2006-12-08

Mere Mary: A Mary that Protestants and Catholics can celebrate together.

Last night I was blessed to watch the movie "The Nativity". I was not blessed because it was an accurate portrayal of what Scripture tells us about Mary and the Incarnation. It wasn't. Don't get me wrong. The costuming and setting were good attempts to capture the first century Judean ethos, and all of Jesus' family looked "Jew-ish". I mean, thank God they did not look like they came from the Charlton Heston school of Biblical impersonation. But the timing on the arrival of the Magi was all screwed up, the Bible says nothing about how many magi there were, and the portrayal of the Star of Bethlehem was a bit cheesy. And, to top it off, the birth scene looked a bit like a Hallmark card from the 1950's (but at least the actors looked Jew-ish!).

No, the reason why I was blessed was because it truly put a human face on a reality that we have a bad habit of church-ifying. We make Mary and Joseph into some more-than-human, less-than-approachable super-saints who we have no chance of ever coming close to. Protestant portrayals usually make her out to be stunningly beautiful with perfect skin and a tranquility that only Xanex could create. Catholic portrayals seem to make her into the all-powerful Queen of Heaven, who radiates the glory of God like Chernobyl radiates Cesium, and who we would be struck dead by, if we came into her presence.

The movie reminded us that Mary and Joseph were scared kids, trying with all their heart to serve God and keep their heads above water in the horrific economic and political turmoil that their homeland was going through. To top it off, they had to deal with what we would consider an "unwed" pregnancy, and all of the social stigma that went with that. Add to that the fear of the typical response when you might casually mention in a conversation "Yeah, God made me pregnant. I am going to have the Savior of the World".

Yeah. They were understandably scared and freaked out. Yet they were faithful. Life got incredibly messy for them. Yet they were faithful. Many people were scandalized by them and rejected them. Yet they were faithful.

If think yourself a Biblical scholar, and will be offended if the movie doesn't perfectly (or even generally) match your own particular reading of Scripture, then don't see it. But, if you want a refresher on what it means that God took on flesh from a Virgin and dwelt among us, then watch it. And, if you have a friend who does not really understand the Christmas Story, by all means take them to it. It is really a great movie, for what it is great for.

That's what this movie blessed me with. It is a portrayal of Mary that both Protestants and Catholics can agree on, and need to be reminded of.

CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, refuses to reveal his position about Mary on the grounds that feelings run too high along the Protestant-Catholic divide to say anything "Merely Marian" that both sides will agree to. Here is a brief roadmap of the issues involved: Was she cleansed of "original sin" by an "immaculate conception" in her mom's womb? Did she live a sinless life? Is she the "Mother of God" (or rather the "Bearer of God")? Did she ever have a sexual relationship with Joseph, or were all of Jesus' brothers and sisters step-siblings from Joseph's deceased first wife? Was her body "assumed" into heaven after her death so early Christians would not worship her remains? Is she the "Queen of Heaven" with a more-honored position than all of the other saints in heaven? Is she in some sense the "mother of the Church" since she is the mother of Him whose body the Church is? Should we pray and ask her to "pray for us sinners now at the hour of our death"? And, where does any and/or all of these issues fall into idolatry?

Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians disagree (sometimes violently) on all of these issues. And I have a position too, on each and every one of them. But, could it be that all of these issues, as important as they are, miss the main point we are supposed to "get" from Mary's Story? Could it be that there is a central meaning to Mary that every Christian can agree on, even if we do not agree on the facts surrounding her life? Is there a "Mere Mary" that is the key to understanding and valuing all "Merely Christian" understanding of her?

I think there is. I think we have mostly missed the boat, and forgot to keep "the main thing the main thing" in the Mary Story.

We all have times when we say (or write!) the wrong words, but have the right meaning, and anyone who will really take time to listen to us will understand what we mean even if the words we said are wrong. I have heard someone tell me "Don't listen to what I said! Listen to what I mean!" And they were right, the "spirit" of what they meant was deeper and more profound than the "letter" of that they said.

I think we are in a similar situation with Mary. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and "The Nativity" all disagree on the details of Mary's life. But there is a common meaning that we can all agree on. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tries to get at this "Mere Mary" in his devotion "What Matters about Mary?" In it he says:

"When we meet Mary for the first time in the Bible, she is a person who, in the society of her day, doesn't matter in her own right - a single woman who will only become really significant when she gets married and continues the tribal line. God comes to her and calls her to take a massive risk. She is to step right outside the business of 'tribal lines', the male world of inheritance and power. By saying yes to God and letting God create a new world within her very body, she is saying no to some of the most dominant things in her world. She is risking rejection, perhaps destitution (as Matthew's gospel hints). She is putting herself, spirit and body, at God's service, with practically no idea of how deep the cost may be… This is someone who, at least as much as any great artist or scientist, is taking the risk of making the world different - breathing deeply and facing the price they'll have to pay whatever it may be.

The second thing is this. Jesus is a real human being, so he has a real human psychology. He learns how to be human as we do, from the people around him. Just as for all of us, the first faces and voices he sees will shape who he will be. So the mother of Jesus is central to Jesus' humanity - not in an abstract sense, but in a very concrete one. He learns how to be human from her. He learns from her how to respond to the terrible, risky calling of the Father. And as he learns how to be human, he acts out more and more fully on earth the eternal life of God that he was born to live among us. Mary's human discipleship is one of the conditions for Jesus' humanity to grow up and reveal that perfect fusion between divine love and human response that is his unique gift to the world. He is who he is because she was who she was."
We are called to do just what Mary did. Mary bore God's own life within herself, and as a result gave birth to Christ who saves the world. She did it by surrendering herself completely to God. She did not surrender into passivity. She actively surrendered into co-operating with God to bring His life into the world. Her self-giving declaration "I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" is immediately followed by her actively getting up and traveling "with haste" into the hill country (Luke 1:38-39).

Jesus likewise calls us to actively surrender to His will and bear His life to save the world. He tells us that we are God's ambassadors and that God is making His appeal through us (2Corinthians 5:16-20). He tells us that those who receive us receive Him (Matthew 10.40). He tells us that we will do the same things (and even greater things!) than He did (John 14.12). We are to be Mary people, doing a Mary job, with a Mary identity. We are to co-operate with God as God's life powerfully operates in us, to bring the entire world to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ (cf. Colossians 1:29).

This is "Mere Mary": That we all should merely mimic Mary's mission to bear God's life to the world and give birth to sons and daughters of God through faith in her Son, our Savior, the Unique Eternal Son of God made human. May we all be Mere Marys.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.