Rehabilitating Mary

Christmas is fast approaching and images of Mary are everywhere – from cards to Nativity scenes – but she is strangely absent from many, if not most Protestant pulpits. Yes, she may be accorded a passing reference in the Christmas narrative, but she can come across very much as a bit-part, or an ‘extra’ in the drama being rehearsed. But, for those who seek to measure the balance as much as content of preaching against the text being proclaimed, this should raise genuine questions.

It is not as though Mary is a low-profile figure in the birth narrative of Christ. She is more prominent than Joseph and is very much to the fore in Luke’s record. Why, then, does she appear to have been airbrushed out of so many Reformed and Evangelical sermons? The answer is probably because of a conscious reaction against the Roman Catholic view of Mary. Rome has accorded her an unwarranted status in worship and in salvation. It regards her as mediatrix and makes her an object of veneration. Such views find no warrant in Scripture and are rightly to be rejected; but, in doing so, it would be equally unwarranted to ditch Mary completely in the process of rejecting the ways she is misrepresented.

Indeed, Scripture demands that we recognise her unique role in redemption’s story and her proper place in the presentation of the gospel. The fact that Elizabeth, her near relative, loudly greets Mary as the one who is ‘blessed among women’ (Lk 1.42) says more than we might care to imagine. Such a statement – if it was spoken loudly enough for anyone within earshot to have heard – would have set tongues wagging in Elizabeth’s little Judean community. So it should resonate loudly enough in Protestant ears to make us ask whether or not we need to rehabilitate Mary into our preaching.

If we consider the context in which these words appear in Luke’s account of the Nativity, we see at least three reasons as to why Mary should be regarded as distinctively blessed.

Because of Grace

Given the force of Elizabeth’s greeting, it is possible to see how this high praise accorded to Mary could be lifted totally out of context by the Roman Church and be used to justify its cult of Mary. Rome’s theologians have inferred from the strength of this greeting that it must have been the original acknowledgement of Mary’s sinlessness – a requirement, in their mind, for their belief in the so called immaculate conception and the reason God chose her for the task of bringing his incarnate Son into the world.

However, we only need to read the text in its actual context to see how wrong such an interpretation is. In order to appreciate what Elizabeth says to Mary, we need to go back to the preceding passage and the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. As he greets her, he addresses her as the one who is ‘highly favoured’ (Lk 1.28) and as he allays her fears, he declares, ‘you have found favour with God’ (1.30). The verbs he uses both carry the underlying meaning of ‘grace’ in the sense of God’s unearned and undeserved kindness and mercy. So, God’s choice of Mary to be the mother of his incarnate Son was not based on her being the most suitable candidate available on planet earth. Quite the opposite: he deliberately chose her because she was a most unlikely candidate, humanly speaking. She was a sinner, just like any other human being (her sinfulness appears elsewhere in the gospel record). On top of this, she was almost certainly just a teenager who lived in a somewhat obscure and despised part of Palestine. In short, she was a nobody from nowhere, but God ‘graced’ her with the privilege of being mother to his Son.

Therein lies the root of all blessing and blessedness in human experience. It comes not because of what we deserve, but despite it. God’s blessing has its roots in God’s grace. And the fact that the ‘door’ by which God brought his Son and promised Saviour into this world was opened by grace is a potent reminder to us that the ‘door’ by which sinners receive salvation is opened in the same way. The blessedness of Mary and indeed of anyone has its roots in the grace of God.

Because of Christ

There is a second reason why Elizabeth is able to address Mary in this way: one that becomes apparent in how she goes on to qualify her statement about Mary’s blessedness. ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!’ (1.42). The ‘and’ [kai Gk] that connects these two expression can only properly make sense as a causal connection. That is, Mary is blessed because of the blessedness of the child she is carrying in her womb. Even in his unborn state, Jesus in a supreme sense was and is ‘the Blessed One’.

Yet again we need to pause and ponder afresh what it means to be ‘blessed’. In the devalued currency of so much evangelical terminology today, we need to go back to the rich biblical roots of what this word conveys. And, when we do so, we discover the most graphic exposition of blessedness is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount and its portrait of the truly beatified person (Mt 5.3-12). But, when we consider it, our struggle, even as Christians, as we read through its marks is that none of them are ever perfectly true of us. Does that mean, therefore, that we can never fully experience the blessings to which they are linked?

The answer to that question, thankfully, is an emphatic ‘No!’ Because as we look closely at the verbal brushstrokes Jesus is applying in these verses, we begin to realise they are first and foremost his own self-portrait. This in turn reminds us – as we so often need to be reminded – that all the blessings of salvation are bound up with our being ‘in him’.

It isn’t merely that Christ is the very essence of humanity that is perfectly blessed; but that he is also the means by which this blessing flows to all who trust him for salvation. (And, for Christ, this blessedness was not only signalled prior to his birth, but reaffirmed – often by the Father’s words from heaven – right through to his death, resurrection and exaltation.)

So the link between Mary’s blessedness and that of her unborn Son lies in the fact that her Son is also her Saviour! And the fact that her Saviour-Son is no longer on earth, but has taken his and our humanity into the heaven to which it ultimately belongs is tangible proof of the power of grace bound up with him.

Why, then, is Mary rightly called ‘blessed’? – Because of Jesus. He was set apart from his conception as the Messiah God had promised to bring salvation to his world.

Because of Faith

There is one further detail in Luke’s narrative of the Nativity that helps to explain what Elizabeth meant when she used such extravagant language to address Mary. And, yet again, it is a detail that helps us to appreciate the greatness of the gospel itself. It comes at the end of the section when Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’ (1.45).

It is possible that Elizabeth made this statement with a twinge of regret because of her husband, Zechariah, and his unbelief. He too had been visited by an angel and he too had been told of God’s supernatural intervention in his own life. But instead of humbly accepting God’s word, he questioned it. In that sense he had learned the hard way that when God speaks, his word is true and is to be trusted.

So, when Elizabeth links blessing to faith in her words to Mary, she is saying something that is true generally. Namely, that if we want to experience God’s blessing for ourselves, we need to take him at his word and trust him.

For Mary, to take God at his word would prove unspeakably costly. It meant the stigma of becoming pregnant before she was married (in an age when chastity before marriage was still cherished). It would also mean deep perplexity, not just over the ensuing nine months, but also for the next 34 years and longer. Yet, despite the pain and regardless of the personal cost, her words to Gabriel, ‘I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said’ (1.38) were to be the watchword of her life. And, in so doing, she was to discover the strange depths of God’s blessing – which, perhaps paradoxically, helps us to grasp the nature of ‘blessedness’ more fully.

It would be wrong to hold Mary up as an object of worship; but it would be equally wrong to ignore the recognition accorded to her in Scripture. She is held up as the first believer in the New Testament era who is a model for us all.

 

Mark Johnston

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