When a woman says “no”, she means “no”. That is the message of the Serious Request campaign that is holding Haarlem in its grip for 6 days. It is trying to do something about sexual violence against women in conflict areas.  This morning [21st December 2014] at 11:00, the St. Bavo church in the city centre was open in support of Serious Request.By so doing the Haarlem council of churches was showing to the public that Christians do not live in a confined world of their own. We are concerned about the fate of all people, body, mind and soul. The gospel means “good news” and what would that mean if it wasn’t good news for all people? And what would be so good if the position of one half of the population was not addressed? The Serious Request service was successful. The St. Bavo was so full that not everyone who wanted to go in, could.

Our gospel reading of today is also about women, namely Mary and Elisabeth. The campaign of Serious Request, “Hands off our girls”, is about saying “no”. No to sexual violence and exploitation. But at the same time it is saying “yes” to a better world. And that is not so different from the “yes” that Mary spoke to allow Peace to enter the world.

Many a sermon has already been preached about the “yes”, the “amen”, of Mary, as a response to God’s calling. Surely, she is an example of faith and love, compassion and strength, in a very positive way.

But sometimes, in order to say “yes” to life, to happiness, to the future, we have to say “no” to those things that are keeping us from equality, from growth in the image of God, from justice, peace and respect. And it is not unwise to be suspicious of those who say they act in our best interest, because many will only say so, but not mean it. From the very beginning of history, the evil one has tried to convince us that every bad thing was actually an improvement. Trespassing laws would make us more divine. The more liberties the better! And today many men and women and even politicians still feel a kind of secret excitement when they cross certain boundaries. Here lies the essence of our sinfulness, in the stubborn refusal to respect each other and to care. Too often, the very foundations of our society are violated. When democracy, complete constitutions and human rights are swept aside, we need to sound a very clear “no”.

So, are there any indications that Mary, apart from being “meek and mild”, was also capable of saying “no”? Yes, actually there are. When the angel comes to her, and begins to flatter her, calling her a favoured one, she does not buy it straight away. According to the story, she wonders what kind of greeting this might be. If this is a pickup line, it is a strange one, which is not going to work. When the angel then speaks about her getting pregnant, this does not exactly help.

But Mary hears him out. The angel is speaking of a future event, and of Messianic hope. And then she wants to know more. She will not say no just for the sake of saying no. In the end she realizes that giving birth to the Messiah will enable her to do vastly more than she would ever be able to do alone. Perhaps this is a lesson for us as well. We can only do so much when we work in isolation. We can do more when we work in a group that makes good use of the talents that are represented in that group. But we can do even more when we place ourselves in harmony with the will of God and cooperate with the Holy Spirit.

In paintings and drawings, Mary is often pictured standing on a serpent. This comes from the prophecy in Genesis about the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. In a similar way as Christ has been called the second Adam, so Mary can be said to be the second Eve. She, whom the author of the book of Genesis considered so sensitive to temptation, has become victorious over the tempter. It is like a firm “no” to any more evil.

So, what can we learn from this? I think there are a few things.

First of all that we should have the courage, like Malala and other molested girls, and like certain movements in our society, to say “no” to further injustice, inequality and corruption. And as we have seen, this was one of the important motives of Mary as well. As Mary is a symbol of the church, we would do well to also help crush the serpent’s head. Perhaps we can be more outspoken about the big issues and less judgmental about the small ones. We can never be with too few or with too many when it comes to denouncing social ills.

Secondly, we need a vision of something to say “yes” to. We cannot only have criticism. Mary did not overcome the power of Satan on her own. And she did not only say “no”. Neither did she expect salvation to come from women taking over from men. For there to be salvation, men and women, young and old should somehow be involved. And Mary trusted that her son Jesus, by the grace of God, would accomplish great things. She put herself in the service of God, risking ridicule, disappointment and suffering.

Paradoxically, even this involved saying “no”, but this time to self-sufficiency and short-term interests. It is not a shame to depend on others, yes, even on God himself, to achieve humanitarian goals. If we want to achieve a better world, we need every help we can get, anyway. And what better help there is, than from the Creator of the world himself, who knows us inside out, who knows when we tend to over- or underestimate ourselves and who can give us a clean heart after we repent.

Today our Serious Request is a Serious Prayer Request. We have the opportunity to ask God to assist us in fighting evil with that which is good. And we may ask Him to give us grace to be strong and compassionate at the same time. We may ask forgiveness for our own share in those things that are wrong with the world.

When a woman says “no” she means it. When Mary said no to darkness and despair, she also meant it. And she still speaks to us about hope in Christ. May her “no” and her “yes” never be silenced, but be taken seriously!