Because the Roman Catholic Church has in some ways over-emphasized the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, many Protestants tend to think of her as little more than a fixture in a crèche. Perhaps we should stop being concerned about thinking too much of her, but rather be concerned about thinking too little of this young Jewish girl who can teach us so much.
There is something very special about Mary, especially in Luke's gospel. Luke recounts more about Mary and her inner thoughts and feelings than do any of the other gospel writers. He places her at the epicenter of the incarnation.
Mary herself recognized her place among Christians: “From now on,” she sings, “all generations will call me blessed.” What is it about Mary that places her as preeminent among the saints, the foremost Christian?
Some might say that Mary’s importance is that she was the mother or our Lord. That was indeed a privilege, as her cousin Elizabeth said: “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43). But Mary’s greatness is not merely tied to her motherhood, as important as that was for her and for all mothers. It is not merely Mary’s biological role that is celebrated by the church.
Jesus himself destroys that notion. In a marvelous dialogue recorded in chapter 11 of Luke's gospel, a woman piously calls from the crowd to Jesus, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” What a privilege to be Jesus’ mother! But Jesus replies, “No, rather, blessed is that person who hears the word of God and keeps it.” The miracle of Christmas and the blessedness of Mary is not merely a matter of her biological equipment. Mary’s real importance was in her faith and courage, her humble servanthood.
In a Christmas sermon written 450 years ago, Martin Luther said that when Jesus was born at Bethlehem, three miracles occurred: God became human; a virgin conceived; and Mary believed. That Mary believed, said Luther, was the greatest of the Christmas miracles. All the rest could be done by God alone—but in this matter, God needed someone to say yes.
For this young peasant girl in Galilee, that call comes with Gabriel’s visit. Gabriel confronts Mary with an astounding, fearsome request. In the hundreds of paintings of the annunciation, Mary is often pictured as a calm, receptive, demure. I imagine that she might have been amazed, fearful, and overwhelmed. Angel or not, this must have been a disturbing intrusion on Mary’s life.
What if Mary had said instead, “No, thank you very much, but I’m not up to it right now. It’s just too much to handle”? We tend to assume that Mary had to say yes; that God knew Mary would say yes, and that is why he sent Gabriel to her in the first place. Of course there’s no way to know about this from God’s side of things—we only know it from the human side. And from our side of the equation, Mary had a choice to make. Faith is not programmed into us by God’s call. It involves a real response, a real choice.
Notice that Mary does not give an immediate assent, even to Gabriel. According to Luke, “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” And then Mary asks a question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Very early on, the church went on the wrong track about the virgin birth. People assumed that the virgin birth of Jesus Christ was necessary because of some assumed sordidness of sex.
But the virgin birth is not enshrined in our creeds because sex is distasteful to God. God invented it, after all. The point of the virgin birth is that self-assured, independent human action had to be excluded. If the Savior had been the child of two extraordinarily wonderful people, humanity could save itself. Instead, it had to be clear from the start that this was God’s sovereign grace at work and not human self-improvement.
Only God can save us. Humanity cannot make itself worthy or lift itself by its own bootstraps into God's holy presence. On the other hand, God will not force his way on humanity. God chooses instead to work through a human partner, a human gateway for his holy entrance.
Standing awestruck and afraid before the powerful form of an angel, Mary speaks for the whole community of faith throughout history, from beginning to end. “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.” Mary believed in the impossible possibilities of God for the whole human race. Mary’s yes rings out across the years as Exhibit A of human faith.
I remember talking to a young mother, a few weeks home from the hospital with her first infant. What astounded her, what she was really unprepared for, was the sheer loss of control. Once that baby came home, life revolved around feeding, diapering, sleeping, crying. She’d be lucky to remember whether she’d had a chance to shower that day. Her life was no longer her own. For nine months, the baby had gradually been assuming more and more control, until finally it pushed its way out into the world. Now that control was almost complete, and it would continue for the rest of her life.
God seeks men and women who are willing to open their hearts to the seed of God’s Word and the power of his Spirit—so that they can give birth to God’s will and God’s work in the world. Thomas Merton calls this the point vierge, or “virgin place.” It’s a place at the center of our souls that belongs only to God and that awakens only at his call.
In her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris writes, “I treasure this story [of Mary] because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks into my consciousness, do I run from it? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a ‘yes’ that will change me forever?”
In the Roman Catholic cathedral in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a large crucifix hangs over the altar as it should—Christ front and center. On the left, at the front, but clearly among the congregation, there stands a simple, modest icon of the Virgin Mary. She is not front and center. She stands among the people of God, and with them, her eyes are turned to the cross. That's where Mary belongs. She has a special place among God's people of all times and places as the one who believed the promise and gave herself to God's purposes. “I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your Word.”
As someone once said, “It's good to be related to the son of God on his mother’s side of the family.” She is our Lady too.