Following the BVM
I recently came across Margaret Solomon-Bird’s rendition of the Annunciation and found myself reflecting on what must have been a truly remarkable scene. I mean, imagine it: after centuries of waiting for God to intervene in the world through His long-promised Messiah, suddenly and without warning an angelic messenger shows up with the message that the Messiah is coming. But it doesn’t take place in Jerusalem or in the centers of royalty or power where we might expect it. Instead, God chooses a young woman named Mary.
Now, chances are that if you’re reading this article, you’re probably pretty familiar with Jesus’ momma. Rare is the woman in Scripture who speaks multiple times, and rare is the passage of Scripture where a woman speaks at any length. But Mary is a noteworthy exception to both of those expectations. She appears in all four gospels (Mt 1-2, Mk 6.3, Lk 1-2, Jn 2, 6.42, 19.25-27) and speaks in two of them (Lk 1-2, Jn 2). She sets up Jesus for his first public miracle (Jn 2), remains faithfully present at His crucifixion and death (Jn 19.26-27), and lived as an active part of the early Church (Acts 1.13-14). In short, Scripture makes clear that Mary is a tremendously important character in the story of Jesus and the early Church. Even in the contemporary Church, Mary remains a pretty big deal.
To get some idea of how Scripture portrays Mary, consider what the Gospel of Luke says about the annunciation:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin? And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And 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 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. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (Luke 1.26-56)
It’s quite the story, isn’t it? An angel appears to Mary, bringing her the news that God has chosen her to bear His Messiah. Mary responds, first in shock and then in humble obedience. Soon after, this miraculous event is confirmed during a visit to Cousin Elizabeth. In response to everything that’s happened, Mary breaks out in a song glorifying God for what He’s done.
The Annunciation and Marian Dogma
Now, I wanted us to begin with this passage because for some branches of Christianity, there are certain claims about Mary which are viewed as dogma, that is, as “truth revealed by God, which [the Church has] declared as binding” and necessary for faith. In short, these are things that certain Christians believe are necessary to believe about Mary in order to really be following Jesus. There’s a lot that goes into what are called the Marian dogmas, more than I can really do justice to (certainly when compared with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters here at Conciliar Post). But for the sake of getting on the same page about the dogmas, let’s run through them quickly.
First is Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is the idea that Mary remained a virgin her entire life and that she never had any children other than Jesus and that any suggestions to the contrary—such as passages in the Gospels that seem to indicate that Jesus had siblings (cx. Matt. 13:55-57, Mark 6:2-3, Luke 4:22; John 6:42)—are mistranslations.
Another Marian dogma is the immaculate conception—not, to be clear, Terry Bradshaw’s touchdown pass to Franco Harris in 1972, which was the Immaculate Reception. The immaculate conception is the belief that Mary was conceived miraculously and without the stain of sin, that her mother (traditionally known as Anne) had her without help from her father. This is not to be confused with the virgin birth, which is the claim that Jesus was miraculously conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The final Marian dogma is what we call the bodily assumption, where after finishing the course of her life, Mary was taken into heaven prior to her physical death. Again, don’t confuse this with what Scripture says about Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1.
These are the traditional Marian dogmas: her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, and her bodily assumption. And sometimes, when you talk to Christians who hold these beliefs, they will point to Luke 1 as the Scriptural basis for these dogmas. But the fact is that neither this passage, nor any other biblical passage about Mary, provides support for these claims. They’re extra-biblical.
Now, I point this out not in order to divide, but in order to clarify. For my own part, I’m an adherent to mere Christianity, which I think the Apostles’ Creed does a great job of encapsulating. And the only thing the Creed says about Mary is that she gave birth to Jesus as a virgin. So, I am firmly in the camp where, if you believe the Marian dogmas, I’m glad that you have found them beneficial for your faith, even if I am a little more skeptical of their biblical warrant and their necessity for faith.
Mary’s Special Role
But the dogma’s aside, what does Luke 1 say about Mary? First, we see that Mary stood within the story of God and played a central role within that story. And Mary seems to be quite aware of this.
In what the angel says to her in verses 32-33— And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”—and in what Mary herself says in verses 54-55—He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”—it’s clear that she understands herself to be standing as a character in God’s ongoing story with His People.
Particularly telling, I think, are the numerous references in Mary’s song to God’s miraculous work. By doing this, she communicates that she stands in a long line of Israelite women through whom God worked. Like the biblical characters Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, and Hannah, Mary could not have borne her child without miraculous intervention from God. In particular, like Hannah in 2 Samuel 2, Mary responds to the news of her Son with a joyous song of thanksgiving.
Now, Mary also seems to be aware that her role in God’s Story is unique because of who she gives birth to—the very Son of God, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh. In verse 48 she notes that from now on all generations will call me blessed—she’s seemingly aware that she’s been chosen to stand in a very special role. Her standing in the story is thus somewhat different than these other biblical women. Related to this, Christian theologians have long referred to Mary as the Theotokos, the God-bearer, because no one else in history can be said to have given birth to God, as Mary did when she gave birth to the fully human and fully divine Jesus.
