Mary, Do We Know? Evangelicals and the mother of God

National Geographic’s December cover proclaims Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “the most powerful woman in the world.” The story itself examines Marian apparitions and Marian devotion across the globe, profiling those who claim to have experienced visitations and healing from Mary.

Speaking in the article to Mary's enduring appeal, New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy Jill-Levine says that because so little is known of Mary from Scripture, “you can project on her whatever cultural values you have.” While that is true to an extent, we are also told more about Mary in the New Testament than about most of the disciples.

Although evangelicals do not embrace Mary as an intercessor or source of miraculous healing, there is much we can learn from her portrayal in the Gospels. In the last decade, evangelical leaders like Timothy George and Scot McKnight have called upon the Protestant world to embrace the Biblical portrait of Mary and reflect with more care on what she teaches us. McKnight writes, “She has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.” So, how can our knowledge of Mary deepen our knowledge of Christ?

We might first recognize that Mary was on the margins of society. Likely poor, and certainly a socially ostracized figure in light of her gender, social status, and unwed pregnancy, Mary lived on the fringe. Yet when the angel appears — in spite of knowing the social cost which accepting this divine commission would bring — Mary willingly accepts her commission. And her mission indeed came with a cost, just as it would even more so for her Son, and for all who follow Him. In a sense, Mary foreshadows the sacrificial ministry of Jesus and the sacrificial ministry to which He calls His church. It is often recognized that Jesus frequently ministered to the marginalized of society. It’s worth remembering that his mother was on the margins herself.

Second, as George notes, Mary is “the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others.” In Luke’s Gospel, Mary first proclaims the good news concerning her expected Son. And her proclamation, as McKnight recognizes, declares that the coming of the Son means the proud are humiliated, earthly rulers are dethroned, and the rich are impoverished, while the humble and oppressed are lifted up and the needy are satisfied. McKnight states, “She exults that God is about to establish justice by ushering in the kingdom that all of Israel, especially the poor, have yearned for… Mary had a dangerous story to tell that would subvert injustice and establish justice through her son, the Messiah of Israel.”

Finally, we recognize that Mary was the first to trust in Jesus as God’s Messiah and was among His most faithful followers. Again, McKnight writes, “This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross — not just as a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it.”

Sacrificing her comfort and status for the mission of God. Proclaiming the fullness of the good news. Living in faithful and perilous commitment to the Lord Jesus. These are a few of the lessons we might learn from Mary. While evangelicals should not lift up Mary as an object of worship or devotion, her life and witness exalt the One to whom such acts of allegiance are owed.

Comments (6)

Leave a Comment

Thank you for this, Chad. As an evangelical who was raised Catholic, this issue always touches a nerve for me. I have enemies on both sides of the issue, but it really saddens me that when it comes to the mother of our Lord, we pretty much only seem to either love her too much or ignore her completely—except, as you so rightly observe, in our nativity sets and Christmas pageants. So few are willing to tread the more scriptural middle ground you’re describing.

I don’t mean to make a long post, but as a musician and liturgist, there’s something about Mary (no pun intended) that always catches my attention and helps me keep her in an appropriately elevated place.

The Magnificat—Mary’s song in response to Gabriel’s message—is a rather peculiar NT artifact when you think about it. For me it presses the limits of credulity to believe that Mary could have had the spontaneous creative intellect to compose and perform a versed musical number only minutes after a supernatural encounter in which this unwed teenage virgin has learned she’s to be God’s baby mama. I’m not ruling out the possibility that the Holy Spirit so possessed her in that moment that she spouted out a beautiful song of praise; she may have been a gifted musician for all I know. But I think it’s more likely that Luke the historian is carefully preserving apostolic tradition about Mary’s humility by sharing a piece of primitive church liturgy. If I’m right, it would be a tradition distilled from the lessons of Mary’s own character (she was still alive, remember), a poetic paraphrase of a marvelous story those first disciples must have heard dozens of times from her own lips over the years as they worshiped and encouraged one another in a time of tremendous persecution.

I don’t feel it betrays the literal hermeneutic to regard the Magnificat as a literary interpolation in the Gospel narrative; it would fit the genre so long as it was accurately representative of what actually happened. But whether I’m right or wrong on the textual issues, it shouldn’t be lost on us that the star of the Magnificat isn’t the performer. It’s the God who enables the performance in the first place.

I have been so exasperated with evangelicals that short Mary what she has done. The Bible does say that “all generation will call her blessed,” but some folks are so anti-Catholic that they throw the mother out with the Baby’s bath water. Mary was just a young woman, but she accepted the task the angel told her about of her own free will. She didn’t say, “Wait until I talk to my father,” or “I really should discuss this with my betrothed.” She just said yes. I think that everyone of us who has had a child have had to deal with the reality of our own sin being a source of trouble between us and our kids. If our 2 yr spills milk, do we get mad, blaming it on some sort of “sin nature,” or do we recognize our own contribution? Jesus was just a normal little boy, learning to control the body that He had created. He cried when His diapers were wet, spit up on Mary’s only clean dress, fell and skinned His little knees on the way to grandmother’s house. These things are not sin. Getting mad at Him would have been. Mary had to have had a lot of intelligence, grace, understanding and patience to deal with this. So many toss her character aside, claiming it was “just God” that helped her, but I expect God knew her heart and personality, too. Mary amazes me. I hope that we will get a chance to “talk” with her in Heaven!

Just ignore Mary, as so many Protestant Christians (but not all) have done for centuries.

