As Advent season is upon the church, and she is looking toward the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, one biblical figure that cannot be overlooked is Mary. Mary, the young virgin who was chosen by God to be the one to hold the unique ministry of carrying the infant Jesus in her womb is critically important to the Christmas story. Furthermore, she would be the one charged with caring for and nurturing this infant Savior of the world until He became mature enough to care for His own needs.
While her ministry and responsibility is certainly unique and deserves a place of special honor, the church would be wise as they remember her to interpret her life in the light of scripture. Historically, Mary became something of an idol in the Roman Catholic organization during the Middle Ages. Interpretations of the role of Mary in the immaculate conception of the Son of God became something that was more myth and legend than biblical truth. Mary took on a life of her own at the hands of priests and popes by becoming an image that was able to answer prayer, heal the weak, and provide sustenance to those in need. As such, the veneration of Mary overstepped the bounds of biblical orthodoxy, even reinterpreting clear passages of scripture in an attempt to heap on her more glory than what God had intended (Revelation 12:1-6 is often credited by Catholic scholars as being a description about Mary despite the clear context which states otherwise).
Although Mary even to this day is still the object of the Hail Mary prayer during Mass, there is another error that can be just as dangerous and easily made by non-Catholic Protestants…neglecting the example of her humble life by ignoring the amazing biblical ministry the Lord performed through her, as well as the example of faith and servanthood she has left for the church to follow.
The story of Mary begins in the Gospel of Luke with the angel Gabriel visiting her in the town of Nazareth. We are not necessarily told how old she was, but it is implied that she was still quite young; possibly still in her early teenage years. While she is not yet married, she has been engaged to be married to Joseph and is therefore still a virgin…which is critical to the miraculous nature of the story.
As Gabriel greets Mary, he greets her with the title, “favored one.” Similar to Noah, who found favor with God…similar to Esther, who found favor for such a time as this…similar to Hannah, who found favor and was remembered by the Lord, Mary joins the list of biblical servants whom the Lord would endow with favor. Interestingly, it is important to pause at this juncture and point out that there is absolutely no reason for Mary to have deserved this favor. It was simply the grace of God, as is the case for all of those creatures who find themselves recipients of His favor.
Despite Mary’s perplexity at this greeting, Gabriel goes on to explain the nature of his visit. He explains that she is about to be pregnant with a very special child, the Son of the Most High God. How can this happen, since she is still a virgin she asks? Well, Gabriel explains, quite simply by the power of the Holy Spirit as He overshadows her. The Greek phrase, καὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι, in Luke 1:35 is unique to scripture in that it is only used of the presence of the Holy Spirit in this one place. Often the Spirit is shown throughout scripture to empower, infill, indwell, and baptize individuals, but this is the only time His presence and power is described as “overshadowing” an individual. True, at other places, we are told that the faithful who diligently seek the Lord will find rest in the shadow of the wings of the Lord, but this reference to “shadow” is merely metaphor. Again, we are told that at Jesus’ baptism a cloud appeared that shadowed the onlookers as they heard the voice of the Father speak from a cloud, but this reference is to a literal cloud that cast a real shadow. Point being that the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit is a truly unique way to describe a truly unique and miraculous event. Speculation beyond this as to why and what this means, may be a violation of simply allowing scripture to be silent where scripture is silent.
Humble and Humbled
Mary’s response to the birth announcement made by Gabriel is truly something astonishing. She responds with one sentence, saying, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 NASB95). The church would do well to take note of the humility of Mary and learn from her example.
First, she refers to herself as “bondslave.” A bondslave is a specific reference used by a person in a humble state inspired by the presence of someone of a higher rank. While at first glance, it would seem she is referencing herself in this way because she is in the presence of the angel Gabriel. But scripture would seem to dictate that this may not be the case. The Bible repeatedly portrays angels as understanding their position as being fellow servants with humans to God, as is shown in Revelation:
“I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. But he said to me, “Do not do that. I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God.” Revelation 22:8–9 (NASB95)
Furthermore, Hebrews goes so far as to point out that angels are even servants of God’s redeemed people, saying:
“Are they (angels) not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” Hebrews 1:14 (NASB95)
Given this background, it seems improbable that Gabriel would accept himself as being the object of Mary’s humility. Therefore, it would make much more sense to understand the object of Mary’s one line confession of submission and humility to be directed toward the Lord who had called her to this unique and glorious ministry.
It is at this point that the church would do well to take heed of the example of the humble bondslave, Mary. As a bondslave, it implies submission to the one who is in authority, in this case, as has been argued, is God. How many times does the church confess their submission and obedience but then, forgetting their commitment, retrieve what had been relinquished into the hands of the Lord? I often wonder if much of the weakness in our churches stems from a divided heart that can’t seem to stay on the right side of the fence when it comes to servanthood unto our God, who is to be Lord indeed.
Vessel of Mercy
As Mary exemplifies what it means to be a humble servant unto the the Lord, it is equally important to realize why and how she has assumed this posture. During her visit with her relative Elizabeth, where the Holy Spirit provides substantial testimony to the validity of the message of Gabriel, we find Mary breaking out in song. In this song, her soul magnifies the Lord and rejoices in His goodness. Also contained within this song, she brings to the attention of everyone who will ever read these words that has been the recipient of God’s mercy. She points out that the Lord has taken notice and had regard for her humble state. Almighty God has looked on the condition of her life and has seen fit to bring a deliverer. This great mercy, whom she will call her Son, will be for generation after generation to those who fear Him. Furthermore, she praises God who has remembered in His mercy the promises made to Abraham and his descendants; He would not allow them to perish. Mary certainly has a deep appreciation and sensitivity to the mercy of the Lord.
Vessels of mercy who have a deep appreciation for just how much they have been forgiven tend to have an extra edge in their expressions of humility and submission to the One who granted the mercy. In another story about another Mary, scripture tells us about a woman who was so overcome with gratitude at the mercy of Jesus that she anointed His head with expensive perfumed oil and wiped His feet with her hair as tears poured down her face onto His feet (John 12). If we need a picture of humility and gratitude, this is surely it. It was this same Mary who was the sister of Lazarus, who, in the previous chapter (John 11), Jesus had raised from the dead. Certainly, there is rarely deeper expressions of appreciation and gratitude than from those individuals who have experienced the reality of death and have been mercifully delivered from its grip.
All of this that young Mary experienced welled up into a song of praise that she poured out to the Lord. May we learn much from her heart of worship expressed in these eternal words:
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Luke 1:46–55 (ESV)
Mary, Quite Contrary
In biblical reality, we find that Mary is quite contrary to the image that has been set up in the Roman Catholic Church, which has elevated the mother of Jesus to a position of authority and ability she can in no way possess. Prayers to any human, even the mother of Jesus, is an exercise in futility. Elevating and aggrandizing any individual to the level of divinity is nothing less than idolatry. Expectations of deliverance and mercy received from anyone other than the Jesus, the Lamb of God, is surely to end in disappointment. The veneration of Mary is a grievous error, indeed.
As grievous as her erroneous elevation has been (I am sure she herself would in no way be in agreement with it), it would be just as grievous to overreact by neglecting her biblical life altogether. Often the tendency is to respond with disapproval and skepticism about the life of Mary and her role in the life of Christ; dismissing her ministry as minor and inconsequential. But to do so would be unfortunate. Mary provides for the church a bright and shining example of humility, servanthood, mercy, and worship. To overlook such a witness and example would be a truly tragic loss to the church of Christ.