Which, I think, leads to a lesson for us: all Christians should honor Mary for her special role in God’s story. We should recognize and honor Mary for her very (very) important contribution to the history of the world! Now, as a Protestant pastor, I’m not suggesting that we go about this quite the same way that our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters do. But I do think many Christians ignore Mary when there’s actually sufficient biblical warrant to honor her.
In practice, I have found it useful to reflect on how I honor other people in positions of importance and try to honor Mary in similar ways. How do I talk about world leaders, role models, or those who’ve gone before me in faith? That’s how I should think about and talk about Mary. Now, this can be as simple as remembering someone, thinking about them, talking about them, and showing them respect in thought, word, and deed. Or you can take it a step further, as I have, and honor Mary in the words that you use to talk about her. Perhaps even using some of her honorific titles, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary or Holy Mother. Of course, you don’t need to go that far. But let me encourage you to reflect on how you can honor Mary for her special role in God’s story.
Another thing we see in Luke’s story is that Mary stepped up and served God, even in the face of great personal discomfort and social stigma. This is actually a little clearer in Matthew’s telling of this story, where we see that Mary’s fiancé Joseph is quite concerned with how people are going to react when they see that Mary is pregnant. “Hi, Mr. Angel sir, it’s me, Joseph, you know, Mary’s fiancé? Um, are we sure this plan is okay? Seems a little risky.” Now, we’re not entirely certain what the Jewish law would have required of Israelite women who got pregnant out of wedlock at this time. But we do know that Mary would have faced some pretty serious social rejection because of her pregnancy. In a religious honor-and-shame culture, she may have been cut off from her family and community, and she may even have faced the threat of stoning.
In spite of that, Mary’s willingness to serve shines through. After hearing the message of the angel, in verse 38 she simply says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Don’t just rush past that. That’s an insane response. “Whatever happens, I’m happy and ready to serve.” Really?!? You’ve just heard some of the craziest news in the history of the world, you’ve asked a single follow-up question (which isn’t really a follow-up question) and now you’re good? I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. No, no, no! If I was in Mary’s position (which, I know, would be even more miraculous, but work with me here), I would have SO many questions and clarifications before I was even remotely okay with what was being asked of me. I’m Jacob in more ways than one: I wrestle with God, I push back. But not Mary. She hears what’s being asked of her, she steps up and she serves.
Again, Mary sets an example for us through her service. She’s not worried about what’ll happen to her if she serves. She simply does what’s asked of her. So, what about you: how can you serve God? What is God asking you to do? How is He asking you to faithfully step out and serve Him? Sometimes, it’s easy to think that God is going to ask us to do little things—to serve in church once in a while or help with an event or donate to the food pantry. Don’t get me wrong, those are good things. But I think Mary’s example is a little more intense than that. What is God asking of you that might hurt? Where can you serve in a way that’s going to make you uncomfortable or unpopular? Because that’s the example of service that Mary is setting for us.
Finally, Luke tells us that Mary sang in response to the angel’s message. In the song found in verses 46 to 55, which is known as the Magnificat, Mary praises God for who He is and what He has done. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, she sings (v. 46).
Mary doesn’t just recognize that she has a place in God’s story. She’s not just humbly serving. Mary is literally bursting into song as she does so! And it’s not a song about how awesome and amazing she is, no. It’s a song that gives all the glory to God, the provider and mighty protector of His people.
Do you have someone in your life who sings all the time? You know, maybe a coworker or sibling or spouse? Someone who seemingly can’t help but sing along with whatever is happening? Someone who has a showtune or little ditty for every occasion? She’s still working on developing her repertoire, but my daughter Bree is headed in this direction. She just sings and hums and dances her way through life much of the time. And I think that’s the picture that we’re seeing of Mary here. She’s just hanging out at her cousin’s house, sharing some news, and suddenly she breaks out into song about what’s going on because she’s just so enraptured! She can’t help but sing! She can’t stop herself from praising God for who He is and what He’s done!
In response to what God has done and what He has asked of her, Mary sings, she praises God. But let me ask: how are you when it comes to praising God right now? Now, I know it can be tough sometimes to sing God’s praises. Maybe you don’t like to sing or maybe you’ve just been having a rough go of it lately (trust me, I understand). But you can still live a praise- and song-filled life. You may not break out into spontaneous songs as you’re going through life, but you can still worship on Sundays. Or you can sing along to Spotify. Or turn on this thing we call a radio. How can you follow Mary’s example and sing praises to God for who He is?
Following Mary’s Example
Mary served as part of God’s story. She served even when it was uncomfortable. And she sang praises to God. That’s how Mary responded to what God was doing in her life. It’s an example worth paying attention to today. In 1 Corinthians 11.1, the apostle Paul writes, Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. And I think we can safely apply that to Mary as well. Mary is a worthy example for us to follow as we follow her Son. She leads by example with her standing, serving, and singing. And we would do well to learn from the example she set as she humbly followed her Son. Will you follow Mary’s example?
Image courtesy of Margaret Solomon-Bird.