considered “too young to exercise much independent judgment.” Everything about it should have told her to say “No,” to run in the opposite direction, to have nothing to do with this unlikely means of bringing a child into the world.

What business did she, engaged but unmarried, young and unsophisticated, have getting involved with God’s plans to save the world? She had no business but God’s, with whom nothing is impossible.

That, friends, is the essence of grace-enabled faith. As Will Willimon says, “Like Mary, we think of all of the reasons why this doesn’t make any sense. We are not perfect people. We have baggage. We have limitations.” 5 But it is by grace–because God is able, because God can, because with God nothing is impossible-that we, like Mary, can say, “Yes” to God. It is from absolute trust and complete faith in God like Mary’s that we, too, can open ourselves to God’s purposes for our lives. Thanks be to God for Mary, Mary, not contrary, but Mary, full of grace who said “Yes” to God.


1 Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996) 48.

2 Alan J. Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreters Bible vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 51.

3 Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 27.

4 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991) 39.

5 William H. Willimon, “The Lord Is With You,” sermon preached in Duke Chapel, December 19, 1999.

Source: A Sermon Preached at Highland Park UMC

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries, Bible Analyses on Annunciation to St. Mary

Malankara World Special on St. Mary

Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary

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