The humble setting into which Jesus was born is never more clear than when it is viewed from the standpoint of his mother, an obscure young woman from a little village in Galilee, far from the powers that centered in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, many visual depictions of Mary, like the one above, tend to cloud Mary’s humble roots. The controversial song “Mary, did you know?” clearly contrasts Mary’s humanity and obscurity with her son’s fame and deity. Although Roman Catholics and protestants alike have strongly criticized “Mary, did you Know?”, I remain an unrepentant fan of the song. But more on that later . . .
The real question during this Advent season is not what Mary knew but what we know about Mary. As a protestant evangelical I’m aware that some in my circles are suspicious of any focus on Mary. After all, the Gospels are about Jesus, and there is relatively little about Mary in them, and even less about her in the rest of the New Testament. Christian reflection on Mary has produced a detailed Mariology, viewed at times by protestants as mariolatry. In any event, the gospel story of Jesus begins with Mary, so we turn to her in this post in the hope that we can shed some light and turn down the heat.
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Check out these previous Christmas/Advent-related posts:
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? (The Advent according to John)
We interrupt your warm, comfy, cozy Advent season with a message from the Apocalypse (Cosmic Warfare in Revelation 12)
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Mary in the Bible
The NT tells us relatively little about Mary. As can be seen in the chart below, Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 tell the story of her role in the birth of Jesus from quite different perspectives with very few overlapping details.
We can put Mary’s story together from these two accounts. In the following summary, information from Luke is in normal font, and what comes from Matthew is in italics. Bold font indicates details shared by Matthew and Luke. Mary is a virgin pledged to marry Joseph, living in the Galilean village of Nazareth. She receives an astounding message from the angel Gabriel: she will miraculously conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to Israel’s Messiah, who will be named Jesus. She humbly accepts this amazing role, and soon visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is already six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Her song of praise, the Magnificat, reflects humbly on God’s faithfulness to Israel. Things get complicated when Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy and plans to sever their relationship. But before that can happen, an angel visits Joseph in a dream and directs him to fulfill his pledge to marry Mary and name her son Jesus.
Before Jesus is born, in obedience to a decree from the Roman emperor Augustus, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral village, to be registered for taxation. Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem and receives a visit from shepherds who have heard of the Messiah’s birth from angels. Joseph and Mary have Jesus circumcised when he is eight days old, and they bring him to the Temple for the firstborn sacrifice and Mary’s purification 40 days after his birth (Lev 12). There Mary hears Simeon’s words about the anguish she will experience in the days ahead. Later the magi arrive to worship Jesus, directed by a mysterious star. They depart after learning of Herod’s evil intentions against Jesus. An angel warns Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous intent. Later, after Herod’s death, an angel tells Joseph to return to Israel. Back in Nazareth, the family travels to Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus is twelve years old. On their way back to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus is not with them. They return to Jerusalem to search for Jesus, and three days later find him in the Temple carrying on a learned discourse with the teachers there. When Mary scolds Jesus for distressing her and his father, Jesus replies that he must be in his Father’s house.
As Jesus’ ministry begins, Mary urges him to care for a shortage of wine at a wedding celebration in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-5). Later on she does not always fully understand and support Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:20-21, 31-35), but she is there at his crucifixion (John 19:25-27) and is numbered among his followers in Jerusalem in the days before Pentecost Acts 1:14). This is the last we hear of Mary in the NT.
Mary in Church Tradition
As the Church reflected on Mary’s unique role in the Gospels, a detailed Mariology gradually developed. Roman Catholics have the highest Mariology, evangelical protestants the lowest, and other Christian traditions such as Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism fall somewhere in between. Major aspects of Mariology are summarized below.
Immaculate conception. Mary herself was conceived immaculately, that is, without original sin. Some take it further by affirming that Mary did not commit personal sin during her lifetime. This teaching apparently arose to guard and insure the sinlessness of Jesus. Mary’s immaculate conception is commonly confused with the biblical teaching of her virginal conception of Jesus. One would think that the miraculous conception of Jesus would not need to be supplemented by the miraculous conception of his mother Mary. On the other hand, those who look askance at the idea of Mary’s immaculate conception may be surprised to learn that it was affirmed by Martin Luther and other reformation figures. Pope Pius X declared this long-held church tradition to be official Roman Catholic dogma in 1854. Tiepolo’s painting, like others at the time, portrays Mary crowned with 12 stars (Rev 12:1) and trampling the serpent (Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20).
Mother of God and God-bearer (Θεοτόκος/theotokos). This teaching was developed in view of the New Testament teaching about the incarnation of the Son of God. Accordingly, since Mary gave birth to a divine son, it is appropriate for us to call her the mother of God. She was officially given this title at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 CE. The Nestorian group preferred to refer to Mary as mother of Christ (christotokos) because they viewed the human and divine natures of Jesus as totally distinct.
