Well my last Christmas post (“Why I don’t believe in the virgin birth“) caused a variety of reactions. Most of the comments shared with me were fair enough, but one of them has definitely bugged me. So, to coin a phrase, “I must be allowed to defend myself against the charges laid at my door.”
What was this charge, I hear you ask? Well … apparently I discredited, made fun of and generally treated the “Virgin Mary” with a lack of respect!
Now let’s get the cards on the table right at the beginning. I’m not catholic, not even remotely. I have nothing against my catholic brothers and sisters, it’s just that I’m not one. And, while I agree with them on 80%/90% of things, their understanding of Mary, and the Saints, is something I can’t agree with. However, I refuse to accept that I did anything to disrespect the mother of Jesus.
I wonder how you picture “the Virgin Mary”? Perhaps something like this?
Well I’m sorry, but, not only could nothing could be further from the truth, but it would be hard to come up with a picture that would do a better job of disguising why I think she’s a true heroine of our faith.
Now I know nobody thinks she was actually like that. I know it’s just a representation. I know, I know, I know. That was another thing people said to me about the nativity scene in the last post. But, I’m sorry, if you think we need to “glam-up” our faith, you simply haven’t understood it’s power yet. I hear you say, “But David, if we emphasises how human Jesus was, people will just say, “See he’s just a human then!”” I simply disagree with you! It’s very easy to dismiss a glamorized, serene gospel that doesn’t touch real life, it’s a lot harder when we make it clear we believe in a real, earthly, history.
I read Tom Wright the other day saying that if we don’t believe that Jesus doubted his own divinity then we haven’t begun to understand the New Testament! Read that again! Take it in. Dwell on it and turn it over in your mind. Then remember that this is the one, the one who doubted, this one is the one we declare to be the second member of the divine trinity, the pre-existent, only begotten Son of the Father. We don’t need to dress this up, it has power all of its own. We don’t believe in a God who became “human-like”, just as we don’t believe in a human who was “God-like”. We believe in a human who was God, to compromise either side empties the whole gospel of its power!
We have a faith that is based, not on myth, fables and nice, friendly stories, but on history, on a God who works in a real, gritty way with messed up humanity. To glamorize that takes away its power.
Now, having finished my rant, let’s get back to Mary!
26In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
29Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. 31You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May is be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
We start with a teenage girl, probably somewhere between 13 and 15 years old, as this was the normal age to get engaged. We’re not looking at a grown-up, experienced, warrior of faith, but at a young girl, barely out of childhood. And to this girl, God sends an angel.
Angel’s in scripture are not cute, fluffy children with harps and a halo, but mighty warriors of God (and incidentally, always men!). This fear-inducing super-natural soldier informs our scared, confused, teenage heroine that she is going to have a son. Quite naturally she reacts with some shock to this news, as she’s a virgin! Then he basically turns round and says, ‘Mary have faith, God is pretty good at the whole miraculous birth thing.’
Then Mary, the small, poor, teenage Mary, answers with an amazing verse, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Wow!
Let’s get this quite straight, this would have been very, very hard for Mary. Very hard. It’s ironic that, while often renowned for her purity today, the real Mother of Jesus would have had a very different reputation in her own life-time. Her name would have been muck, she would have been treated like a harlot and a disgrace to her family. Believe me, being pregnant before marriage in 1st century Palestine was no joke. In fact, according to Deut 22, she could have been stoned to death. In accepting this, in submitting to God’s will, Mary was actually risking her life!
I often wonder, while Jesus was growing inside her, how often she looked back at this time, at this choice and just questioned. Or how did her parent’s react? Did they fly of the handle at her? Or try to convince her to let them try to cover it up and claim the child as their own? I don’t know. As she felt the unique God-child wriggle in her womb, did she ever question her sanity, or doubt the Lord’s ability to keep her safe? I bet she did.
Yet despite these dangers, despite having to say goodbye to any possibility of a good reputation in her lifetime, despite the risk to her very life, what did she say? “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
That takes faith. We’re very suspicious of Mary in Protestantism, but I’ll tell you, Mary became the very first person to take Jesus on board, regardless of the personal cost.
To say that Mary suffered, that she had a disgraced reputation and that she was scared does not treat her with a lack of respect, but highlights her as one of the true heroines of our faith!