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Mary, the mother of Jesus, is someone most Protestants meet only at Christmas time. The saccharine figure of card and carol fame, Mary is lauded for her 'yes' to God and then retired, with the Christmas card box, to a back cupboard to await another December.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is someone most Protestants meet only at Christmas time. The saccharine figure of card and carol fame, Mary is lauded for her 'yes' to God and then retired, with the Christmas card box, to a back cupboard to await another December. But is this neglect fair to the Mary of Scripture? Could it be possible that the Protestant tradition has, in fact, starved itself of a potentially significant contributor to our understanding of faith, discipleship, and (to borrow a phrase from Radford Ruether) the "feminine face of the church"?
A key reason underlying Protestant reluctance to pay more than Christmastime attention to Mary originates in a reaction to Roman Catholic veneration and doctrine which, by the time of the Reformation, had elevated the theotokos (or 'god-bearer') to dizzying heights. Today Mary is still accorded a very high place by Roman Catholics, while amongst Protestants -- who have inherited the aversion of their forefathers -- she is a victim of conscientious neglect.
But is this neglect fair to the Mary of Scripture? Could it be possible that the Protestant tradition has, in fact, starved itself of a potentially significant contributor to our understanding of faith, discipleship, and (to borrow a phrase from Radford Ruether) the "feminine face of the church"?1
A priority to which Protestants have been fond of claiming allegiance has been the reformers' cry of sola scriptura, or 'scripture alone'. So, an acceptable reclaiming of the figure of Mary for Protestants would need to be grounded in the scriptural accounts.
One way of approaching Scripture that is in use amongst scholars today is narrative criticism. Focusing on the "finished form of the text . . . narrative criticism emphasises the unity of the text as a whole . . . while also viewing the text as an end in itself."2 What matters is what is on the pages in front of us. For this reason, narrative criticism is a good candidate for respecting the cry of sola scriptura. So, what does a narrative critical reading of the 'Mary texts' that appear in Luke-Acts and John produce?
Mary in Luke-Acts
In narrative, often, the key themes will appear in the opening pages, setting the scene for what is to follow. Shakespeare's prologue in Romeo and Juliet is a good example. The first two chapters of Luke fit this 'prologue' idea. There the events surrounding the infancy of Jesus are detailed and alongside them crucial themes that will reappear throughout the gospel narrative are introduced.
Mary appears most prominently in these two chapters and is used by the writer to introduce two of the key themes for the gospel: the characteristics of true discipleship, and God's upside-down kingdom.3
Luke records two stories of annunciation, but the reactions of the recipients stand in stark contrast to each other. Zechariah is 'terrified' by the presence of the angel4 and doubting, asks for proof that Gabriel's pronouncement will come true. For his doubt Zechariah is punished.5
Mary, however (though she is 'perplexed' and ponders,6 wondering how it could happen, since she is a virgin),7 in faith accepts.8 Consequently she is called 'blessed' because she "believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord".9 This acknowledgement of her faith and obedience is spoken over her by Elizabeth,10 but also, arguably, is implicit in the words of Jesus as he speaks during his ministry about discipleship.
F, IN NARRATIVE, the opening chapters set the scene for what is to follow, then we would expect to hear again this affirmation of 'hearing', accepting and obedient faith. In chapter eight the mother and brothers of Jesus come to see him but he declares that "those who hear the word of God and do it"11 are in fact his real mother and brothers.
Unlike Mark's version12 "Luke does not present members of Jesus' family in any way that would mark them as 'outsiders' to his mission".13 Thus echoes of Elizabeth's words to Mary in the 'prologue' can be legitimately heard here. As one who heard the word of God and did it, Mary too belongs to Jesus' 'real' family.
Interestingly, the parable of the sower is told immediately before this incident and the 'good soil' is interpreted as those who "when they hear the word hold it fast in an honest and good heart",14 words reminiscent of the pondering Mary of Luke 2:19 and 51. The echoes, however, get louder in Luke 11 when a woman in the crowd calls out "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!"15 Here we plainly hear Elizabeth's beatitudes, but in his reply Jesus once again stresses hearing, faith and obedience as being more praiseworthy than motherhood.
