Preface: There is an inherent difficulty posed to Christianity by our contemporary feminist consciousness: Christian imagery and personae are mostly male. Christmas is a keen reminder that God became incarnate in one human individual, who was biologically male. On the ride home from church, Jessica reminded me of this difficulty, leaving me to wonder whether the reinterpretation of Mary I make below does anything to address it, or to the contrary, makes it worse. As always, I welcome readers’ comments.
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The fourth Sunday in Advent is both the Sunday of peace and of the annunciation to Mary. These two themes are connected by Mary’s wonderful song, called the “magnificat,” a powerful testimony to shalom or peace, as we shall see.
Mary is a powerful female figure in the Christmas story, especially in Luke’s version. (So is Elizabeth; and by the way it’s possible that Luke intended to put the Magnificat in Elizabeth’s mouth, but that would really mess with our traditions.) It’s very attractive in our day to highlight the role played by the women of the New Testament, and so in some respects I envy the level of devotion to Mary in the Catholic church, in which many of you grew up, incidentally. What can we Protestants make of Mary?
Perhaps we do well not to make too much of Mary. In some stories in the gospels, Jesus seems to dismiss his biological family, preferring instead his new family of disciples. Moreover, traditional teachings about Mary focus heavily on her procreative miracles; I’d rather focus on this, well, magnificent magnificat. Perhaps we should reconsider Mary with this question in mind: just what kind of miracle is at the heart of the Christmas story?
Already in the early church but even more so in the early medieval period, the church became obsessed with miracles as testimonies to divine power, a power that perhaps we can tap into via saints or relics or devotion to Mary, and so achieve forgiveness, bodily healing, perhaps wealth, fertility. As you go down this route, religion merges into magic: the attempt to control occult forces to get what we want.
Are miracles really that important? We need not deny that they happen. For while they do pose a problem to our scientific worldview, that worldview is far from complete; for instance, recent experiments confirmed some of the odder properties of quantum mechanics that even Einstein found baffling. But miracles are not unique to Christianity; other religions and their founders work their own kinds of miracles. Perhaps that is why Jesus himself is ambivalent about “signs.”?? Perhaps we should follow his cue. Do Jesus’ miraculous deeds really mean as much to us as his disclosure of God’s character by his words?
But what is a miracle? A defying of the laws of nature? Why are we so anxious to defy nature? Is nature wrong, or bad, or something we feel shackled to? Is nature not God’s already? Does it have to be defied to be a vessel of salvation? Why do we want to defy God’s creation?
Likewise, why should Mary’s miraculous virginity become our obsession? Is not ordinary humanity good enough for God? Is it polluted by natural procreation? That’s what some influential teachers proclaimed over the centuries. But the church also wisely taught that Jesus shared a humanity like ours, different only in being without sin. If natural procreation has nothing to do with sin—and after all God said “be fruitful and multiply” before Adam and Eve “fell”—then I think this talk of virginity seems beside the point.
Not to mention the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. Poor Joseph! An embarrassing wedding to a bulging bride was not bad enough; now he has to endure a merely “dutiful” marriage. And so too with Mary—most highly favored lady indeed.
Now, the teaching on the virgin birth is highly traditional, biblical (although not mentioned in two of the four gospels), and dear to many. Protestants have worried that it supports the celibacy of priests, which I don’t favor; but let’s not forget that both Jesus and Paul were certainly celibate (unless you are Dan Brown fan). So celibacy and by extension, virginity, should not be disdained. I think we should tread carefully on this issue, and show respect toward our Catholic and also Orthodox, Lutheran, and Episcopalian brothers and sisters.
But let’s start over. The stories of Jesus’ birth need not be interpreted so literally, with such an emphasis on exceptions to the biology of procreation. In Luke’s gospel especially, Mary is clearly a literary figure, a symbol. According the biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson: “Mary is far more than a representative woman…; she also represents the faithful people of Israel.” Johnson argues that the overriding story of Luke and its sequel, Acts, is to show that the promises made to Israel have been fulfilled through Christ to the church.
Thinking of Mary as primarily a symbol for Israel gives us a lot more to go on. Aside from the birth stories, we know very little about Mary as Jesus’ literal mother. But we know much about Israel, often portrayed by Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel as God’s bride. And so if you want a rich sense of who it is that gave birth to Jesus, think of Mary as a personification of Israel, Jesus’ metaphorical mother; for it is Israel who gave birth to all the hopes and longing for the Messiah.
