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How do you solve a problem like Maria?
For better or worse, Mary remains one of the most divisive characters in all of Scripture.
In one of the opening scenes of the 1965 classic, The Sound of Music, from musical geniuses Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, a group of nuns prance around an abbey and opine the mischievous and “flibbertigibbet” ways of Sister Maria. No, that’s not the beginning to a stand-up’s joke. Rather, it’s one of the best introductions to a musical’s lead, with the essential qualities of Maria’s character (timelessly played by Julie Andrews) made plain by those who knew her best, her abbey sisters. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” they croon.
In not too dissimilar fashion, Christians throughout the history of the church have been singing a similar refrain when it comes to the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus. For better or worse, Mary remains one of the most divisive characters in all of Scripture. Some might find that an odd statement to make, with others citing it as bordering on sacrilege. This is Jesus’s mom, after all. Maybe those scoffers are correct. But, regardless, it’s no secret that skilled theologians from every corner of Christendom have gone back-and-forth for centuries about the darling Mary, making her the center of none too few orthodox debates. Consequently, Mary exists in a ditch, with some making too little of her and others making too much. She’s either wrongly slighted or wrongly worshiped. Which makes it somewhat ironic when Mary herself sings, “All generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
And, look, I get it. Many, perhaps, put the Virgin Mary on the sidelines of their faith out of fear they might end up Catholic. Taking into consideration the Catholic Church’s veneration of Marian ideals and theology, one might be tempted to pay little heed to Mary altogether. “The Protestant Church,” notes renowned orator G. Campbell Morgan, “has altogether too long wronged the Virgin Mother. Mariolatry is idolatry. But in our rebound from false position into which the Mother of our Lord has been lifted by the Roman Church, we have too often neglected her, we have been unfair to her, we have consigned her almost to oblivion” (20). To be sure, there are a number of Marian doctrines that have not only survived the ages but have also been ratified by the Roman officials, thereby ascribing to the “handmaid of the Lord” a litany of unfounded and untenable beliefs. But, even still, that shouldn’t prompt us “to relegate Mary to the attic of Christian history,” as Dale Ralph Davis puts it (25). That, certainly, is going too far the other way.
While there’s no scriptural evidence for any of the dogmatic teachings within Mariology, that doesn’t mean she should be ignored. (The kicker within Mariology is that Mary enjoyed perpetual virginity even after the Lord’s birth; that she was free from original sin; that she was assumed body and soul into glory; and that she ministers in heaven as a supplementary mediatrix.) The Virgin Mary is “the virgin,” the one whom Isaiah long ago foretold would conceive and bring forth a son, whose name would be Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14). Such is why Luke makes a point to mention her virginity not once but twice in the same verse (Luke 1:27). Likewise, the angel Gabriel twice refers to the favor she received from the Almighty (Luke 1:28, 30). And twice she is called “blessed among women” (Luke 1:28, 42). If we ought not sideline Mary, how, then, should we think of her? “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you find a word that means Maria?” Well, to be clear, I do not presume to think that I can “solve the problem of Maria” in a single setting. Neither do I think that I’ve landed on the only orthodox view of her. However, I do hope to bring us out of the ditch, even if only a little, that we might catch a glimpse at the striking example of faith that’s found in Mary, “the handmaid of the Lord.”
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, begins with an explosion of praise and rejoicing. “And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:46–48). These opening lines signal what the entire song is about — namely, the celebration and triumph of accomplished redemption. This is a worship anthem in every regard, with the young teenage Mary praising Jehovah in a rich, robust way. She cites the “great things” God had done and was doing in her. “For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49). But honestly, was that true? Was Mary’s present situation one that could be called “great”? Not likely.
Nearly everything about Mary’s circumstances wasn’t good or advantageous for anyone, let alone a young Jewish handmaid who now found herself with a child on the way. From a human perspective, this wasn’t a blessing. There were so many forces that were going against her. Israel, of course, was in the clutches of Roman domination. Her nation’s government was in shambles, having no king or kingdom to rally around. She was, furthermore, “espoused to a man whose name was Joseph” (Luke 1:27). That is, she was betrothed to him, with the consummation of their marriage still yet to come. And now she finds out that she’s pregnant. What would’ve normally evoked rapturous celebration was likely met with feelings shock mixed with horror. By all accounts, this wasn’t an “opportune time” to start a family. Nothing about this moment was ideal. The world as Mary knew it was in ruin, made of untold hardship and heartache. But now her very life was in the balance.
Betrothal, according to Jewish laws and customs, defined relationships in a much more serious way than that of the Western concept of “engagement” (I am grateful to Dale Ralph Davis for these insights; see his Luke 1–13, 30ff). Whereas engaged parties, in a modern North American context, are inferred to have the intent to get married, neither of them are under any legal weight if they decide to end the engagement. There is, certainly, emotional baggage to sort through in the aftermath, but rarely any judicial repercussions for such things. (Unless, I suppose, if you’ve applied to be on one of those daytime courtroom shows.) This wasn’t the case, though, for Jewish betrothals, which carried the same weighty statutes as marriages themselves. Any violation of that betrothal was accompanied by penalties that were handed down in courts of law.
Consider, then, Mary’s situation. She was a virgin “promised in marriage” to the respected carpenter Joseph who suddenly found out that she was going to be a teen-mom. Rational wisdom suggests that she’s been unfaithful to her espoused, which means she now carries the label of adulteress. I have no doubt that the grapevine rattled with stories about Mary’s supposed infidelity, with she becoming the center of all manner of scuttlebutt that spread throughout small-town Nazareth. Notwithstanding any explanation she might give, a virgin’s pregnancy is a hard sell. I can barely fathom the emotional drain that surely followed Gabriel’s annunciation. Such is why, I think, Mary made for “the hill country with haste,” to find respite with the priest Zacharias and her cousin Elisabeth (Luke 1:36, 39). But on top of the rumors, Mary was facing a fate far more ominous. The unavoidable speculation that she had been promiscuous while betrothed meant that Joseph had the authority to either turn her over to the courts, which almost certainly meant she’d be stoned, or he could dissolve their betrothal and end their relationship, letting her live out her days with the stained reputation. It was Joseph’s intention to pursue the latter of these options, coming to the decision to “put her away privily,” so as not “to make her a public example” (Matt. 1:18–19). God, of course, had other plans.
