The godliness & virtue of Mary coupled with the profound significance of the task appointed to her of bearing God in the flesh in her womb, has led some to revere Mary in her own rite. But, when we look at her life, we must resist two temptations. One would be to overly reverence her (the Roman Catholic error), the other to disrespect her (the error of our irreverent age). She ought not be venerated, but rather, emulated.
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end (Luke 1:26-33).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
The Angel Gabriel comes as one of God’s “mighty ones” to a virgin from Nazareth in Galilee. Two important descriptions are noteworthy: first, she is an espoused virgin; second, that she (as we saw with Joseph) was of the house of David (vv26-27). Gabriel’s greeting is packed with regal honorifics: she is hailed as with royal (not divine) honor, she is highly favored, the Lord is with her, and she is blessed among women (v28). While she is quite flummoxed by this greeting (v29), the Angel goes on to unfurl the most important tidings any Angelic messenger had ever given. Mary had found favor in God’s sight (like Noah, Abraham, and Moses); like all moments of redemption, this was God’s free grace at work (v30).
This Incarnation of God in the flesh was the crowning jewel of all of God’s grace towards man. Mary is told that she would conceive & give birth to a son, who should be named Jesus (v31). So far, nothing that abnormal. Human mothers had birthed human sons before. Angels had come with these sorts of messages before. Prophets had made these sort of predictions before.
But then the Angel sets forth the towering glories of this Son. In Mary’s Son all the Messianic glories are brought into full flower. Her Son would also be divine. He would be great, the Son of the Highest, the fulfillment of God’s messianic promise to seat an eternal heir on David’s throne (v32), He was the prophesied Star which would arise out of Jacob to reign unto endless eons (v33, Cf. Num. 24:17).
As you recite the Definition of Chalcedon at Christmastime each year, you shouldn’t forget that almost every phrase in it was the topic of long debate. One of the principle debates was whether it was right to call Mary the “God-bearer”. The Greek word is theotokos. This debate centered on who Jesus was. Was He a Son of Man which God used? Was he the eternal Christ, but more of an apparition than a true human?
A few other suggestions were proposed: theotokos should be combined with anthropotokos, or Christokos. But by landing on calling Mary the God-bearer, the theologians of Chalcedon said more with less. It forced the Church to affirm the unity of the human & divine nature of Jesus Christ.
This isn’t just theological hair splitting; there are important practical implications, even if it gives us a bit of a headache in trying to get it pinned down. God the Son was manifested in the flesh. The Son never resigned His divinity while taking unto Himself true humanity.
If you erroneously split that theological atom, you end up with either a Christ who can’t suffer in our stead, or a mere man who can’t bring us up to glory. One is a ladder that isn’t tall enough, the other is a ladder that floats just out of reach. But theotokos puts both together. Jesus is God. Jesus is man. Mary bore God in her womb. Yes, this is mind-blowing. This was the most impossible thing to ever happen, and Mary herself knew it (Lk. 1:37).
GOD MY SAVIOR
One of the central errors of Mariolatry is that it neglects to reckon with Mary’s own words. This is seen particularly in her Magnificat. She describes there her wonder and worship at all that had befallen her in terms of fulfillment of OT types.
All the Psalmists’ pleas for God’s swift deliverance of His people (including Mary) are now answered. Mary sees Hannah’s exultation over her adversary (satan) played out once again in her own story, but cosmically, the woman’s seed overcoming the serpent’s seed. She sees that her Son is the Seed of Abraham, and this was the blessing for all the earth, for all generations.
She rejoices in “God my Savior.” She does not set herself above all others, but sets herself as the first blessed amongst all others who would receive this great blessing of the Savior. Mary needed a Savior. Later on in Jesus’ ministry, we also get a bit of a sense that Mary was pushing Jesus forward into being the sort of Savior she (as well as the other disciples) envisioned the Messiah would be. Simon surely prophesied well when he told Mary that a sword would pierce her own soul.
Mary was there when God first took on flesh, and she beheld when that flesh was hung––mangled and tortured–– upon a the accursed Roman tree. She understood, imperfectly at first, and then on Calvary she came to see more clearly, that her Son was also her Savior.
RECEIVING AS A CHRISTMAS VIRTUE
Generosity requires two parties: the giver & the receiver. One is active, the other is passive. Every gift we give is play-acting God’s creative power. It is He who made us and not we ourselves. Can the pot say to the Potter, “What gives?” Our modern world thinks that being can be taken for granted. Your existence isn’t your possession for you to do with however you please; it is a gift to be received and rightly used. All the modern jargon about “self-expression” & “finding your true self” is continuing the root rebellion of mankind.
Mary’s response is that of true faith: “Be it unto me according to your word.” Mary receives the unearned favor of God with humble faith. She doesn’t resist or object in doubt. She receives the gift. This sort of faith insults our modern egotistical age, and confronts it as a putrid rebellion against God.
What do you have that you did not first receive? Man wants to try to clean himself up to please God, before he receives God’s gift of cleansing. Man tries to reform himself, before receiving the reforming grace that God gives. Man tries to find rebirth in himself, before receiving the New Birth in Christ. The order matters, immensely. God casts His favor upon you, through no merit of your own, and calls you to receive it. Only then can you be remade.
ANOTHER REBELLIOUS MIRIAM
Mary’s namesake was Miriam, Moses’ sister. Her name meant resistant/obstinance. Miriam notoriously resisted Moses’ authority (Cf. Num. 12). Here we have a profound contrast between two Miriams. Mary the resistant, says, “let it be.” Mary receives grace, and so resists the proud.
By God’s grace, the rebellious become the receivers. This is how Mary, and all true believers, overcome the world. We receive in order to overcome our adversary. We who were once rebels of God, when we receive His gracious favor, we are made more than conquerors through Christ, the Son of Mary. The overthrow of Satan had begun, because Christ was born of Mary.