Perpetual Virginity. After her marriage to Joseph, Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. In this view Jesus’ apparent siblings were actually his cousins or Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. Protestants often protest that this stretches texts like Matt 1:24-25; 13:55-56, but confirmation bias is in play here. If one accepts the ancient church tradition of an “ever-virgin” Mary as otherwise credible, one can accept alternate readings of Jesus brothers and sisters. Luther and Zwingli readily did so, and Calvin’s comments on Matthew 1:25 and Luke 1:34 seem to leave this an open question.
Bodily Assumption. At her death, Mary’s body was miraculously transported to heaven so that she could share in the glory of her son and continue her ministry of intercession. There is nothing in the New Testament about this of course; the tradition can be traced back to the fifth century CE. In 1950 Pope Pius XII declared Mary’s assumption to be official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox teaching of Mary’s dormition (sleep as a euphemism for a godly death) is similar to the Roman Catholic teaching that when Mary died her soul was immediately received by Jesus, and three days later her body was resurrected. Mary’s assumption is tied to the idea that Mary is the new Eve, answering to her son who is the new Adam (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:22). Her assumption would answer to Jesus’ resurrection. This appears to prepare the way for the additional teachings about Mary below.
Queen of Heaven (Regina Caeli). In his 1950 encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, Pope Pius XII explained why Mary is the Queen of Heaven: as the exalted mother of King Jesus the creator, Mary is the new Eve, the queen of heaven and of God’s new creation. Sometimes Roman Catholics explain this view of Mary as analogous to an ancient “queen mother,” who oversaw the administration of the court and palace as the mother of the king. Protestants find little reason to believe in this Marian doctrine because it is not taught in the New Testament and appears (to them at least) to detract from the glory due the holy Trinity alone. Some go so far as to cite (mistakenly) Jeremiah 7:18; 44:17-25 against this Marian teaching.
Mediatrix. As queen of heaven, Mary mediates Jesus’ redemption to the world. She protects and intercedes for Christians, mediating their prayers to Jesus. Praying the Rosary is based on this belief, which may be traced back to the fourth century CE. Catholics understand John 19:25-27 to establish Mary as mother of the entire church, not just of the beloved disciple. Catholic teaching acknowledges the unique sufficiency of Jesus Christ as Mediator between God and humanity while at the same time according to Mary a special status under Jesus that is not shared by any other human. It is only natural to approach the son through his mother—as the Mother of God, Mary’s intercession with Jesus is especially powerful. Protestants believe that no one except Jesus should be viewed as mediator between God and humans (1 Tim 2:4), and that all believers have the privilege and responsibility to intercede for other people in prayer. All the more problematic to protestants are occasional portrayals of sympathetic Mary persuading an austere, distant Jesus to answer prayers.
Co-Redemptrix. Mary is viewed as cooperating or sharing in the redemption of God’s people in the sense that she consented to give birth to Jesus and willingly offered him back to the Father. With this in mind she is sometimes understood as being near Jesus at the traditional stations on the Via Dolorosa, and is portrayed in close proximity to the cross. Roman Catholic theologians have referred to Mary as Co-Redemptrix from medieval times to the present. Of all the Mariological titles discussed here, this one is certainly the most controversial, even among Roman Catholics. In point of fact, the last two popes, Benedict XVI (2005-2013, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) and Francis (2013-), have both responded negatively to those in the church who want the co-redemptrix teaching to become official Roman Catholic doctrine. They express concerns about the biblical basis of the teaching, its lack of theological clarity, and its negative impact on ecumenical dialogue with protestants. Catholics as well as protestants wonder how Mary can be a redeemer of humans if she is a human in need of redemption herself.
Veneration of Mary. Due to her cooperation in the plan of redemption, her exalted heavenly status, and her unique role in interceding for believers, Mary is regarded with unique respect and devotion. This adoration or veneration (hyperdulia) of Mary is theoretically distinct from both the worship (latria) of God and the honor (dulia) given to those regarded as saints by Roman Catholics. Calvin expressed doubts about the distinction between latria and dulia but did not directly comment on the hyperdulia accorded Mary (Institutes 1.12.2). In this painting the founder of the Dominican order evidently performs hyperdulia, kneeling before Mary and receiving a rosary from her while young Jesus looks up at her.
Praying the Rosary and Luke 1:28, 42. The term Rosary (garland of roses) can refer to either a set of prayers used by faithful Catholics and other Christians or to a knotted string or set of beads that helps the faithful remember where they are as they pray the repeated parts of the prayer. The foundation of the Rosary prayer is the Hail Mary prayer. Two biblical texts are included in the Hail Mary, the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28 (“Greetings, favored woman, the Lord is with you!”), and Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary in Luke 1:42 (“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”) These verses are understood by Roman Catholics as portraying Mary as both recipient of grace for herself and source of grace for those who pray to her. Protestants accept the former idea but deny the latter. Catholics believe that praying the Rosary helps them to participate in Christ through Mary’s intercession. Protestants see no biblical basis for seeking Mary’s intercession, although they acknowledge God’s singular blessing of Mary, and her unique role in giving birth to Jesus the Messiah.