Doesn’t it really come down to contrariness? You say black, so I beg to differ, and must insist on white.

That being said, if the primary focus in any way shifts away from Jesus of Nazareth, then that would not be pleasing to Mary…....., the great role model to all women.

I like this hymn based in the biblical stories of Mary and giving thanks for her faithfulness that has been sung by many churches and published in two books:

        Mary Heard the Angel’s Message
BEECHER 8.7.8.7 D (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”)

Mary heard the angel’s message: “Greetings, Mary, favored one!
Do not fear, for God is with you; You will one day bear God’s Son.”
Filled with questions, filled with wonder, She proclaimed her faith in God:
“May it be as you have spoken; I’m the servant of the Lord!”

When she heard her cousin’s greeting, Mary’s heart was filled with joy,
So she sang of God’s great blessing Promised in her baby boy:
“God has looked on me with favor, So I sing this song of praise.
God has worked, the proud to scatter… Humble, hungry ones to raise.”

Mary heard the shepherds’ story, Words she treasured with delight.
Then an angel gave the warning: “Flee with Jesus in the night!”
Mary wondered in her anguish, What would be the pain he’d know?
Fleeing then, she held him closely… One day she would let him go.

Mary heard, “Who is my mother? Who is in my family?
All who do my Father’s bidding — All these ones belong to me.”
Later, on the hill she heard him, “Woman, see your new son there!
You, my friend, behold your mother!” So Christ formed new bonds of care.

When they learned the Lord had risen, Christ’s disciples met to pray.
Mary was among the faithful, Bound in love, on Jesus’ Way.
God, we see her, Christ’s disciple, Loving, learning, serving, too.
Like her, may we hear and answer, “We, your servants, live for you.”

Biblical References: Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-20; Matthew 2:13-18, 12:46-50; John 19:25-27; Acts 1:12-14
Tune: John Zundel, 1870 (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”)
Alternate tune: HYFRYDOL, Rowland Hugh Prichard, 1830 (or 1855?) (“Alleluia, Sing to Jesus”)  (MIDI)
Text: Copyright © 1999 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Copied from Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today’s Worship by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (Geneva Press, 2000).
Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)    New Hymns: http://www.carolynshymns.com

BEAUTIFUL!  I was raise Roman Catholic and after the Viet Nam war I almost lost my faith.  A doctor got me an appointment with a Nazarene Pastor who introduced me to the risen Christ by taking me down the “Roman Road” over verses of Scripture and applying them to me and having me read and answering his questions. When I got to Roman 10:9-13 I was ready to throw away religion and false philosophies and invited Jesus into my heart.  This led me to study the Scriptures at non-denominational Bible College that was fundamentally correct in doctrine in every way.  But very anti-Catholic and said nothing good about it.  I tried not to take it personal I was a new creation in Christ and I was full of joy and peace.  Over the years I have slowly turned back to accepting Mary as the best of saints for all of her sacrifices for the Kingdom of Heaven.  I will never go back to the extremes that many do for both are sin. One day we will all meet her and find that after all she is very special to our Lord and the FATHER and thank her for being the instrument that brought the anointed God-Man into the world.  Though she in not the Intercessor of Mankind she with all the saints have been praying for the Body of Christ and the Nation of Israel for 2000 years.  I will thank this Jewish mother for praying for me to be a witness to the Jews and the Gentiles as a Sicilian American grafted into the root of Israel.  We will be in wonder to know and witness the reward she will receive at the Judgment Seat of Christ that none dare say she does not deserve it!  Glory to God the Father of Israel, God of Abraham!!!

As a denominational cross bred (when asked which ‘church’ I belong to I reply the church of Jesus ... which is every heart given in authentic love, adoration and obedience to Him). But if a description was to be made I’d describe my self as culturally Catholic, intellectually Protestant and Spiritually Pentecostal. Spiritually I’ve stood at the foot of the cross, looked inside the empty tomb and felt the rushing wind of Pentecost.  Glory and thanks be to The Lord Jesus for all he has given us.

And it was from thos background that I so thoroughly enjoyed this article as it aligned closely with my own understanding of Mary.

Not some ‘semi deity’ to be worshipped or prayed to (as an observant Jew the thought of which would’ve horrified her) but to be recognised for who she was, the choices she made, the example she sets and the cost she willingly paid.


The first to hear the ‘Good News’ of Jesus’ birth (from Gabriel), and hence the first to recognise Him for who He was.


The first to say to say ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘follow’ Him (agreeing with God’s will as spoken by Gabriel).


The first to to be prepared to give up her safety, security and risk death for Jesus.  At the very least she knew she faced utter social excommunication  .... and the very real likelyhood of being stoned ... by those she loved ... Joseph, her family and her community.


Mary. 


Not to be worshipped or prayed to (she would reject this heresy and direct you to her son Jesus).


But honoured and revered for who she was ... the first disciple of Jesus.


Why honour Mary? 


... because Jesus does ... 


‘Honour thy father and mother ...’.


Good enough for Him whose Spirit now lives in me, good enough for me.


Thank you, I enjoyed the article . 


Paul.

Loading More Comments

 

Leave a comment, Guest

You are welcome to leave a comment, guest. Please note, all comments are moderated by our staff. Your name and email address are required fields.
You are encouraged to create an account for additional benefits.

Why create an account?
* denotes required field.
Image Type: jpg, gif, or png.
Max file size: 50kb. Max dimensions: 100px by 100px.

See the latest in: