Many pastors feel nervous as the third Sunday in Advent, “Mary Sunday,” rolls around. What congregant will turn out to be suspicious of any unusual respect shown for her? What visiting Catholic will be mystified or put off by a cautious and understated Protestant treatment? Should a preacher reckon the service a success if both extremes come away disappointed? How can it be that Jesus’ own mother has become the church’s most polarizing figure? And more importantly, what can we do about that?
Mother of all stereotypes
Let’s begin with a sketch of two Marys.
This is the Mary of modest Protestant tradition, a humble, nondescript young virgin from the tribe of Judah. One day she got an extraordinary visit from an angel who told her that she would bear the Son of God. This wouldn’t happen in the usual natural way but by the sheer creating work of the Holy Spirit. She put her trust in the angel’s good news. She became a faithful wife and mother who protected and raised her son in sometimes extreme circumstances. At times Jesus surprised and even shocked her. Occasionally their relationship even seemed strained. But she stayed with him, all the way to the cross. She was among his faithful disciples in the Book of Acts. We don’t hear nearly as much about her as the apostles, let alone her Son. Nevertheless, she is still a beloved character in his story, especially during the Christmas season when we remember his birth.
Mary A is sparsely and cautiously sketched out, with very little speculation. She is basically what’s in the Bible about Mary. Indeed, Mary A’s fans speculate less about her than other biblical figures. They don’t mind conjecturing about Moses, David, Peter, Thomas, or Paul, but they seem unusually reserved when it comes to her.
By contrast, this is the larger-than-life Mary of most Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition. She was a holy child of devout parents, one of Israel’s royal line and the other of its priestly line. She exemplified faithful Judaism at its very best. She was even brought up in the Jerusalem Temple. And she was uniquely filled with grace to be the worthy vessel through whom God himself became one of us. She was ever and always a virgin, exclusively dedicated to her son’s mission. She was assumed body and soul into heaven, where she now intercedes for us and reigns under her Lord and son as the Queen of Heaven. She was and is a major player in Christ’s church.
Some of Mary Z is extravagant and legendary. Much of her story comes from outside the Bible. Her fans seem more ready to fill in details from her childhood or later life than other biblical figures. When you look at a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation or the Nativity, you are likely seeing details from the Protevangelium of James, a second-century apocryphal text. Many Christians just assume these details about Mary’s life are in the Bible somewhere.
Mary Z looms large in her fans’ imaginations, maybe too large. By contrast, Mary A is far less prominent, but maybe too much less. Given how different these two Marys seem to be, it’s easy to forget how much the two overlap. There’s some of Mary Z in Mary A, and a lot of Mary A is also in Mary Z.
Mary, quite contrary?
Our imaginations turn each Mary into something of a stereotype, and that exaggerates their differences. Mary A’s fans chafe at the line “Hail Mary, full of grace” in Roman Catholic worship. Yet in Luke 1 the angel did greet her that way. And Elizabeth did prophesy to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:28 and 1:42). Of all the women Luke highlights, she gets the highest light. The title “Blessed Virgin Mary” is biblical.
Mary Z is also more like Mary A than some of her fans realize. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ mother and brothers were so taken aback by his preaching ministry that they thought he was “out of his mind,” and they came to bring him home (Mark 3:21–32). It was then that Jesus said his family was whoever did the will of God (Mark 3:33–35). Faith is what makes us family, not bloodline or even glory. So Mary had some growing to do.
Speaking of faith, Mary A is an example of it. For centuries people had trusted God’s promises, but Mary was the first person to hear and believe in the good news of Jesus. We might call her the first Christian. Gabriel’s news ended whatever ordinary life she had imagined for herself and put her on a totally different and unpredictable course. And she embraced it. “I’m the Lord’s servant,” she said. “Let it be to me according to your Word” (Luke 1:38). She was ready to hand over all her dreams and fears about her future, take up an impossible and unimaginable calling, and cope with its lifetime of challenges. Jesus’ neighbors, by and large, didn’t accept him. The large crowds early on dwindled as Jesus disappointed their expectations. But Mary was still there with him at the cross, and she was right there in Acts 1, praying with the others to become the witnesses he told them to be. Mary A is a mentor, up ahead of us urging us along.
Mary Z is also an example and mentor of faith. She grew up glorious and popular. And she handed it all over to take up her still impossible, unimaginable calling. She is like the Rich Young Ruler, except that she actually did what the Lord required. She is pure—sexually pure, yes, and the early church highly valued that—but also morally pure, even free from sin. Mary Z’s own conception was a miracle, and so was the end of her earthly life. She is far ahead of the rest of us spiritually. Yet she uses that position for our benefit, interceding to the Lord for us, and even appearing from time to time to strengthen the church on earth. She is depicted at every level of Dante’s Purgatory, to encourage people to set aside every weight and keep running the race. She is the kind of mentor who comes way down to your level to coach you to reach all the way to the stars.
Mary A’s fans and Mary Z’s fans disagree sharply about how Mary is a spiritual example and mentor, but both sets agree that she is. A major factor was her extraordinary receptivity to the Lord. It bore the fruit of a transformed life.
Mary for all people
When Mary visited Elizabeth, she exploded with expectation in some of the most famous lines of Scripture, Luke 1’s Magnificat. There she imagined her son as a Maccabean warrior who would bring the kind of liberation from Roman rule that their generations were hoping for. This brash young woman was looking forward to long-awaited justice and good times—a receptivity that was necessarily bounded by her prior expectations and cultural assumptions.
