You know, many of us Protestants avoid speaking about Mary or exploring her significance in Gods coming into this world. So today I am going to stick my neck out with some reflections on the birth stories in the Luke’s gospel in our scriptures. The first birth Luke recounts is the birth of John the Baptist from the viewpoint of John’s father.
JJohn’s father, Zechariah was a married man, “too old” for sex, and his wife was barren. Zechariah was a member of the religious establishment in the holy city of Jerusalem, a priest of the professional class. His vision of the angel Gabriel foretold the birth of his son, John. Zechariah responded in disbelief and consequently was struck silent so that he could not speak.
The birth narrative of Jesus is told from the viewpoint of his mother. Mary was a single, teenage girl, “too young” for sex. Given the strongly patriarchal nature of society in her time and place, Joseph, to whom she was betrothed, is notable for his invisibility in this story. Mary was a peasant girl from a working-class neighbourhood of carpenters in Nazareth, a village so insignificant that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the historian Josephus, or in the Jewish Talmud.
Her encounter took place in an unknown, ordinary house. When the angel Gabriel foretold the birth of her son, Jesus, Mary responded in words of faith that have echoed through the centuries: “I am the Lord’s servant . . . may it be to me as you have said.” Her bold belief startled her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who “in a loud voice . . . exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! . . . Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” These passages can be found in the first chapter of Luke.
Whereas Zechariah was struck silent for his unbelief, Mary praised God in her majestic “Magnificat” found in Luke 1. For their part, and to our loss I believe, Protestants have tiptoed around Mary, fearing that such exalted language about her veers too close to make her a co-redeemer of humanity. Anything that elevates Mary to that degree is cause for concern. In more syncretistic and popular forms of Christian folk religion among those who either don’t have the education or have such information denied, it is not difficult to find such abuses.
We have also taken exception to dogmatic formulations about Mary that were made much later and that do not enjoy clear biblical support, such as her freedom from both actual and even original sin (Immaculate Conception), and the idea that after her death she was taken directly to heaven (Bodily Assumption). Protestants rightly press a caution that both Catholics and Orthodox believers themselves acknowledge, that we honour or venerate Mary as the Mother of God, but we do not offer her our worship, which is due to God alone.
Genuine veneration of the Mother of God should lead to unambiguous exaltation of the Son of God. Mary played a unique role in the mystery of salvation whereby God humbled Himself to be born as the baby of a peasant teenager in order to reconcile the world to Himself. We can only stand in awe of this woman who was faithful to God’s call to such an improbable role in redemption.
However, Luke’s story is not about this one young woman alone. He invites his readers and hearers to make the same step of faith— to jump blindly into God’s newly arrived Reign by gambling on love. There is no requirement that we understand God’s vision. There is simply the invitation to allow incarnation to happen with us, for love to be born in us, and for God’s Reign to come through us.
It is not because we are significant or because we have answers that love seeks to be born in and through us. It is because God makes what seems impossible completely attainable. God simply waits for our yes, and once we have given it, God goes to work to bring the incarnated love to birth in us and, through us, in the world. The incarnation really is the ultimate love story, Emmanuel, God with us.