For Jesus, disciples (those members of his true family) are ones who "hear the word of God and obey it".16 For the narrator Mary was the first to do so.
MOST PROFOUND reinforcement of this appears via the use of the narrative technique of inclusio (that is, "a repetition of features at the beginning and end of a unit").17 Mary's perfect response to God in Luke 118 foreshadows the perfect response of Jesus to God in the Garden of Gethsemane in Luke 22.19 Each of these events creates an inclusio around the life and ministry of Jesus that modelled and taught right relationship with God and the nature of true discipleship.
For Jesus and for Mary, the will, and word, of God are paramount. Hence, as one of the two "bookends of Luke's gospel",20 a gospel that, among other things, explores the nature of discipleship in God's upside-down kingdom, Mary's contribution to the narrative is not to be underestimated.
F MARY IS the exemplar of discipleship for Luke is there anything else to discover from her about the nature of discipleship? If we study Mary's own words and the narration surrounding them Luke presents her as being full of faith,21 submissive to God's will,22 humble,23 Spirit-filled,24 a fearer of God,25 a vessel of, spokeswoman for, participant in and beneficiary of God's revolution,26 worshipful, joyful and prophetic,27 contemplative and thoughtful,28 prepared to take risks,29 a bearer of her cross30 and patiently enduring and prayerful.31
We also discover that for the gospel narrative Mary is the first example of the fact that discipleship in the Messianic kingdom is determined by what is in the heart,32 not by position, power, social or religious labels. Mary, however, is comfortingly human as well. The narrative acknowledges her perplexity,33 worry,34 incomprehension,35 astonishment at the actions of her son,36 and amazement.37
As a rounded character she is presented realistically and thus is a model of encouragement to those would-be disciples who sometimes struggle to absorb the implications of their commitment but who are genuine none-the-less.
Mary in John
When we turn to the gospel of John we discover that Mary only appears twice, in incidents unique to this gospel that notably frame the public ministry of Jesus. She is never named, but is instead referred to by her relationship to Jesus as his mother. She seems to precipitate the first miracle, or 'sign', that Jesus performs at a wedding in Cana38 and appears again at the foot of the cross with the beloved disciple.39 In between there is silence.
Over the years, scholars have read a great deal of symbolism into the appearances of Mary, but narrative criticism demands that we consider only the 'surface imagery' that appears.
It is important to note that a key theme in John is the issue of belief.40 One of the means in the narrative for revealing Jesus' glory and enabling belief in him41 are the miracles, or 'signs'.42 Within the narrative, characters are presented as either believing or disbelieving and the consequences for each are outlined.43 The implied author notes all this from a post-resurrection vantage point.44
HE WEDDING IN Cana provides the context for the first of Jesus' signs and completes an inclusiokai with John 4: 46-54 (where Jesus returns to Cana and has an encounter with a royal official whose son is sick) around the theme of belief. Of the inner stories, Nicodemus exemplifies doubt while the Samaritan woman exemplifies belief.
In the outer stories Mary and the official act as protagonists who bring a desperate situation to the attention of Jesus. The results of both are identified in the narrative as 'signs'.45 The official's story, however, crucially records Jesus telling him that "unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe".46 This is an important issue in the gospel.47 Mary's story, however, offers a different option.
The narrative tells us that when the wine gave out Mary went to Jesus, expecting help. Whatever she believed he could do -- the narrative does not reveal whether she expected him to do a miracle or not -- her faithful acceptance of his ability to act is confirmed in her instruction to the servants to "do whatever he tells you",48 even after Jesus' expressed reluctance.
That Mary has some kind of faith in Jesus already is further confirmed in the narrative. Scholars and translators debate how best to interpret Jesus' question -- literally "Woman what to you and to me?" Most tend to see it as a rebuke and separation: "Woman what have I to do with thee?" (RV). But the presence of kai ('and') joining 'to you' and 'to me' in the Greek suggests that the text is presenting Mary as 'standing alongside him, over against others.' Hence the NRSV renders it: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?"
This sense of solidarity continues with Jesus' next statement. "My hour has not yet come" operates in the text as something for the implied reader to note, but that it is, in the text, addressed specifically to Mary suggests that the implied author also intends an acceptance that she herself somehow understands him. That she then disappears from the narrative, after this completed incident,49 until the arrival of Jesus 'hour' (which refers to his "departure from this world")50 reinforces this narrative impression.
