What Do We Do With the Virgin Mary?

This article will begin to answer a Q&A question I’ve had sitting in my queue for a couple of months now: “What are we to think of Mary, the mother of Jesus?” We will let the Scriptures guide us in our conclusions.

But first, let me share what I tend to hear about Mary in my own brotherhood (in other words, our Mariology). Perhaps your experience differs from mine, but my brotherhood has often given me the sense that we are suspicious of Mary and therefore reluctant to talk about her for fear of falling into some kind of Roman error. At the very least, some of us are leery of Mary because of Roman Catholicism. In my neck of the woods, we simply didn’t speak or even think about Mary, unless it was to point out that she was absolutely unremarkable and that the Roman Catholics worship her.

The Scriptures disprove that first assertion. Mary has an active role in several chapters of the New Testament, and most of the material shows her to be quite remarkable. Luke gives Mary the greatest attention in the first two chapters of his gospel. Mary also features in the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2), the Crucifixion (John 19), and the meetings of the disciples between the Ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1). She is also represented in the Vision of the Woman and the Child in Revelation 12.

On top of that, the Scriptures represent Mary in terms of types, or comparisons made between multiple events and people in Scripture. For example, the Scriptures support a comparison between Mary and Eve, just as they support a comparison between Jesus and Adam. There are also specific comparisons to be made between Mary and the ark of the covenant, between Mary and the other great matriarchs of God’s people (e.g., Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Ruth, Hannah, and others).

The NT texts and the OT types deserve their own considerations; there is simply no way that one can do them all  justice in the space of a single article. The point for this week is that Mary possesses a very special place in God’s plan. In other words, Mary was not just some cog in God’s divine machine, and no other woman could be swapped in for her.

Let us begin with some of what Luke has to say about Mary in Luke 1-2. We can break our study down into several episodes which pertain to Mary: the Annunciation (1.26-38), the Visitation (1.39-56), the Nativity (2.1-21), the Presentation in the Temple (2.22-38), and the Finding in the Temple (2.31-51). The first two, the Annunciation and the Visitation, focus most heavily on Mary.

The Annunciation alone should persuade us that Mary is a very special woman. Gabriel’s first words to her are, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you,” identifying Mary as the recipient of God’s favor. He does this again when he reassures Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” This should draw our minds back to Noah, who is one of only two people in the Torah of whom Moses explicitly says, “He found favor in the eyes of God” (Gen 6.8). The other person is Moses himself (Ex 33.17).

This puts Mary in rarified air. Consider the great callings of Noah and of Moses. God preserved the whole human race through Noah, saving him from His wrath so that all men should have Noah as their father. What’s more, God delivered all Israel through Moses, saving them from Egyptian bondage so that they could worship the God of Israel. But greater than both of these is the work which God accomplished through Mary, for through her He brought His Son into the world, to save all mankind through Him, to free them from bondage to sin so that all men can worship the Father through Jesus. Thus, Gabriel calls Mary “favored one.”

And that’s just the greeting.

Consider the uniqueness of Mary’s calling. Who else has conceived by the Holy Spirit? Who else has borne the Son of God in her womb (Luke 1.35)? No one can aspire to so great a calling.

Let us finish this week by considering the faith of Mary, which we see in her faithful responses. When Gabriel first tells her that she shall conceive and shall bear a son, she responds, “How will this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1.34). This may seem an odd question since we know that she is betrothed; it seems to be inevitable that she shall know a man. It is less odd if we consider that this question stems from her own purity (indeed, it is meant to draw our attention to her purity). She asks, in essence, “How is it that I, being pure and chaste, shall conceive a son?” Mary is not challenging Gabriel’s word; she is merely asking how this is to happen while she is being obedient to the commandments of the Law! Oh that we were so faithful!

As you go forth, meditate on Mary’s final response to Gabriel: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” This, brothers and sisters, is faith.

Continue reading “What Do We Do With the Virgin Mary?”

Simple Obedience: A Meditation on Candlemas

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus, known commonly as Candlemas. Luke records the event which the Feast commemorates:

And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”

Luke cites two commandments from the Law which Joseph and Mary obeyed on that journey. The first is the law of redemption of the firstborn, which we find in Exodus 13:

The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” Then Moses said to the people: … “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord’s. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”

Moses explicitly links the redemption of sons to the Passover. Thus, Joseph and Mary buy Jesus back from God, sparing the Son from the strong hand of the Father in the same way that the lambs’ blood spared the firstborn in Egypt. Redeeming Jesus in this way creates a dramatic irony with the central drama of the Gospels, the Crucifixion. The Presentation anticipates Jesus’ Passion, where He offers Himself as the Passover sacrifice, sparing all of humanity from the strong hand of the Father.

This might cause us to wonder, Why does the Son of God have to be redeemed from His own Father? Why bother buying Him back when His whole life’s mission is to give Himself as a sacrifice for man’s sin? We will return to these questions shortly.

