The problem with elevating Mary beyond her humanity
I’m sitting with the human frailty of Mary, the mother of Jesus, this week. It’s her week during Advent, but she deserves so much more than a week to me. I think the humanity of Mary is easy to miss because she’s so important to the Christian story. Mary bore God to the world. She becomes her Maker’s maker! She’s powerfully called the Theotokos (Θεοτόκος). That lofty title, among other things, gave her the veneration I think she quite deserved in fact. But along with that veneration came some things that distanced her from us and made her sort of impossible to relate to. I even lament, some days, that she gets a rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath, to set her further apart from the others characters in the story, and even from Jesus. Sometimes we see Jesus’ humanity even better than we see Mary’s!
At the risk of sounding heretical, I think we underemphasize her humanity in an effort to overemphasize her holiness. Some people think Mary was Immaculately Conceived. That is, that she was born into the world without “sin” so that she could give birth to Jesus because she wasn’t contaminated with the sin nature that is administered through intercourse. Some people think she is sinless too, and maintained her sinlessness by being a perpetual virgin.
I’m not really interested in refuting much of that, but I do want to think about the Mary that we can relate to. The beauty of the incarnation, which is the capstone of Advent, the birth of baby savior, is Jesus’ relatability. God comes to us, Immanuel, in the form a person. Fragile, weak, encumbered by the trials of Ancient Palestinian life. God loves us so much he became like us. It’s amazing, then, in an effort to venerate Mary, we remove some of her humanity. She becomes Other Worldly in her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, and her sinlessness. So even though I admit I am suspicious of these doctrines, I think at the very least we may want to consider the overemphasis and what it does to Mary as a real person.
Mary’s response is different than Zechariah’s
If Mary is so different than us, it’s hard to relate to her honest decision to say “yes” to God for Jesus in her life-changing moment. Mary willingly moved with God’s redemption project. And there was an option for her not to, but her faith and commitment are laudable and honorable. In all of her humanity, she makes a human decision to move with God. We can too.
The writer of Luke makes this contrast quite clear, because he positions the angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah right next to Gabriel’s visit to Mary and the two have very different experiences. One of the things that makes her so evidently strong is her decision to say “yes” to the Angel. Let’s tune into that scene in Luke. Luke is a Gospel written to the Greek poor, where Luke is emphasizing Jesus’s ministry to the outcasts. You can see why Mary is such an inspiring figure to begin his Gospel. Luke 1 is worth reading in full, so I won’t quote it here.
In both cases, Gabriel prophesies that a son will be born in unusual circumstances, in unexpected ways. The prospective parents (Zechariah and Mary, in this case) are worried but receive some peace. God has a plan for both of these boys; they are initiating something new into the world. They come from strange places; they might even be estranged, yet they are welcoming the world into a new opportunity and a new life.
Jesus’ mother Mary is young, and John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are old. Mary comes from a lower stature than Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Zechariah is directly involved in the conception of John. John’s a prophet inspired by the Spirit, and Jesus will be birthed by the Spirit. The reversal in statuses is a theme in the Gospel too: the son of the priest ushers in the King who will reign over Israel, the child of a virgin.
Both parents ask the angel Gabriel questions. Zechariah asks how he will know, for he doubts because of his age. Mary believes, but wonders about the cause, she asks, “How can this be?” The angel sees Zechariah’s question as lacking in trust, but reveals more to the trusting Mary. Mary trusts. Zechariah doesn’t. The priest is therefore silenced, and Mary who is quick to obey, is blessed.
“I am the Lord’s servant.” What does that mean?
It’s important to note that final response: “I am the Lord’s servant.” Pause for a moment as we look at that word “servant.” The word is “doulē” (δούλη) which is often translated a “slave,” but not often in this passage (except for in David Bentley Hart’s self-described “pitilessly literally” translation) it’s in the feminine, so it’s translated as a “female slave,” “servant-girl (N.T. Wright),” “bondsmaid (NASB),” “handmaiden (KJV),” but often “servant.” We get the word “doula” from that word. In the Greek Old Testament that term is often used to refer to earthly slaves, but when distinguished it’s listed as “doulos Theou” (δούλος θεοῦ), which means “God’s servant.” In the New Testament, that formula is rarely listed because it so often refers to servants of Christ (and when not, it’s usually quoting the Old Testament). We see this in Revelation 1:1 where Moses is given the title, and also in Revelation and Acts referring to the prophets; and sometimes, too, in James and Titus, for example, when the authors of those epistles refer to themselves in the same way. Finally, Jesus himself refers to himself as such. In the New Testament the shame of being lowly is turned on its head because God will make the proud ashamed, and exalt the lowly.
Mary signs up to serve God and, in fact, bear her maker; bear her God; become the Mother of God. You can see why elevating her is so tempting because what she agreed to do was so radical. It’s radical enough to be likened to bondage, but also radical enough to be likened to the freedom of being unbonded from the word. This new bondage is a revolution, and it’s a common motif in the New Testament: we are liberated from the slavery in the world because we now have a new Lord to serve, a new order in which to operate.
I think we can soften the language here, as some of the translators have done, but the radical commitment Mary’s making here reflects her radical departure from the bondage of the world; the one that would relegate a young girl to labor, disenfranchisement, and oppression, the one that would make her ridiculed for being pregnant before she was married. And, by the way, the aforementioned ideas that elevate her do nothing to undo the power structures that previously enslaved Mary, but in fact embolden them.
