Discovering Mary

My daughter Erika forced upon me a question that would set me on a journey in search of Mary. Studying theology has opened a window that allowed me to catch glimpses of who God is and how I can relate to him in those snapshots. Like looking at old family photos, God with various people (Abraham, Isaac, David, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John) show a unique relational dynamic that reflects a broad canvas of human experiences. And there seems to be a corresponding title to describe each like “father,” “friend,” “master” and “servant.”

As I pondered the presence of God incarnated in life as my daughter, a question begged to be asked, “Has anyone related to God as a child?” Not just any child, but your own. The Bible does not seem to help since I could not find any family photos of God with someone reflecting that kind of relationship, at least not in the box where I was looking. It was when I looked outside the box that I would find photos of Mary with her son. They were there all the time except I did not see them. Protestant overreaction to Roman Catholicism’s preoccupation with Mary has super-glued my blinders on. Most of that reaction is valid, especially to the extra-biblical junk that has been added on from what we know about her in Scriptures but what do we know about Mary in the Bible? Ah, there lies the rub…it seems like we hardly know anything about her at all.

Mary comes into the picture as a counterpoint to Zechariah who gets his own angelic announcement regarding the birth of his son John (the Baptist), which was a miracle in its own right because of the age of his wife, Elizabeth. He had trouble believing and got struck dumb in the process (see Luke 1:8-23). Mary is visited by an angel with the announcement of the miracle of the birth of Jesus and her role, which she rationally processes (see Luke 1:28-38) and eventually accepts (Kenneth E. Bailey, Women in the New Testament, 1982).

“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:38).

Did Mary have a choice? The dialogue between Mary and the angel does not reflect an option, only her subsequent affirmative acceptance of the role. Elizabeth did not seem to have a choice, she did not know about it until after the fact since the announcement was given to her husband. Mary’s circumstance is completely different; an “accidental” pregnancy on Elizabeth’s part as a married woman does not carry with it the risk Mary might encounter as someone in an in-between status. Mary was betrothed to Joseph (Luke 1:27) which meant that she was legally married to him according to Jewish custom; but she was not ceremonially married yet and have come to live together to produce a child (see Matthew 1:18). As far as she was concerned, this would have been a case of bad timing. Could it not wait until she was finally married? Apparently not, somehow the choice—if she had any—had to be made.

This story is Mary’s story. There was no one else to validate what happened. Her narrative is after the fact that she took on the task of becoming the mother of Jesus and the issue of whether she had a choice or not is moot in light of her accepting that role. Perhaps whatever went on in her mind, if there was any struggle at all, can be best captured by her own son in his own struggle, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42b) What courage for a young girl in her teens to undertake.

Mary risked everything in responding to that call. Being in her in-between status, a mishandling of the situation could leave her without a husband and/or without a family. In fact, Joseph considered divorcing her (divorce was required since betrothal was legally binding in their custom) even before they got married and he would need his own angelic visitation to get things sorted out (see Matthew 1:20-25). If that did not play out well, she could very well have been stoned to death as the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11
my apocryphal imagination sees Jesus writing “mom” on the ground in between his declaring, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [John 8:8] My heart goes out to Jesus who felt the burden he might have been to his own mother). She lived with that dubious reputation and its corresponding risk.

On her way to giving birth she had to be brought along by Joseph who had to register for the census (Luke 2:1-5). Since women had no legal identity during that time, it is a pointless exercise for someone about to give birth to go down to Bethlehem for the registration (Bailey 1982). Mary would have been better off at home in Nazareth. Or was she? Luke 2:5 indicates that they
were not yet married as Mary was described as Joseph’s “betrothed.” Whatever spin they may have put to their situation, at the end Mary hints of the doubt that haunted her when she listed her genealogy to Luke:

“Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (
as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli.” (Luke 3:23
italics mine)

Their side-trip to Egypt as refugees from Herod the Great’s persecution may have been a blessing since it spared Mary and her family of the trauma of coming home to Nazareth amidst the rumors (which may also explain why they lingered for almost two years in Bethlehem after Jesus was born).

Mary stands now as the prototype of all who would count the cost and follow Jesus. Her faith was not the impulsive knee-jerk reactions of Peter. It was not the hyper-critical reasoning of Thomas. She soberly thinks, believes and obeys (Bailey). As the girl of courage she was at the beginning, she boldly follows her son all the way to be a witness of his death on the cross, as Peter denies him and Thomas as well as the others flees. She is the model to all disciples of all ages, and in faith, made her choice even before Jesus was born.

So what do we think of Mary? In the Protestant church we remember her only during Christmas. Any further references to her we immediately suspect a Catholic conspiracy. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church, has woven everything about her on being the mother of Jesus, which is not too different really from Protestantism.

That was the affirmation of a bystander who called out to Jesus in Luke 11:27, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breast at which you nursed!” Jesus would respond by saying, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28) That response has always been taken by Protestants to mean that it is “better to be a disciple than to be my mother” (my paraphrase) to downplay the Catholic emphasis on Mary as being the mother of Jesus. This is like a baby thrown out with the bathwater: we threw out Mary as we downplayed motherhood. Jesus, in that verse, gives the assessment of where his mom stands in the Kingdom of God. Kenneth Bailey said, “He is not saying you cannot bless her but rather bless her because she is a great woman of faith and deserves this praise.” Bailey goes on to paraphrase Luke 11:28, “You must bless her for who she is and not for who I am.”

To recognize Mary as the mother of Jesus is a great
disservice to her; but to recognize her as her son does—a true and worthy disciple—makes Mary greater than even attributing divine status to her.

In the meantime, between the initial drama of surrounding the birth of her son and until those heady days when he begins his ministry and journey to Jerusalem, she had to go through the mundane routines of life of raising a son and eventually a family. That would take around 30 years of changing diapers (or whatever it was they used then), cooking meals and putting band-aids for cut knees and hammered thumbs (you know what I mean). The best that Mary can do was to treasure up in her heart those things (Luke 2:51). Perhaps during those times she must have wondered what the point of all those was, which is about the same thing I feel everyday taking care of Erika.