First, let us consider the second law cited by Luke, which comes from Leviticus 12:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a woman conceives and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days. As at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying. She shall not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

It should shock us that Mary goes to the Temple to fulfill this commandment. She has just given birth to the Son of God. Do we really mean to say that bearing Jesus made Mary unclean? How is it that the Mother of God could “not touch anything holy, nor come into the sanctuary” when she held the Son of God in her arms and nursed Him at her breast? More shocking still, the sacrifices for purification include a sin offering! Surely this commandment was not meant for her. How could it possibly apply to her?

These questions about the redemption of Jesus and the purification of Mary may call the whole enterprise of the Presentation into question. We could scratch our heads wondering why these sacrifices and rituals were necessary in the case of Jesus. But here’s the truly wonderful thing about the Presentation: Mary and Joseph knew that Jesus was the Son of God, and still they didn’t scratch their heads or doubt the necessity of their obedience.

As we keep the Feast this year, let us remember the quality that has always made the Holy Family exemplars of the Faith: their simple obedience. They did not bother with reasons why they should not obey. They simply did “as it is written in the Law of the Lord.” And so should we.

Continue reading “Simple Obedience: A Meditation on Candlemas”

The Challenge of Reading Biblical Wisdom

We’ve noted several times in our sermons on Colossians that bearing the fruit of the gospel means knowing God’s will “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1.9). We’ve also noted Paul’s allusion to Lady Wisdom in the Christological hymn (Col 1.15-16; cf Pro 8.22-31). Much of Paul’s teaching over the rest of the epistle rests implicitly on wisdom, the quality of sound judgment.

The Bible has several books explicitly devoted to wisdom: Job, some of the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. The rest of the Bible, by and large, invites us to read it through the lens of wisdom, Colossians being but one example. So how do we read and understand biblical wisdom?

Wisdom will give us fits if we expect all of the Bible to read like Law. Law and Wisdom are consistent in their devotion to God and godliness—they are both the product of the same inspiration—but they differ drastically in their form and style. In this, Law and Wisdom are like water and food; both are needed to sustain the body, but they do so in different ways.

In my experience, most people—Christians included—think of the Faith in terms of Law: do this, don’t do that, and here are the consequences for disobedience. Things are ostensibly cut and dry. You either make a graven image, or you don’t. You either steal, or you don’t. You either go to heaven, or you go to hell. It’s reductionistic, to be sure, since the Law itself doesn’t invite our opinion that it is cut and dry; what, for example, does it mean to “honor your father and your mother”?

Wisdom utterly defies this checklist mentality. It invites us to exercise our judgment. It resists tidy, universal categories, famously telling us in one verse to “answer a fool according to his folly,” then telling us in the next verse not to do that. Wisdom tells us that we have to work to find the right answers in life; it’s not laid out neatly for us on a page somewhere. This is not to say that Wisdom preaches subjectivism—far from it. Instead, it tells us what we should know instinctively: it is hard to apply our principles to our lives, but we are expected to do it anyway. Wisdom is hard.

The worst part is that we will disagree over who is right. The entire book of Job is dedicated to that subject. Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu all basically agree on what is right. They all condemn oppression against the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner. They all agree that God is the source of wisdom and justice. They differ over at least one fundamental thing, which we’ll get to, but their debate generally isn’t about what is right but about who is right. The wisdom of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar says that Job is being punished for wrongdoing. The wisdom of Job says that he has done nothing wrong, that he is being treated maliciously and capriciously. The wisdom of God, which concludes the book, says that the whole matter falls outside the realm of human judgment and that we’ll never know the answer!

To say the least, this frustrates some readers.

I said that Job and his friends disagree over one fundamental issue, and it’s a doozy: does the world make moral sense, or is it morally absurd? Are the wicked punished for their wickedness (the position of Job’s friends) or is the world so morally absurd that the wicked actually prosper on account of their wickedness (the position of Job)? God doesn’t resolve this question at the end of the book, nor does the rest of the Wisdom literature. The Proverbs generally agree with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar: “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand” (Pro 12.7). Ecclesiastes generally agrees with Job: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten,” and “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (Ecc 2.16; 7.15).

On top of all of that, much of the Wisdom literature strikes us as fractured and disorganized. Pick any chapter of the Proverbs starting with chapter 10, and you will read a dizzying assortment of topics. The rest of the Wisdom literature is only slightly less eclectic. How does one get answers out of it all? You’d have to read the whole thing any time you wanted to understand what it teaches on any given topic.

I suspect this is a conscious choice on God’s part. To learn biblical wisdom about money, you have to read the rest of biblical wisdom as well. Want to know about family life? Get ready to read about speech, work ethic, kingly leadership, and justice as well. There is a divine method to this madness. Research a few topics from the Wisdom literature, and you’ll start to get the sense that all of it is tied together in some broader sense that defies strict logic. It’s exhausting, but, after all, Wisdom is hard.