Mary births a revolution
You can see the revolutionary aspect of Mary’s life-altering choice in the very song she sings in Luke 1.
There is decidedly world-changing language in this song. The whole world is turning. The Gospel and the birth of Jesus in the world is turning it upside-down. She references her own low status, that she’s liberated from by her choice, and that she becomes high favored. God scatters the proud and arrogant, dethrones tyrants, lifts up the low, fills the power, sends the rich away. And there’s that word again, “servant.” God comes to the aid of his servant Israel. Mary’s fulfilling the role of Israel, and that will change the whole world. She’s bringing God’s promise to everyone in the amazing way: God’s servant is birthing God to the whole world. This radical shift is unprecedented; it’s revolutionary. Mary is the harbinger of a revolution.
She agrees to this charge, as a thirteen-year-old. I am not sure she is aware of what she is signing up for. It’s hard to know what’s happening in her mind. But I do think she offered an exciting and enthusiastic “yes.” She knew God was leading her and she followed God and ushered in the One who would save the whole world. We cannot underemphasize the importance of Mary in the story of world redemption. I guess that’s why it’s so easy to lift her up to unrelatable heights. There is an inevitability to this pregnancy, for sure: Jesus is redeeming the whole world. But how, and if, we participate, is up to us. Mary willingly moves with it. I think she did the right thing.
She made a huge choice and organized her whole life to bear God into the world. It is grandiose. It’s a huge deal. I think it is heroic, but I think many of us would have done the same thing. The truth is many of us, in our own right, have chosen to organize our lives around birthing Jesus into the world. We’ve had our Angel Gabriel moment. It is ecstatic and filled with joy. It’s that “conversion experience.” I remember mine. I remember finding Circle of Hope and what that meant for me. And that’s why I’m so serious about keeping this little operation we have going. It has been the best thing about my life. It saved me. It sustained my faith. It introduced me to my wife. That’s why I fight to keep it going and I don’t want it to get messed up.
I think many of us had that moment of infatuation. It’s not just passion that fuels our initial plunge of commitment, of course. We make a measured choice. I think Mary did that very thing. She wanted to participate in changing the world and she was the Lord’s servant. She wanted to advocate for herself and for others. You can hear that in her very song. Her enthusiasm, but also her measured prudence. It was a good decision for her and she is grateful for the opportunity! She wants to change the world. She sings a song of praise.
You may have had a moment like that. With your faith. You might have a precious memory of the past. And for many of us that memory is what sustains us. My initial experience in Circle of Hope is exactly what fuels my passion today. But while our past may motivate us now, we can’t expect the future to look the same.
It wasn’t exactly the revolution she thought it was
I don’t think this whole thing worked out exactly as Mary or anyone else in Palestine thought it would. Mary is singing about a political savior, and Jesus would certain be that, but in a way that she didn’t anticipate. It’s not like giving birth to Jesus immediately liberated her from all of the things we mentioned. Her life probably played out in a similar fashion in one sense. And it was still hard. The revolution unfolded probably differently than she imagined. But what I respect about Mary is that she kept going and kept following. Her lot in life, call it a burden or a blessing (because she probably called it both of some days), was to bear the savior of the world and to suffer his death. A son that would redefine family and nation.
But she kept going regardless. She kept moving with God. Partially because of that initial experience with Gabriel, but also because of the new things that God was doing in her life. What happens to us when our enthusiastic and romantic “yes” to God becomes jaded because our world and life just doesn’t work out the way we think it might. What happens when we suffer disappointment? What happens when we suffer loss? What happens when our community moves away? When we can’t find a building to call home? When we feel like nomads?
Harken back to your yeses, despite disappointment
That’s the story of Israel, unfortunately. That’s the story of Mary, in many ways, even after Jesus. She is poor, in diaspora, under occupation. What she has is this amazing experience with an angel to hold her through the terror. What her people had before is the story of the Exodus and the promise of a Messiah, whom Mary is birthing. It didn’t work out the way that she expected. In fact, after a few hundred years after, the Christians are in the nation-building statecraft name, with an Empire of their own. It’s actually what led to Israel’s downfall again. The Jewish people wanted to experience the United Monarchy again; Jesus brought something different, but then again, they ended up in the Empire game.
At some point, it’s hard to see the radical Savior king who is supposed to be liberating the poor and sending the rich away empty handed in Imperial Christianity. There’s some disappointment there. There’s some unmet expectations. But there are beacons of hope like Mary throughout our history.
For you, though, and for us, we have to harken back to our “yeses” to Jesus, some of which are fresh and new, some of which are that wide-eyed idealism that may have begun our faith. We can’t cruise on that, just like you can’t cruise on your infatuation, but sometimes remembering what it was before is helpful for now. But remember, it won’t be like it was. Mary’s life won’t be full of moments of revelation like Gabriel appearing. And as much as we want to preserve her holiness and her sinlessness, her life was more than just that. Life is complicated and full of problems.
What holds us isn’t just hope that what was will be again, but rather what is next. It is hard to preserve our fragile faith when we suffer disappointment, fatigue, anxiety, and poverty. Holding onto your faith is what we need to do, that’s all. But for us, in Circle of Hope, we are creating a space for people to do that. Those of us who lead might need to die to our precious memories of who we are. It might not feel the same. We have people coming in and out all the time. Rather than imagining what it was, though, we might need to see about what it can become. That’s the cost of progress and growth and moving with the Spirit. Loss, disappointment, but hope for the future. We are the ones who help create it. Mary endured, waited, and birthed a Savior that changed the word.