I have to confess that for much of my Christian life, I’d not really stopped to consider the person of Mary and what she contributes to the church today. I knew about the major controversies of church history, and the significant differences between the Roman Catholic understanding and that of reformed Protestantism. But at a personal level, I’d never stopped to ask the question, “What does Mary mean to me?”
And then in the lead-up to Christmas a few years ago, I was asked to speak about Mary and the virgin birth. So I found myself reading the Gospel accounts and asking questions I’d not really asked before. Somewhat surprisingly, it was a blessing to do so. In fact, I was humbled, encouraged and rebuked as I studied Mary. At the same time, I was given new insight into the uniqueness of Jesus and the love of God.
I was humbled because Mary was a young woman from a simple background who, for no other reason that the wisdom of God, was chosen to play a unique part in God’s plan of salvation. She wasn’t rich, famous or powerful. She was plucked from obscurity and set on a course that required sacrifice and suffering. Her fiancé considered divorcing her because she was pregnant. She had her first child away from home in a strange place in a strange town. She was a refugee in a foreign land, where she was driven to protect the life of her child. She treasured up the things Jesus did in her heart, but she didn’t really understand what it meant for him to be God’s Messiah. She saw her son mobbed, applauded, scorned and rejected. She was warned that a sword would pierce her soul (Luke 2:35), and she saw her son die, and then three days later, she went to his tomb only to find his body gone. And, like the other disciples, she waited in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit after Jesus’ ascension.
I was humbled because Mary reminded me that God uses the weak and the foolish to achieve his purposes, and that being loved and chosen by him is only possible because of his grace and goodness, not because of anything I might be or what I might achieve.
Furthermore, as someone like me, chosen by God and saved by Christ, I was struck by the way Mary lived by faith in God’s word and how she persevered in faithful obedience, despite the very real cost to her life. I was encouraged to see God’s purposes as more important than my own comfort, and my hopes for my life and the lives of my family. I was encouraged by Mary’s faithful obedience, but I was also rebuked.
How would I respond if an angel appeared to me? Would I have the courage to question how God would achieve something incredible and then the faith to receive God’s promise that ‘nothing is impossible for him’? Mary—humble, lowly, simple Mary—had faith that rebukes my own lack of faith. She was asked to believe more than I’ve ever been asked to believe (and with far less evidence than I’ve been given), and she just did it. Mary knew God’s word. She knew the obstacles, but she believed God could and would do what he said.
That’s the problem with those understandings that exalt Mary as the sinless Mother of God: they take the real, biblical Mary away—the Mary who is our Christian sister—the Mary with whom we can identify, whose faithful discipleship can humble, encourage and rebuke us—and instead, they give us a Mary who is not like us.
In those understandings, she is sinless—not because her faith in Christ enables her to be declared righteous before the throne of God, but because she was born without the stain of original sin, and remained sinless. She is spared the reality of death, not because her faith in Christ will raise her to eternal life, but because she avoids death and is, instead, assumed into heaven. Furthermore, she is the focus of prayers, not because we can thank the Lord for her faithful witness, but because she is somehow able to receive our prayers and intercede for us in the way the Scriptures tell us only Jesus and the Holy Spirit can intercede.
The cost of exalting Mary is not just that it denies the uniqueness of Jesus as our perfect and sufficient saviour and mediator; it also deprives us of the encouragement, rebuke and wisdom of God, who works out his purposes through people just like us.