“The Virgin and Child Embracing”
Painted by Sassoferrato between 1660-1685.
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 a young woman, Mary.
An Extraordinary Woman
God chose to bring his Messiah into the world as a human baby, and he chose Mary as 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. In some Roman Catholic, High Anglican, and Orthodox teachings, however, Mary’s piety is exaggerated, and it is taught she remained a virgin throughout her life. Some also claim that Mary was herself conceived “immaculately,” that is, she was conceived in her mother’s womb without inheriting a sinful nature. But the Bible doesn’t say that Mary remained a virgin—it seems to indicate otherwise—and it tells us nothing about how Mary was conceived.
An Extraordinary Delivery?
There is also a claim that Mary delivered Jesus in some supernatural way. The mid-to-late second-century document, The Infancy Gospel of James (also known as the 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.
Furthermore, there is a common presumption that Mary and Joseph were alone together when Jesus was born. But it is much more likely that Mary was attended by midwives during her labour, 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 was most likely not the case. Mary and Joseph could have had to make contact with the midwives of Bethlehem and ask for their help when the time came for Jesus to be born. Still, Jerome states that because Mary wrapped her newborn and placed him in his manger bed (Luke 2:7), “she was both mother and midwife” (The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, Against Helvidius 4).
We know that Mary was a fit, young woman, capable of long journeys, and that she was a devout Jew. But what do we know about her personality? Many Christmas cards and religious artworks show Mary, usually dressed in blue, with her eyes averted and looking down. This downward turned face makes her look rather passive and shy. Yet in the Bible verses about her, Mary does not seem to be either passive or shy. Instead, she is active and assertive (e.g., Luke 1:39; John 2:1-5). My friend Julie Frady has observed that in the Gospels, “Mary was always going somewhere, doing something, and speaking her mind.” [Julie has a very interesting take on Mary’s conversation with Gabriel. Read it here.]
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 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.]
I have yet to see a portrait of Mary with a beaming smile on her face. It seems that for many, a happy confident smiling face is incompatible with notions of piety and holiness.
Mary was not only the mother of Jesus, she was also 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 completed his mission and returned to heaven, Mary is mentioned as being with the believers who were meeting together in Jerusalem and waiting for the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12-14). According to tradition, she later travelled to Ephesus with John, the apostle, and they ministered there for many years until her death. Mary proved to be a faithful servant of God.
Once when Jesus was teaching, a woman called out to him and said, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus replied with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (See Luke 11:27-28). Mary was greatly blessed. She was the mother who gave birth to Jesus and nursed him, but she also heard the word of God and obeyed it.
Part 7 »
 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.]
 It is amazing to consider that Jesus left the glories and privileges of heaven for a womb and entered the world through a birth canal. Jesus’ self-sacrifice during his incarnation, and throughout his earthly ministry, is astounding!
 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 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 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 mid-second century document, The 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 associated with Mary the mother of Jesus (John 2:12; Acts 1:14).
F.F. Bruce infers from the scriptures that Jesus’ siblings “were children of Mary; the burden of proof rests on those who interpret the relationship differently.” Bruce doesn’t mention the Infancy Gospel of James, but he writes the following in footnote 3 on page 88.
[In the fourth century,] Epiphanius (Heresies, 78) argued that they were children of Joseph by a previous wife. Then Helvidius of Rome restated the interpretation (already maintained by Tertullian and others) that they were children of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus. In reply to Helvidius, Jerome propounded a new theory: that they were cousins of Jesus, children of Alphaeus by “Mary of Clopas”, whom he inferred from John 19:25 to be the Virgin’s sister (Aduersis de perpetua uirginitate beatae Mariae [The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary]).
Bruce, Men and Movements in the Primitive Church: Studies in Non-Pauline Christianity by F.F. Bruce (Exeter: Paternoster, 1979), 88.
There is nothing in the biblical Gospel accounts that suggest that Mary herself was conceived immaculately (the Immaculate Conception), 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 (the Assumption of Mary), that she can hear our prayers, or that she had (or has) any kind of special powers.
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.
 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.
 More about Luke 11:27-28 in my article, Is Motherhood the Highest Calling for Women? here.
© 19th of December 2010 (revised 15/12/11), Margaret Mowczko
Christmas Cardology Series
A powerful, short post: Mary Consoles Eve