[Becky Castle Miller provides a view on Mary’s choices – bravery, obedience, mothering, teaching – and what they mean for us all at Christmas and throughout our lives.]
“Does Mary even exist for Protestants?” a Jewish friend asked me this week, when we were talking with a Catholic friend about the mother of Jesus.
I laughed and answered, “Not enough!”
Protestant Christians seem to think about Mary of Nazareth mostly at Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But I think she is worth considering far more often. Mary’s radical obedience changed the world. She cared about the poor and the oppressed (and she probably had first-hand experience being both), and she looked forward to God’s promises of freedom being fulfilled. While she was pregnant, she sang a prophetic song of victory about the baby she was carrying and the work he would do:
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53.)
Mary wasn’t meek; she was dangerous. Part of her song of announcement declared, “God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones.” Who were the powerful rulers? Herod and Caesar. These were fighting words. With a cry of liberation, Mary calls for the overturn of the status quo, the stopping of oppression. As she raised and taught her children, she passed on that passion to them.
Comprehending the Child
When I have rubbed my lips over the fuzzy heads of my own newborns, I have thought about Mary kissing the face of her son and trying to comprehend that he was also the son of God. Though I don’t sing very well, I often sing to my children at bed time, as mothers throughout history and across cultures have done. I imagine that Mary sang to her kids at bedtime too—silly songs to make them laugh as well as theologically rich songs that catechized them. Perhaps she even sang to them her Magnificat, this announcement song, so that Jesus grew up learning his calling.
After Mary gave birth to Jesus, she and her husband Joseph had children together (Luke 8:20). One of her other sons was James, who later led the church in Jerusalem and wrote the epistle of James in the New Testament. Luke, in his Gospel, included the birth and infancy narratives of Jesus. Luke did first person research, and he very well could have met James. I wonder if that’s where Luke got the stories, handed down from Mary to her sons. I picture James singing for Luke the bedtime songs of his mother, Mary, such as the one she first wrote when she visited Auntie Elizabeth, the one about God’s strong arm lifting up those of low status.
New Testament scholar Scot McKnight says, “If that were your mother, what would you be like?” If you grew up hearing this song, from a mother who believed these things, what would you emphasize about God when you taught?
Luke recorded some of Jesus’s sayings in his Gospel. Listen for the echoes of Mary. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus gave an announcement of his own, quoting from Isaiah and publicly declaring his ministry:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In Luke 6:20-21 and 24-25, Jesus preached:
“Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied…
But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.”
James wrote in his letter:
“Brothers and sisters who are poor should find satisfaction in their high status. Those who are wealthy should find satisfaction in their low status, because they will die off like wildflowers… True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties.” (James 1:9-10, 27.)
“My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5.)
Do you hear the family resemblance?
Mary was a courageous woman, and her bold declaration about the inbreaking of the kingdom of God echoes on in the teachings of her sons. Just as Jesus learned from his mother, so can we.
We can learn from her bravery
Bravery in the Everyday Life You’re Given
She must have known what it would mean for her to turn up pregnant while engaged. People would either think that the baby was Joseph’s, in which case she would be seen as guilty of fornication, or they would think the baby was not Joseph’s, in which case she would be seen as guilty of adultery. She knew Joseph would know the baby was not his and he would be within his rights to divorce her. She knew she might face becoming a single mother, cast out and destitute. But in spite of all this, she said yes.
She agreed to God’s plan.
What will our obedience cost us? We can learn from her about God’s value system. Mary was poor. She knew what it meant to be oppressed as part of an oppressed people, and she knew what it meant to be shunned personally. One indicator we have that Mary and Joseph were poor is the offering they gave at the temple—two birds, the offering of someone who cannot afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8).
If we are poor or don’t have social capital, we don’t need to be ashamed. We can still be blessed by God and useful in God’s kingdom. If we are rich in money or power or status, we need to watch our use of those things. Are we using them to oppress others or are we using them to be generous? What opportunities or provision are we making for those of low status?
What would it look like for us in the church to be a community that fulfills Mary’s prophetic song? If we, like Jesus and James, took Mary’s outlook seriously, how would it change our practice of faith? What brave, dangerous statements would we make about the rich and powerful, and how would we work to lift up the poor and oppressed? May Mary’s song resonate in our imaginations this Christmas as we rejoice in God our savior.
 You can read an article by Scot McKnight about Mary the Protestor here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/do-you-hear-what-i-hear? And for further historical and theological information about her life, McKnight has a book called The Real Mary, which has informed my ideas about Mary.
Becky Castle Miller is the Discipleship Director at an international church in the Netherlands and writes about emotionally healthy pastoral care at Wholehearted. She conveys her five kids around town on bikes and studies New Testament in the middle of the night at Northern Seminary. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.