My take on Mariology. In the above summaries I’ve attempted to present the issues clearly and impartially. Some readers of the blog may be interested in my personal views. As a protestant committed to the sole authority and sufficiency of the Bible for faith and life, I believe it is appropriate to refer to Mary as the mother of God, the theotokos. The tradition of Mary’s immaculate conception is unnecessary—it “gilds the lily” of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, found in both Matthew and Luke. Mary’s perpetual virginity is a debatable but harmless teaching unless it is taken to imply that Mary is somehow more holy because of her abstinence from sexual intercourse. For me, things really go bad with the bodily assumption of Mary to be venerated as queen of heaven, mediatrix, and even co-redemptrix. In my view these teachings are not simply ascriptural ideas that go beyond the Bible in a harmless manner. Unfortunately, they unscripturally go against the Bible by elevating Mary to a place that ought to be reserved for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit alone. That said, I have no doubt that many faithful followers of Jesus from the Roman Catholic and other “high church” denominations sincerely believe that these traditions have been correctly inferred from the Bible by trusted church authorities and that they are edifying to the soul. I welcome dialogue on these matters in the response section below.
Now back to “Mary, did you know?” First, let’s agree that this is just a three minute pop song. It’s not a comprehensive introduction to Mary (like I’m attempting in this post). It trades in sentimentality and rhetorical questions, yet it cites solid biblical content in the process. Try finding anything biblical in “Deck the Halls with Bows of Holly”! The negative reaction to the song by Roman Catholics hinges on the dogma of the immaculate conception. Some Catholics take this teaching to mean that Mary did not need redemption. If that is the case, the lyric which asks whether Mary knew that the child she had delivered would soon deliver her is offensive—the song takes way too low a view of Mary. Protestant critics agree, but for different reasons. They seem to think asking Mary seventeen or so times (I lost count) whether she knew certain things amounts to biblical illiteracy. Gabriel had explained all these things to Mary in Luke 1:26-38, so she obviously would have answered “yes!” to all the questions. But did Gabriel really explain everything the song covers, and would Mary have understand it all even if he did? The Gospels make it clear that after Mary humbly received Gabriel’s message, she continued to ponder what it meant as the story unfolded (Luke 2:19, 33-35, 45-51). At times she misunderstood Jesus and his mission (Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 2:1-5). Yet her faith, like ours, was genuine if not yet fully formed.
Following Mary Today
The New Testament makes it clear that those who follow Jesus are helped by following the faithful examples of other followers of Jesus. Whether we accept the church traditions summarized above or not, we ought to follow Mary’s example of humility, faith, and obedience. Mary’s humble reception of God’s messenger Gabriel and her faith in God’s astonishing promise (Luke 1:29-38) starkly contrasts with the priest Zechariah’s unbelieving response to Gabriel (Luke 1:18-20). This contrast is not accidental or insignificant. Paul urged the Philippians to follow his own example and that of other godly believers (Phil 3:17). The author of Hebrews included Sarah, Rahab, and other unnamed women in the list of faithful heroes that served to encourage the book’s readers to persevere in following Jesus (Heb 11:11, 31, 35). Just as Joseph is an example to men and women alike, so Mary is an example to the whole church, not just to women.
As Jennifer Powell McNutt and Amy Beverage Peeler recently put it in the December 2019 issue of Christianity Today, Mary should be viewed as the first Christian. No doubt Mary had moments of confusion, doubt, and deep anguish as she watched her son’s ministry progress (Luke 2:33-35, 41-51; Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 2:1-5). Her difficulties enhance her role as our example rather than detracting from it. Unlike Jesus’ brothers (John 7:1-5), Mary followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and the cross (John 19:25-27). After the resurrection, Mary is listed prominently (along with other women and Jesus’ brothers) among the 120 believers assembled in the upper room, prayerfully awaiting the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:12-14; for the back-story see Luke 8:1-3; 23:27, 55-24:12). Apparently Mary was among those who received the Spirit poured out by her son on the Day of Pentecost, joining with the others who testified in tongues to God’s amazing works in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:1-21). As part of the nucleus of the Jerusalem Church, Mary would have continued to participate in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and testimony (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35). One wishes that there was more about Mary as Luke’s narrative continues, but this is our last glimpse of her in New Testament history.
This Christmas, as we worship the Christ-child and reflect on the miracle of his incarnation through Mary’s virginal conception, let’s thank God for Mary’s model of humble faith and obedience. When Gabriel’s words “Nothing is impossible with God”” (Luke 1:37) come to mind, let’s remember Mary’s response and echo it ourselves: “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true” (Luke 1:38 NLT).
In a recent sermon on Mary’s exemplary faith, Pastor Joel Wayne (Chapel Pointe, Hudsonville MI) said “Hope is the unwavering confidence to live in the power of God by radical submission.” To view the sermon, go here.