Mary remained responsible and steadfast throughout the rest of her life. But as Jesus’ surprising ministry unfolded, Mary quieted down, as thoughtful people do when confronted by something genuinely new. Her few comments mainly expressed surprise, deference, and even shock. Luke last shows her right after Jesus’ resurrection praying with the other disciples (Acts 1:14). She remained faithful. But she was no longer the same young firebrand. The receptivity that carried her through all those challenges also brought her to far different horizons and far greater expectations for how God was keeping those promises.
I have stopped distinguishing between Mary A and Mary Z for the time being because both figures underwent a far-reaching transformation. Mary was changed in the process of bearing her own Savior, along lines we can share.
At the same time, Mary is also unique. She alone is the literal mother of Jesus, making her what the church later called theotokos or bearer of God. She mothered the Second Person of the Trinity. As Charles Wesley put it, he was “born of his creature and nursed on her knee”—and she was uniquely responsible for the Savior upon whom her own salvation utterly depended. What was that like?
Don’t you already know? After all, the church also bears Jesus to the world in mission. We are trustees of the very good news on which our lives depend. We bear our Savior too. Even in Mary’s uniqueness, she is our model.
Her unique relationship with Jesus impacts us in other ways. No one else has Mary’s maternal attachments with Jesus Christ. And Jesus has unique emotional attachments with her as his mother. That doesn’t mean that either Jesus or Mary loves the rest of us less. Why wouldn’t it help them love us more? The way I love my mom doesn’t limit how I love my wife, siblings, children, or friends. Those loves support one another. So at the cross, Jesus united Mary and the Beloved Disciple (John 19:25–27). “Behold your mother,” he told him. “Behold your son,” he told her. Jesus had said that whoever does God’s will does become his mother and brother and sister. That moment on the cross, he proved it.
So, imagine yourself in Acts 1. Imagine that you had encountered Jesus earlier in his ministry, but you opted out of his movement along the way. Now the fresh news of Christ’s resurrection has opened your eyes and changed your heart. You are learning to think of Jesus as both your brother and the Lord. So you rejoin the disciples who are assembled in that Upper Room somewhere in Jerusalem. Some of Jesus’ family members are there from Galilee. And as you meet Mary, she tells you, “Call me Mom.” What difference would that make?
There’s something about our stereotypes of Mary
Back to Mary A and Mary Z. What do they have to do with Mary? Mary A looks a lot like the rest of us. She was a faithful Jew whose old life Jesus ended and began anew. She moves to the sidelines as Jesus’ ministry unfolds, and we see his ministry begin to revolutionize her character and role. For whatever reason, the Bible doesn’t show us much more than the early stages of that process.
Protestants treat Mary as an early recipient of the transforming grace of a personal relationship with Jesus. Accordingly, they see Mary Z as overdeveloped and dangerously exaggerated, “too much” compared to the real Mary.
On the other hand, Mary Z looks a lot like the rest of us will look at the end of that process. We will have crowns as she does. We will sit on his throne with him as she does. We will be with Jesus as she is. We will love each other powerfully and fruitfully as she does. When we see him, we will be like him. We will be sinless. We will be justified, sanctified, and glorified.
Catholics and Orthodox treat Mary as an early recipient of sanctification and glorification. Accordingly, they see Mary A as a tragically stunted figure, “too little” compared to the real Mary.
In theological jargon, Mary A reflects a more futurist eschatology that sees the big transformation coming to all of us later on. Mary Z reflects a more realized eschatology that sees her big transformation early—beginning as early as her own conception.
Speaking personally now as a Mary A fan, my issue is not that Mary Z is “too much,” but that she is too much too soon. She’s not at Z yet. Yes, Mary has a rich share in Christ’s glory, power, and sinlessness. Mary A’s fans just don’t think these gifts arrived so early. Even now they may not have arrived fully. So she doesn’t presently stand out from the “cloud of witnesses” as disproportionately as Mary Z’s fans suppose. That is a different, and smaller, complaint.
Likewise, Mary Z’s fans might consider whether from their perspective Mary A is not really “too little,” but too little too late. While Mary is a mere human being who is no more worthy of worship than any creature, they still think that her unique proximity to Jesus profoundly affects her, and her fellow disciples benefit handsomely. She’s not at A anymore, if she ever was. So she does stand out from the “cloud” in unique and wonderful ways that Mary A’s fans haven’t adequately appreciated. That’s also a smaller complaint.
These are both still genuine complaints. It matters whether Mary is in a position or not to hear our requests and forward them to the Lord with her saintly authority. It also matters how much of our devotion she rightly deserves. Mary A and Mary Z are not interchangeable, and their differences are not trivial.
Nevertheless, if our conflict mainly reflects some kind of gap between Mary’s sanctification and others’, it takes on a different character. Protestants have learned to disagree over sanctification and eschatology with more amity and less division than two centuries ago. Framing Mary’s status this way might help us understand one another better, and it might make Mary less of a battleground and more of the blessing that God intends. Our Lord and Savior’s mother deserves that.
Telford Work teaches theology at Westmont College. This essay includes material adapted from his forthcoming book Jesus—the End and the Beginning published by Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019. Used by Permission.