The Christian church regularly celebrates the great men and women of the faith. These faithful people, often called saints, give us examples of holy, faithful lives to imitate. Christians who follow the liturgical calendar, often called the church year, may celebrate some saints days. However, many of us don’t regularly reflect on the life and history of some of the most famous Christians.
Many Christians celebrate the virgin Mary on August 15th. Some call the day the Dormition of Mary. The conversation about Mary, the Mother of God, creates controversy whenever Christians from different denominations get together. There is a great deal of complexity in the conversation about whether Mary was sinless or not, whether she needed a savior or not, and many attendant issues.
This article isn’t going to touch that conversation. If you want to know your own church’s teaching about Mary, you should talk to your pastor. Plus, there are many, many web and print articles that will help you understand the intricacies of the debate within Christianity.
This article, however, will explore that which is common among all Christians by focusing on what the Bible says about the virgin Mary and what the earliest Christians said about her as well.
There is only one place to Mary’s story, the birth of Jesus. Mary first appears in the Gospel of Luke when the angel Gabriel arrives to announce that she will become pregnant. When Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to have a son, she asks the question everyone would’ve asked, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will cause her to become pregnant. Mary responds, “ “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her simple answer hides the amazing faith that it takes to accept the angel’s words. Virgins don’t become pregnant. They don’t have babies. And there is no record of God ever giving a virgin a child. But may just accepts what God promises.
Her simple faith is a model for our faith. God’s word makes promises that can seem outlandish. He promises to make sinful people holy, to keep us strong in adversity, to guard us in death, and to raise us from the grave on the last day. He does this, not with flashy miracles, but through simple words and lowly churches. Like Mary, he wants us to take him at his word.
The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is in the temple. This twelve-year-old boy stays behind to sit in the temple while his family goes back to Nazareth. After travelling for a day, Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus wasn’t with the extended family. So, they rush back to Jerusalem to find him. If you’ve ever lost a child in Walmart, you must know exactly how they felt.
When they find Jesus, Mary says to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” Jesus answers, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” While Mary didn’t understand what Jesus said, the Bible does tell us that she treasured up all these things in her heart. She knew that something was special about him, and she pondered all these things to figure out what her son would do.
In Mark 3, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to him while he’s teaching in Capernaum. They hear what he’s saying and say to themselves, “He’s out of his mind!” When they came to the house where he was teaching them, the crowd tells Jesus that his mother and brothers were there.
This gives Jesus the occasion to redefine the family of God. He says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?...Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus tells us that the family of God is not defined by biology, tribe, or neighborhood. God’s family comes together around faith in Jesus Christ, and our old family ties mean nothing compared to that.
Mary also stands at the foot of the cross while Jesus was dying. She and the other women were the only ones who stayed with Jesus through his trial and death. The disciples all abandoned Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Even Peter, after he followed Jesus to the trial before the high priest, abandoned Jesus, denying him three times.
Mary and the other women, however, stayed with Jesus through it all. They weren’t afraid. They were so attached to Jesus that they stuck with him until the end.
The Gospel of John adds to the story. While Jesus was on the cross, John stood next to Mary, and Jesus said to them, “‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” This redefines the family of God again. Mary had sons, Jesus’ brothers. They would normally be the ones to take care of her. Jesus, however, assigns John the task to care for her. Our first responsibility is to the family of faith. That’s where we look for love and care.
There is one extra-biblical record that Mary stayed with John for the rest of her life. The Apostolic Father, Ignatius, wrote a letter to John, mentioning her, and he also wrote a letter to the virgin Mary herself. He asks her to affirm everything that Ignatius had heard from the Apostle John, and she replies saying that everything he heard was true. Mary, then, remained a witness of Jesus for the rest of her life, living proof that he was born of a virgin, suffered, died, and rose.
Many years later, the church was embroiled in a controversy about the identity of Jesus Christ. In the fifth century, Nestorius of Constantinople asserted that Mary was only the mother of Jesus’ humanity and not the mother of his divinity. In other words, she wasn’t the mother of God. She was the mother of Jesus. His divine nature was something separate.
The rest of the church, however, knew that this separation between Christ’s divine nature and his human nature undermined the incarnation. If the two natures were separate, Jesus was not fully human and fully divine. His divinity did not have anything to do with his humanity. Thus, only Jesus’ human nature would have died on the cross. Only his human nature would have rose from the dead. Therefore, we would not be saved.
In the council of Ephesus in 431, the church denied this heresy, and they affirmed her true title, Theotokos , which means God-bearer. That is how we most remember Mary. It’s not for her faith or for her obedience. We remember Mary, because she is the instrument through whom God brought salvation into the world by the incarnation of Jesus.
So, no matter what you believe about the virgin Mary, we all have this in common. We remember her because of her son. She gave birth to the salvation of the world and the one by whom we receive eternal life. Many protestant churches shy away from celebrating her, because they don’t want to seem “too Catholic.” Mary should have an important place in all of our churches, because she is the mother of God.
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