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A new look at Mary

The mother of Jesus is not someone to pack away after Christmas

By Cynthia L. Rigby

Illustration by Alejandra Vernon

Presbyterian author Kathleen Norris makes the wry observation that Protestants have a limited attention span for Mary, the mother of Jesus. We unpack her from the box at Christmastime, she says, and then pack her back up again, with our other decorations, after the holidays are over.

One reason we Protestants hold Mary at arm’s length is because we associate her with our own vague discomfort about the role of saints in Christian spirituality. As Protestants we remember that Luther and Calvin criticized the Roman church of the 16th century for compromising, in their understandings of Mary, on the basic Christian conviction that Jesus Christ is the one Mediator between God and humanity. Not wanting to make the same mistake, however, we inadvertently make another: We relegate Mary to the sidelines.

This may be changing. Publications as diverse as The Economist and Christianity Today have published articles about Mary. The time has come for Protestants to recognize Mary’s place at the heart of the Christ event and consider what she has to offer to our theology and spirituality.

Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians alike have argued that Mary is the model Christian believer, the symbol of the church in relationship to God. Consistent with this belief, Christmas sermons often lift Mary up as one of the great cloud of witnesses who respond faithfully to what God calls them to do. But these messages are incomplete. Certainly Mary is one among many people of faith the Scripture bears witness to and we celebrate. But she is also the only one who is identified as the “God-bearer.” And it is in this distinctive vocation that she serves as a model for the church in relationship to God. She reveals what it means for us, in turn, to bear God to the world.

The idea that Mary is “God-bearer” (theotokos, in Greek) was affirmed by the church in 451, at the Council of Chalcedon. This is the Council that formulated the Christology we still confess today: that Jesus Christ is “fully human and fully divine.” To confess that the young woman named Mary is the bearer of God is consistent with this affirmation. Born to a human woman, Jesus Christ is as fully human as every baby ever born. His birth to a human woman who is uniquely God-bearer reminds us that this human son is also fully divine.

Recognizing Mary as God-bearer leads us to ask questions about the character of our relationship to God. What does it mean to say that Mary — and we — are the bearers of God?

Not just a “God thing”

Not long ago a pastor friend of mine was telling me about a very successful ministry that she had conceived and implemented in her church. In response to my complimenting of her efforts, she replied: “It’s a God thing.” Of course she was right in giving all the credit to God. But she was only half right.

For further reading

Barth, Karl, “The Miracle of Christmas,” #15, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1/2. T. & T. Clark, 1956.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and Cynthia L. Rigby, editors, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Johnson, Elizabeth A., Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. Continuum, 2003.

Pelikan, Jarislov, Mary Through the Centuries. Yale University Press, 1998.

Rusch, William and Richard A. Norris, editors. The Christological Controversy. Fortress, 1980.

As the story of Mary shows us, to recognize the sovereign activity of God does not mean we need to minimize or deny our own participation in the divine work. To say that God is in control does not mean that God contributes 100 percent and we contribute nothing. On the contrary, the story of Mary shows us that God’s work includes us—not as worker bees who are brought on the scene to bring to fruition the druthers of the master, but as God’s creative partners in the ministry of reconciliation. The work associated with the coming of the Kingdom is all God’s, and also ours.

The idea that human beings are called to creative partnership with God is bound to make us uncomfortable. Even if we acknowledge Mary as “God-bearer,” it may be difficult for us to believe that we, like her, play integral roles in the coming of God’s Kingdom. There are good reasons to be skeptical that we have the capacity to “bear God.”

As believers in the Reformed tradition, we may embrace some version of “total depravity” — the idea that, in and of ourselves, we are incapable of knowing God, let alone representing God to the world. Mary’s story confirms our suspicions. Her self-identification as “virgin” has been understood by Protestant theologians to symbolize the incapacity of all human beings, in and of themselves, to participate in the work of God.

It might have been tempting for Mary, and it might be for us, to exempt ourselves from the mission to which we are called. “Sorry, Gabriel,” we might say, “I’d like to . . . but it’s simply not within my power.” Rather than withdrawing from the work at hand, most of us “can do” American Presbyterians either reject the notion of total depravity altogether or water it down. While we might technically concede ourselves to be woefully inadequate, our practical position is that we must nevertheless be able to dosomething if we really set our minds to it. A bumper sticker version of this philosophy offers the pithy advice: “Do your best, and God will take care of the rest.”

This is not a slogan Mary would promote. On the contrary, the story of Mary teaches us that, when we think we are contributing a little something to what is predominantly God’s work, we have not grasped what it means to be a believer responding to God’s call. In and of ourselves, we contribute nothing. But this is not the end of the story.

