Finding Common Ground on One of Christianity and Christmas’ Most Polarizing Figures, the Virgin Mary
Many pastors feel nervous as the third Sunday in Advent, “Mary Sunday,” rolls around. What congregant will turn out to be suspicious of any unusual respect shown for her? What visiting Catholic will be mystified or put off by a cautious and understated Protestant treatment? Should a preacher reckon the service a success if both extremes come away disappointed? How can it be that Jesus’ own mother has become the church’s most polarizing figure? And more importantly, what can we do about that?
Mother of all stereotypes
Let’s begin with a sketch of two Marys.
This is the Mary of modest Protestant tradition, a humble, nondescript young virgin from the tribe of Judah. One day she got an extraordinary visit from an angel who told her that she would bear the Son of God. This wouldn’t happen in the usual natural way but by the sheer creating work of the Holy Spirit. She put her trust in the angel’s good news. She became a faithful wife and mother who protected and raised her son in sometimes extreme circumstances. At times Jesus surprised and even shocked her. Occasionally their relationship even seemed strained. But she stayed with him, all the way to the cross. She was among his faithful disciples in the Book of Acts. We don’t hear nearly as much about her as the apostles, let alone her Son. Nevertheless, she is still a beloved character in his story, especially during the Christmas season when we remember his birth.
Mary A is sparsely and cautiously sketched out, with very little speculation. She is basically what’s in the Bible about Mary. Indeed, Mary A’s fans speculate less about her than other biblical figures. They don’t mind conjecturing about Moses, David, Peter, Thomas, or Paul, but they seem unusually reserved when it comes to her.
By contrast, this is the larger-than-life Mary of most Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition. She was a holy child of devout parents, one of Israel’s royal line and the other of its priestly line. She exemplified faithful Judaism at its very best. She was even brought up in the Jerusalem Temple. And she was uniquely filled with grace to be the worthy vessel through whom God himself became one of us. She was ever and always a virgin, exclusively dedicated to her son’s mission. She was assumed body and soul into heaven, where she now intercedes for us and reigns under her Lord and son as the Queen of Heaven. She was and is a major player in Christ’s church.
Some of Mary Z is extravagant and legendary. Much of her story comes from outside the Bible. Her fans seem more ready to fill in details from her childhood or later life than other biblical figures. When you look at a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation or the Nativity, you are likely seeing details from the Protevangelium of James, a second-century apocryphal text. Many Christians just assume these details about Mary’s life are in the Bible somewhere.
Mary Z looms large in her fans’ imaginations, maybe too large. By contrast, Mary A is far less prominent, but maybe too much less. Given how different these two Marys seem to be, it’s easy to forget how much the two overlap. There’s some of Mary Z in Mary A, and a lot of Mary A is also in Mary Z.
Mary, quite contrary?
Our imaginations turn each Mary into something of a stereotype, and that exaggerates their differences. Mary A’s fans chafe at the line “Hail Mary, full of grace” in Roman Catholic worship. Yet in Luke 1 the angel did greet her that way. And Elizabeth did prophesy to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:28 and 1:42). Of all the women Luke highlights, she gets the highest light. The title “Blessed Virgin Mary” is biblical.
Mary Z is also more like Mary A than some of her fans realize. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ mother and brothers were so taken aback by his preaching ministry that they thought he was “out of his mind,” and they came to bring him home (Mark 3:21–32). It was then that Jesus said his family was whoever did the will of God (Mark 3:33–35). Faith is what makes us family, not bloodline or even glory. So Mary had some growing to do.
Speaking of faith, Mary A is an example of it. For centuries people had trusted God’s promises, but Mary was the first person to hear and believe in the good news of Jesus. We might call her the first Christian. Gabriel’s news ended whatever ordinary life she had imagined for herself and put her on a totally different and unpredictable course. And she embraced it. “I’m the Lord’s servant,” she said. “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She was ready to hand over all her dreams and fears about her future, take up an impossible and unimaginable calling, and cope with its lifetime of challenges. Jesus’ neighbors, by and large, didn’t accept him. The large crowds early on dwindled as Jesus disappointed their expectations. But Mary was still there with him at the cross, and she was right there in Acts 1, praying with the others to become the witnesses he told them to be. Mary A is a mentor, up ahead of us urging us along.