Culture At Large

Mary, Do We Know? Evangelicals and the mother of God

Chad Thornhill

National Geographic’s December cover proclaims Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “the most powerful woman in the world.” The story itself examines Marian apparitions and Marian devotion across the globe, profiling those who claim to have experienced visitations and healing from Mary.

Speaking in the article to Mary's enduring appeal, New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy Jill-Levine says that because so little is known of Mary from Scripture, “you can project on her whatever cultural values you have.” While that is true to an extent, we are also told more about Mary in the New Testament than about most of the disciples.

Although evangelicals do not embrace Mary as an intercessor or source of miraculous healing, there is much we can learn from her portrayal in the Gospels. In the last decade, evangelical leaders like Timothy George and Scot McKnight have called upon the Protestant world to embrace the Biblical portrait of Mary and reflect with more care on what she teaches us. McKnight writes, “She has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.” So, how can our knowledge of Mary deepen our knowledge of Christ?

We might first recognize that Mary was on the margins of society. Likely poor, and certainly a socially ostracized figure in light of her gender, social status, and unwed pregnancy, Mary lived on the fringe. Yet when the angel appears — in spite of knowing the social cost which accepting this divine commission would bring — Mary willingly accepts her commission. And her mission indeed came with a cost, just as it would even more so for her Son, and for all who follow Him. In a sense, Mary foreshadows the sacrificial ministry of Jesus and the sacrificial ministry to which He calls His church. It is often recognized that Jesus frequently ministered to the marginalized of society. It’s worth remembering that his mother was on the margins herself.

How can our knowledge of Mary deepen our knowledge of Christ?

Second, as George notes, Mary is “the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others.” In Luke’s Gospel, Mary first proclaims the good news concerning her expected Son. And her proclamation, as McKnight recognizes, declares that the coming of the Son means the proud are humiliated, earthly rulers are dethroned, and the rich are impoverished, while the humble and oppressed are lifted up and the needy are satisfied. McKnight states, “She exults that God is about to establish justice by ushering in the kingdom that all of Israel, especially the poor, have yearned for… Mary had a dangerous story to tell that would subvert injustice and establish justice through her son, the Messiah of Israel.”

Finally, we recognize that Mary was the first to trust in Jesus as God’s Messiah and was among His most faithful followers. Again, McKnight writes, “This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross — not just as a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it.”

Sacrificing her comfort and status for the mission of God. Proclaiming the fullness of the good news. Living in faithful and perilous commitment to the Lord Jesus. These are a few of the lessons we might learn from Mary. While evangelicals should not lift up Mary as an object of worship or devotion, her life and witness exalt the One to whom such acts of allegiance are owed.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, Christmas & Easter