This longing arose from deep within the calling of Israel: Israel was chosen by God to be a light unto the nations, a nation or people set aside by God to fulfill God’s holiness in the world. It makes sense that God’s first attempt to establish a holy and just presence in the world would take the form of a whole people or nation. In the ancient world, an individual counted for very little outside of the close ties of clan, tribe, and nation. In the OT, we see how much life in Israel revolved around the loyalties of the 12 tribes, and how difficult it was for the twelve to hold together as one people of God. King David was able to unify the twelve with some political wrangling and battling, and his fine achievement lasted precisely for one more administration, that of Solomon, before civil war erupted. (Our call to worship, Psalm 80, addresses only three of the tribes, and so presumably was written after the twelve tribes separated.)
Regardless, the OT shows with remarkable candor that failure dogged the attempt of Israel to be God’s people from the very beginning. Being a people inevitably becomes entangled in power, in trying to compel people to do what they should. Israel’s law is often beautiful but is still an instrument of some compulsion. No surprise that the true exemplars of obedience in the OT are mostly not Israel as a nation, but the individuals in it who shone forth as examples: Abraham, Moses, just a few of the Kings, but certainly all the prophets: Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and so on. These individuals often bear witness on behalf of God against the faithlessness of the people. But please—let us not gloat over the failings of Israel. We, the church, should have as much candor about our failures to hold together as God’s people, as did Israel’s own confession of its failings in the Bible.
But then ‘in the fullness of time,’ as Paul says, God became a human individual. God’s desire to become incarnate in a whole people proved tragically inadequate, although Israel in its striving with God was absolutely necessary to develop a language about God and a hope in God. But only as a Chosen One, at once prophet, priest, and king, could God become fully human. And only as a single one, an individual, could this Chosen One also become God’s presence to universal humanity, beyond all limits of kinship and tribe—“to the Jew first but also to the Greek,” as Paul puts it. Thus are we God’s people, we who exist in this one individual, for we are his body; thus are we a people beyond all limits of kinship and tribe; a self-less, hospitable people.
With these thoughts in mind, Mary becomes the wonderous pivot-point, herself a remnant of Israel that continues to say Yes to God (you might recall God’s comforting promise to Elijah of a “remnant”); she continues in the obedience which, starting with Abraham’s Yes, was the source of blessing and promise. She represents the pure virgin Israel, the one that never committed adultery with the idols.
Symbolically considered, her virginity is interesting in another way, but this will be hard to follow unless you know your OT well. In the covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants, everything always hinged on whether the faithful individuals—Abraham and Sarah, and the rest—would indeed produce offspring to continue God’s blessing. Natural procreation was always, then, both the possibility of the fulfillment of God’s promise, but also of its failure. Because there’s no guarantee that the faithfulness of the parents will successfully be passed on to the children. (Samuel, for instance, was a paragon of faith, but not his sons, who reportedly “took bribes and perverted justice.”) Mary’s virgin birth, interestingly, at once confirms this kinship succession but also undermines it—defying the paternal, Davidic lineage that was supposedly needed to secure it. As a result, her virginal purity is a way of signaling that this child will be hers, and yet not hers and even less so her husband’s. This child belongs to God, and only thus can this child belong to all of us, not just to David’s line and to Abraham’s line but to Adam’s line—to the human family. Setting aside biological miracles, Mary is rightly considered to be no ordinary mother. She is Israel herself giving birth to a child of a different order, no longer Israel by the flesh, but the fulfillment of Israel. When we admire and exalt Mary, the real object of our admiration should be the wonderful promise that Israel kept in its bosom, and deep in her womb: that from her faithfulness would come a blessing to all nations.
And that promise through Israel to all the nations propels the uniquely Israelite desire for Shalom, peace. Peace does not mean that God takes our side and defeats all our foes. God can do that. But Mary subsumes her own vindication under the broader vision of God’s shalom, which is: peace through justice rather than bypassing justice. She is praising the God of mercy, but when we think of mercy and peace, we might be tempted to think that peace comes when we pretend that everyone is right—let’s all let bygones be bygones. If everyone just drops his grievances, we can all be happy. No, of God’s mercy, Mary says it “is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” God will not tolerate unjust relations between the rich and poor or other groups in disparity: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
As we desperately hope for peace in our homes and across the globe, we are tempted to take a shortcut toward the radical peace promised with the Coming One, and thus to compromise on the edgy justice that Mary belts out in the magnificat. Compromise may sometimes be necessary and even life-giving. But this is not the season for pallid, flimsy hopes. May our hopes for peace not diminish God’s full presence on earth, but may we, with Mary, “magnify the Lord.”