The narrative's later comment on the unbelief of Jesus' brothers51 from which Mary is conspicuously absent gives further support for seeing her as aligned with Jesus through her faith. But does she represent a particular kind of faith?
T IS INTERESTING to note that specific mention is made that this "first of his signs" that "revealed his glory" led to his disciples believing in him.52 Mary is not mentioned here and yet we have seen that she does have faith in Jesus.
That this story forms an inclusio with the story of the official gives a vital clue. There is no doubt that the story of the official centres on his belief that Jesus can heal his son.53 And both stories centre on their interaction with Jesus. Jesus points out, however, that the official's belief results from "signs and wonders". By contrast, Mary comes to Jesus, believing, before the narrative has detailed any miracles.
Significantly too, she is absent from the narrative that details the belief or unbelief generated by Jesus' miracles, returning only once the ultimate sign54 -- his lifting up on the cross -- has been enacted. Thus it is possible to conclude that she is the archetype in the text of one who is blessed because they do not need to see in order to believe, as commended by Jesus in John 20:29.
T THE FOOT of the cross Mary says nothing, but Jesus' words to her are significant here. In saying "Woman, here is your son," Jesus makes Mary 'mother' of one who represents Jesus' disciples, his spiritual family. Earlier we noted that the disciples were recorded as those who came to faith as a result of Jesus' signs.55 Mary, we saw, represents those who will later be acclaimed as "blessed . . . who have not seen and yet have believed".56 Mary and the Beloved Disciple are thus, it can be argued, recognised by Jesus as being representatives, or archetypes, of the faith stories of the new community. Moreover, they stand as man and woman at the foot of the cross, "models for Jesus' 'own', his true family of disciples."57
E COULD GO on to discuss the theological symbols that scholars have seen in Mary's textual appearances in John but that is to dig a layer deeper than our promised search for 'surface meaning'. Suffice it to say that the eschatological symbols present in the wedding at Cana ('new wine',58 the 'wedding' motif,59 the 'third day' and its resurrection associations, the fact that the miracle happens on the seventh day of the actual gospel narrative and so ties in with creation) suggest to some scholars that Mary is bound up into something 'new', a representative (female) element of a new family of believers, of a New Creation.
A case for reclaiming Mary?
A narrative critical reading of the Mary texts of Luke-Acts and John which, it has been argued, respects the Protestant cry of sola scriptura, suggests that she has much to offer the church, particularly when it comes to teaching on discipleship. For this reason, neglect of her is a tragedy that robs the church of a larger understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus -- surely a point worth rectifying.
EFORE WE FINISH, some further words of encouragement drawn from the example of Mary.
Important, particularly to the evangelical wing of the Protestant tradition, is the ability for each believer to be able to recall their conversion and recite their testimony. Great emphasis is placed on the contrast between life as an unbeliever and new life in Christ. Attention is often drawn to those with dramatic testimonies, modern-day Simon Peters, for example.
But for some Christians this is not their experience. They cannot recall their conversion and do not have a dramatic testimony because they have always believed in, and 'known' God. Relating to Simon Peter, a brash, impulsive man who denied Jesus, can also be difficult.
Mary, however, provides a different experience of discipleship to relate to. A fearer of God, she was called by him to a task that he knew she already had the faith to respond to at the age of only twelve or thirteen. She was also a thoughtful, faithful, worshipful, humble, prayerful, patiently enduring woman, passionate about the priorities of God.
A neglect of Mary loses these valuable points of empathy and affirmation for those whose experience or character is similar. It also deprives those who would be like her of a model. Luke-Acts and John between them highlight a number of different disciples of Jesus, offering them as people to empathise with and, as we have already seen, Mary definitely is included in their number.
O LEAVE HER out is to betray the text. That she is the main female example amongst a number of men makes it even more vital that she is not ignored. To continually ask women to try to identify with male models of discipleship subtly undermines the value of their femaleness.
Let us not forget that Mary was recognised by Jesus alongside the Beloved Disciple. As a result she stands, in her faithful response and in her characteristics as a disciple, as an example not just for women but also for men.