The Virgin Mary

“The Virgin and Child Embracing”
Painted by Sassoferrato between 1660-1685.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Christmas story is full of interesting characters: angels from Heaven, shepherds of the Temple flocks and astrologers from Persia. But at the centre of this cast of characters is the figure of Mary.[1]

An Extraordinary Woman

God chose to bring his Messiah into the world as a human baby,[2] and he chose Mary to be the mother. This was an honour of the highest magnitude. Mary was correct when she prophesied, “From now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me. . .” (Luke 1:48b-49.)

Mary may have been a young woman of extraordinary virtue to be chosen by God for her extraordinary role. The Gospels reveal that she was a person of great faith and obedience.[3] Roman Catholic, High Anglican, and Orthodox religions, however, have greatly exaggerated Mary’s piety and virginity, and they teach that she remained a virgin throughout her life. They also claim that Mary was herself conceived “immaculately”, without sin.[4]

Some even claim that Mary delivered Jesus in some supernatural way. The non-biblical Infancy Gospel of James (or Protoevangelium of James) contains an account of a woman examining Mary postpartum to determine whether she had given birth to Jesus in the usual way. According to the story, the woman discovers that Mary is still a virgin and “intact”. There is no biblical reason, however, to suspect that there was anything unusual about the way Mary gave birth to Jesus.

There is also no reason to presume that Mary and Joseph were alone together when Jesus was born. It is most likely that Mary was attended by a midwife during her labour and delivery, while Joseph waited elsewhere, as was the custom. Some retellings of the Christmas story make it sound as though Jesus was born during the first night of Joseph and Mary’s stay in Bethlehem, but this may not be the case. Mary and Joseph could well have had time to make contact with the midwives of Bethlehem, and ask for their help when the time came for Jesus to be born.

Mary’s Faith and Personality

Many Christmas cards and religious artworks show Mary, usually dressed in blue,[5] with her eyes averted and looking down. This downward turned face makes her look rather passive and shy, yet in the few Bible verses about her, Mary does not seem to be either passive or shy (Luke 1:39; John 2:1-5, etc).

I have yet to see a portrait of Mary with a beaming smile on her face. It seems that for many, a happy smiling face is incompatible with notions of piety and holiness. Was Mary a sad, sombre, or serious person?

There is no doubt that Mary went through some very tough situations during her lifetime (Luke 2:34-35). However the Bible does not glorify her sufferings, and neither should we. Perhaps Mary had a bright personality and a good humour that helped her to be a wonderful mother despite difficult situations. We know that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary when she conceived Jesus, and the Scriptures often associate the Holy Spirit with joy; so perhaps Mary, like Jesus, was a joyful person (John 17:13).  [See video below.] 

Mary was not only the mother of Jesus, she was a true believer in him. More than anyone, she knew that Jesus was truly the Son of God, and when Jesus began his earthly ministry at the age of 30, Mary was a loyal follower.

After Jesus had returned to heaven, Mary was with the believers who were meeting together, waiting for the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). She later travelled to Ephesus with the apostle John and they ministered there for many years. It is believed that she is buried in Ephesus. Mary proved to be a faithful servant of God who heard the word of God and obeyed it (Luke 11:27-28).[6]

Part 7 »


Endnotes

[1] Many early church theologians saw Mary as being the antithesis of Eve, and the antidote to Eve’s sin. Even though Adam and Eve both ate the forbidden fruit and both were culpable of sin, early church theologians emphasised Eve’s doubt, disobedience and pride as being instrumental in bringing sin into the world. Conversely, they highlighted Mary’s faith, obedience and humility as being instrumental in bringing salvation into the world. While the comparison of Eve and Mary is interesting, it should not be pushed too far. What we do know is that Mary’s son Jesus Christ would die sacrificially on our behalf, and that he redeemed both men and women from sin and death. [More on this here.]

[2] It is amazing to consider that Jesus left the glories and privileges of heaven for a womb and a birth canal. Jesus’ self-sacrifice during his incarnation, and throughout his earthly ministry, is astounding!

[3] Mary conceived Jesus miraculously when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. Mary was a virgin when this occurred and she remained a virgin until Jesus was born. The clear inference from Matthew 1:24-25 is that, sometime after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph began having sex like any normal married couple. Furthermore, we know that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Matt 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; John 2:12, 7:3-5; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19). Roman Catholicism erroneously teaches that these brothers and sisters were children of a different Mary, and were not the children of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Orthodox church teaches that these brothers and sisters were children of Joseph by a previous marriage. The spurious Infancy Gospel of James relates that Joseph was a widower with children when he married Mary. In the New Testament, however, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are clearly associated with Mary the mother of Jesus (John 2:12; Acts 1:14).

There is nothing in the biblical Gospel accounts that suggests that Mary herself was conceived immaculately, that she gave birth to Jesus miraculously, that she remained a virgin perpetually, that she was transported to heaven with her body and soul united (known as the Assumption of Mary), that she can hear our prayers, or that she had (or has) any kind of special powers.

[4] Mary should be revered as the mother of the Messiah but only God should be the recipient of our devotion and veneration. Moreover, our prayers should be directed to God, and not to Mary or any other person or “saint”. Excessive devotion to Mary is a form of idolatry. Our hope, trust, devotion and prayers should be given to God alone.

[5] In traditional religious art, Mary is often dressed in blue and white. It is unlikely that Mary wore clothes made of expensive blue fabric or impractical white. However, there is no reason to suppose that Mary was poor.

[6] Luke 11:27-28: As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” [My article, Is Motherhood the Highest Calling for Women? here.]

© 19th of December 2010 (revised 15/12/11), Margaret Mowczko


Christmas Cardology Series

(1) Introduction
(2) Mary’s Scandal and Favour
(3) Nazareth to Bethlehem
(4) Was Jesus born in a barn?
(5) When was Jesus born?
(7) The Wise Men from the East

A powerful, short post: Mary Consoles Eve