In any event, Mary’s life, as she knew it, was over. The angel’s announcement marked the beginning of an entirely new era, for the world and for Mary herself. Everything would be different from this point forward. And add to all of that the weighty words of Gabriel, who informs Mary that the baby growing inside her womb was, even at that moment, the “Son of the Highest”:
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. (Luke 1:31–33)
Gabriel’s message is brimming with Old Testament allusions and expectations, all of which point to the fact that what was now materializing in Mary’s uterus was the culmination of God’s eternal plans and purposes. These tidings had been in the works from before time began. And now, “the fulness of time had come” (Gal. 4:4–5). Now all things were being accomplished for the God of heaven to consummate his cosmic reclamation project. And to think, he does so by sending one of his angels to an unassuming town to visit an unknown servant girl through whom would come the Redeemer. The One Hope of the whole world was now breaking into our hopeless realm through a virgin handmaid. Every all-but-forgotten prophecy which had imbued countless Hebrew faithful with the hope and confidence and purpose that accompanied the Messiah was now being fulfilled in the child developing in her womb.
“How shall this be,” Mary inquires of Gabriel, “seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). This question is a natural one, especially to one of Mary’s station. She had never had sex with a man. Therefore, this announcement didn’t make sense biologically. Gabriel responds, however, with words that are at once enlivening and mystifying: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). This, you see, is almost a non-explanation, with Gabriel relaying what is “mystery of our faith” (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 6:19; Col. 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16). And, indeed, the acceptance of this “mystery” is fundamental to one’s faith. We who are part of the Body of Christ must believe that our Lord and Savior is fully God and fully man at the same time. The “offspring of the virgin’s womb” was none other than Incarnate Deity, “Jesus our Immanuel.” In the virgin’s belly grew the God of all, wrapped in a robe of flesh. In Mary the sinner, the sinless, holy Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God. And soon she would give birth to him our Brother, our Kinsman Redeemer, one who is like us in every way, “yet without sin” (Heb. 2:17–18; 4:15). I like how Lutheran missionary John Bombaro puts it when he writes:
What we have here is a profound and momentous verbalization of hope and expectation provoked by the Creator Himself who was at that moment breaking into our human situation and tackling the overwhelmings of our fallen world and sinful predicament, not in the unapproachable splendor of His heavenly glory, but as a vulnerable infant.
The Creator had chosen to enter his creation not with thunderclaps and a chorus of heavenly brass but with his life tethered to the end of an umbilical cord.
Mary’s response to all of this is downright incredible. She accepts the undertaking now presented to her — that being the carrying and birthing and nurturing of the world’s Savior. “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38). At the sound of such paradigmatic news, she resigns herself to the Lord’s service and surrenders, in faith, to the calling bestowed upon her by God himself. “Be it unto me according to your word” she says, which could also be rendered, “Not my will but yours be done.” I have no doubt that even as she declared her resolve, she was full of anxiety. To say such a thing doesn’t nullify the faith she had and demonstrated. Rather, it’s merely the recognition that she was human, too. The burden put upon her was enormous, an eternity in the making. Yet, what do we find her doing? Worshiping instead of worrying. Notice:
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. (Luke 1:46–55)
Nearly every word in Mary’s song can be traced back to the Law and the Prophets. She is, therefore, bringing ancient promises into present reality, giving all glory to “he that is mighty” for the “great things” that are taking place in her and through her in that moment (Luke 1:49). Likewise, she looks ahead, in hope, at all the “great things” the Lord will do for generations to come (Luke 1:50). She worships the God of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, who was now bringing about what he had promised to do ages before (Luke 1:55). A prevailing point intrinsic in Mary’s song is that she understood, at least in part, what her role was in all of this. Despite what a “certain song” may lead you to believe, Mary did know, to a certain degree, that within her belly was growing God’s only Son, and that she had a part to play in this divine scheme of redemption. To be sure, that didn’t involve serving as some co-mediator or supplementary intercessor. She knew, from the start, that she, too, needed a Redeemer. “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour,” she sings (Luke 1:47). Mary the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ was likewise desperate, along with everyone else, for what the Lord Jesus Christ himself was coming to accomplish. She who gave birth to the Savior still needed the Savior’s blood to cleanse her from sin.
And so it is that even though the days ahead might prove to be fearsome and unnerving, like Mary, we can approach them in humble, joyful faith, knowing that our hope is sure and steadfast if it’s found in the Almighty One who does all things well and for whom nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37). Mary’s dark and dreary moment was made bearable by the presence of the One she bore. Her despondent condition was not beyond the power of the God who was barely kicking in her womb. And even though she was yet unaware of every intricate detail in her and her Son’s future, she was sure that this was God’s mercy, manifesting for her sake and for the sake of the whole world (Luke 1:50). It is in that way, then, that Mary lives on as an exemplar of the faith you and I can have, knowing that as harrowing as our futures might be, the presence and power of Mary’s Seed has subsumed our horror and replaced it with hope and “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10).
Dale Ralph Davis, Luke 1–13: The Year of the Lord’s Favor, Focus on the Bible Commentary Series (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2021).
G. Campbell Morgan, Luke: The God Who Cares, Masters of the Word (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1987).