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A Christmas Meditation on Mary


A Christmas Meditation on Mary

Mary is a key figure in the Christmas story, yet we say nothing about her compared to innkeeper, wisemen, shepherds, even angels. Her place in the birth of the Messiah, and subsequently in the Christian story, is much larger than these.

Protestants, reacting against Marian excesses in the mediaeval church, say nothing beyond sentimental niceties. Roman Catholics and Orthodox say much more: Mary is in essence the church’s response to Jesus Christ; i.e., mother of the Son of God is also a beneficiary of the Son of God, and typifies the response of all such beneficiaries. In a word, hers is the paradigmatic response, model response, to the Incarnate One.


I: — Mary models the response of all believers concerning the address of the triune God.

Luke 1:26-38

In the annunciation Mary is addressed three times, and each time she responds not with idle speculation (all Prot. Reformers disdained speculation) but concretely, appropriately, devoutly.

(i) with respect to the revelation of the Father: she responds with alarm, that fear of God (“greatly troubled”) which reflects the approach of God everywhere in Scripture. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” And everywhere in Scripture “Fear not” is God’s command and assurance in the wake of that fear which his approach has rightly quickened in us.

She is ready for further response and any service she might be asked to render.

(ii) with respect to the revelation of the Son, the one she is to bear, and who will be God’s Son and David’s heir: “You shall call his name ‘Jesus'” — i.e., Yehoshuah, “God saves.” Mary is told what to do and she does it: she names the child she is to bear. (Name has the force of nature, person, presence, power, deserved reputation. The “name” of any person in S. is that person himself present in his nature or character, acting effectively.) She responds by asking a question of her visitor (as all God’s people interrogate him in Israel), “How shall this be?” As a result of her interrogating God she is given even greater revelation.

(iii) with respect to the revelation of the Spirit: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”

The episode concludes with that response which gathers up all her partial responses to date: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”; i.e., she consents to the word and submits to it.

Note: Mary is addressed by the triune God. In this address she is acquainted with every person of the Godhead. Her response is threefold: she fears God, she reverently questions God where she needs further illumination, and she embraces God’s will for her, submits to it, and contents herself in it.

She honours the Word addressed to her by submitting to it, but not in the submission of servility or resentment or self-belittlement. Rather her submission is a glad, grateful, eager, welcoming self-renunciation for the sake of a vocation and a commission. She has been visited by and addressed by God, knows it, is made aware of God’s will for her, and gladly does it. Her vocation is to discern the will of God and do it. Her commission is to be a handmaid of the Lord.

The church consists of those who are modelled after Mary.

[a] our response bears witness to the triune God: we believers “body forth” God’s son by being the body of Christ; in the course of bodying him forth (as did Mary) we too are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit or else we’d long since have ceased to be the church.

[b] in it all we are to obey God gladly, willingly, cheerfully, non-resentfully (or else we don’t obey him at all), declaring in it all, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”


II: — Mary models the church’s enrichment through recollection, the appropriation of memory.

Luke 1:29: “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.”

-“considered in her mind”: diatarasso — to be agitated, troubled. Mary was agitated, troubled at the saying, but didn’t dismiss it or give up on it. She understood enough to know it was important, but not enough to understand it completely. She hid it in her heart.

Luke 2:19: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

-sumballein lit. to throw together, to compare; i.e., to consider from all possible angles.

Luke 2:51: “Mary kept all these things in her heart.”

-diatereo lit. to keep continually, to keep carefully.

All three expressions point to the fact that Mary understood enough to grasp the rudiments of the point at issue and to be aware of its importance, but not enough to pronounce the definitive word about it.

Subsequently she could revisit what she had hidden in her heart, and in revisiting it find it ever richer, ever more fruitful, as she recollected it in different contexts. In other words, she doesn’t stumble ahead in total darkness; instead she is given a pinpoint of light, does what she can with that, and finds as she recollects, revisits memory, that ever greater light is shed upon what she first hid.

Mary is the model of the church’s nourishment and nurture and growth and illumination through recollection.

In the following I have found that revisiting something I learned years ago if not decades ago finds it yielding ever greater riches each time I recollect it. E.g.,

(1) Charles Wesley: “a charge to keep I have”

(2) Luther: the X’n lives not in herself but in another: in Christ through faith and in the neighbour through love (as she shares the neighbour’s need, suffering, disgrace.)

(3) Answer #1 to the Heidelberg Catechism (written in 1563, and surely the crown jewel of the shorter Reformation writings.) “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful Saviour JC”

(4) only ten years ago I came to understand that Jesus is raised wounded. The resurrection isn’t the transcending of the cross but the triumph of the one who remains in the reality of his crucifiedness.

(5) Martin Buber (Jewish philosopher and biblical scholar): to know another person is exactly to be altered through meeting him as person. (as opposed to gathering information about him.)

(6) Thomas Watson (my favourite Puritan thinker): “All Christian growth is finally growth in humility.”



III: — Mary models the church’s pain in giving birth to the Messiah and the church’s consignment to

the wilderness

Revelation 12:1-6

[1] Rev. 12:1-6 refers to Israel, who gives birth to the Messiah.

According to the psalmist the Messiah will rule over the nations absolutely: the Messiah’s power extends over the entire creation, over death, over every power, even over being swallowed by the dragon.

[2] Mary gives birth to the M. Her son is “caught up to God and to his throne” (12: 5), while she flees into the wilderness (12:6).

[3] Mary models the church as Messianic community. The church is always labouring to give birth to the Messiah in the sense that we are always endeavouring to render the visible the one we know to be within us. Yet in our turbulent, treacherous world the Messiah is seemingly always being snatched away by the dragon, and the Messianic community always finds itself amidst the harsh affliction and tribulation of the wilderness (the wilderness, in Scripture, being the venue of unclean beasts and unholy spirits.)

Then what are we to do as the church finds itself in pain in the wilderness? We are always and everywhere to render to God that Mary rendered and therein modelled for all of us:

Behold, we the church are the handmaid of the Lord;

let it be to us according your word.

Victor Shepherd

Advent, 2001