An “us thing” too

Another popular Christian motto, recognizing how little control we have over the circumstances of our lives, advises us to “Let go and let God.” But such a motto would also be rejected by Mary. As Christian believers we are called, not to passivity or waiting for God to compensate for our inadequacies, but to join in the work of God as those who have been made capable. As Paul puts it, we who can do nothing in and of ourselves “can do all things” through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).

This tension between our incapacity to participate and our integral place in the work of God is seen in the dialogue between Mary and Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38). “How can this be?” Mary asks, upon hearing the news that she will give birth to a child. “There is no way, in and of myself, I can pull this off.”

“Of course you’re right,” Gabriel agrees. (Contrary to our cultural expectations, Gabriel does not try to talk Mary out of her negative view of herself, recommending self-help tapes, etc. We would never hire him as a pastoral counselor.) Then he adds: “But nothing is impossible with God.”

So often we miss out on participating in the grace-full work of God because — unlike Mary — we refuse to acknowledge its impossibility. Instead, we work to make it manageable.

Key biblical players were often similarly resistant to the impossibility of grace. “What?!” Moses exclaimed (in so many words). “You want me to lead your people out of Egypt? At first glance that seems impossible, so let’s come up with a more manageable strategy, shall we? I’ll need a spokesperson, a miracle or two to perform … ”

Strikingly, Mary does not try to negotiate her way beyond the impossibility of what God is calling her to. Neither does she fold under the weight of it. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Gabriel tells her. And Mary accepts this. “Let it be with me according to your word,” she says. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

It is precisely Mary’s recognition of the impossibility of her participation in God’s work that gives way to her complete involvement. She knows she is utterly incapable, but she is convinced that, with God, she can and will participate in this divine work. She travels to Elizabeth, bursts forth with the prophetic words of the Magnificat, and ponders the significance of the Christ event and her place in it. “The Mighty One has done great things for me,” she rejoices, “and holy is his name” (1:49).

Risk-takers, poets, philosophers

Reformed theologian Karl Barth wrote extensively in Church Dogmatics about what Mary has to teach us, both about the character of God’s self-revelation to us and the character of our response to God. Barth refers to the birth of Jesus Christ as “the miracle of Christmas.” The miracle is twofold: First, it is an inconceivable thing, from the standpoint of human logic, that God would enter fully into human existence. God did not simply pay us a visit, arriving at Christmastime and staying around for 30-some-odd years. Rather, God revealed to us, in and through God’s birth to Mary, that God has entered fully into the human condition; God is human in Jesus Christ.

The second miracle is precisely that we are included in it. Despite our incapacity to contribute, we are real participants in the work of God in the world. Barth goes so far as to say that we, in and through shared humanity with Jesus Christ, are partners with the God who has claimed us.

Mary shows us what this partnership looks like. It is not a matter of our being equal to God or contributing equal parts to the divine work. It is not a matter of us signing on to a contract or a proposal that God has set before us. Mary did not “sign up” to be the bearer of God, nor was she consulted about the terms of her commitment. Her partnership with God was accomplished by way of faithfulness, by being true to who she was as one named, known and used by God. In embracing this, Mary did not contribute something to God’s work, but was instead caught up and included in what God was about.

And so it is with us — not that we “do our best,” giving what we can muster up to God and trusting it will be increased and used for some positive outcome. Rather, we recognize that we can do nothing, contribute nothing, and that we also enter fully into what God is up to.

What would our lives look like if we were to live in recognition of our identity as genuine participants in the coming of the Kingdom, bearers of God to a needy world? Our lives would be marked not only by peace and joy, but by profound creativity. As Mary shows us, to be a Christian believer is more than to respond to specific tasks God wishes to assign to us. One of the benefits of God’s grace is that we are made capable of being creative agents in God’s work.

As Mary traveled to Elizabeth, proclaimed the Magnificat, and pondered the circumstances around her, we are free to bear God to the world by being risk-takers, poets and philosophers. To know Mary as a creative agent, rather than as a passive vessel, makes it impossible to pack her away in a box. She teaches us that Christian service is more than perfunctorily responding to what God would have us to do. We who are called to share Life with the world are first invited to enter in and celebrate it.


Mary Heard the Angel’s Message

By Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

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.”

Hymn copyright © 1999 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (to be sung to BEECHER D, #761, Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal). All rights reserved. From Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today’s Worship by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, Geneva Press. 2000.

This article originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of Presbyterians Today.