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Mary the Mother of Jesus

Since the reformation Christians of our traditions have neglected Mary, fearing idolatry, in an over-reaction against the cult of Mary in the Roman Church. It could well have been in part responsible for an overly severe and masculine image of God.

The role of women in the ministry of Jesus is being given more attention and they turn out to be stronger and more significant than previous generations, dominated by masculine presuppositions, had thought. They were amongst the first of his followers to recognize who he was and to tell others. Although they were much in the background of the story there were women frequently in the party of the followers of Jesus.

Mary the mother of Jesus was one of those women who appear occasionally in the gospel accounts and at the beginning of the church in the book of Acts. Her part in the story in not limited to the birth narratives important as they are.

Humble servant and social radical (Luke 1:26-56);

Her thoughts revealed in her song celebrating the greatness of God show her to be a strong young woman concerned with social justice -- indeed quite radical, with revolutionary ideas - as we hear in her song we know as the Magnificat:

So she praised God for the promise of a Messiah who would turn things upside down: and, of course, her son did say "The first shall be last and last first."

Mary is not only a figure of quiet accepting piety as she is often portrayed. You will see her in other situations later also taking initiatives.

At the same time she was co-operative with God's plan -- a willing servant of God

And she was described by her cousin Elizabeth as blessed. She was a highly favoured lady as we sing in the song `the angel Gabriel'. Favoured and blessed by God, yet she remained in many respects a representative of ordinary humanity. She represents us in an important way. Even in her blessedness she is a good example of how ordinary people can have a special part in God's plans, and still remain very much part of the human race.

Wife and virgin mother (Matthew 1:16-20; Luke 1:34-35; 2:1-7);

The conception of Jesus, whatever scientific account you might imagine could be given of it, is the work of the Holy Spirit. If there is a rational scientific explanation of how it happened, does it matter? What matters is that, however it was done, it was done by God.

Being the work of God, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, her bearing the child was not a product of her own goodness (or badness, for that matter) but the result of the undeserved grace of God. When some pious Christians say "Hail Mary, full of grace" they might well be saying more than they recognize. The more we know of the grace of God (that is, the way he gives to us freely far more than we can ask or deserve) the more we understand our humanity in contrast of his divinity. The virgin birth emphasises the humanity of Mary. It was not that there was something special about her, but that there was something special about what God did with her.

One who shares in the recognition of our Lord (Matthew 2:11; Luke 2:8-39);

Mary reacts as a mother might be expected to act even when she is a witness to amazing things about her son. She is shown to be a thoughtful and reflective person. When the shepherds came, for example:

She would have added to those words that she pondered the gifts of the wise men and the words of old Simeon and Anna in the temple, even though there was a threat in Simeon's prophetic words:

Caring and anxious mother (Matthew 2:13-14; 2:20-21; Luke 2:41-51; Matthew 12:46-50 Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21);

Indeed she had cause for worry along the way, long before she stood by him at the cross.

They had to run away to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous intentions and to risk the return journey, when travel was none too save in any case. They had reason for fear and knew anxiety with this baby. Joseph found that he had married a dangerous wife. They took risks, and must have been anxious.

Indeed Matthew described the emotions of Mary and Joseph in just those terms when Jesus was lost in Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. Well, he was lost as far as they were concerned, although he did not think he was lost:

These are very human reactions; and see how it is Mary who admonishes him, not Joseph; she is the one who takes the initiative. And again she has cause to ponder:

He must have been a puzzle to her. It was she, Mary, who later when his ministry in Galilee had begun, who went after him with his brothers and tried to bring him out of the crowd in Capernaum. Were they trying to rescue him? In any case he did not grant them any special privilege, indeed the contrary, saying that all his disciples were his mother and sisters and brothers.

One of the early group of disciples (John 2:1-5, 12);

There is something of the same attitude in the story of the wedding at Cana, though here Mary is seen to have some knowledge of his special powers, he is still reluctant to act for her:

In any case, with whatever degree of doubt or belief, Mary and his brothers were found amongst the followers of Jesus. They are mentioned together with the disciples by John at the beginning of his ministry when he went down to Capernaum and appeared in the same company again much later. Although they do not appear to have been close to him most of the time during his public ministry, they had enough contact to play a significant role in the early church, and his brother James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem [Acts 1:14, 15:13ff; Gal 1:18-19]

A representative of ordinary humanity (Matthew 13:54-57; Mark 6:3; John 6:41-42);

Amongst the most frequent references to Mary and her family are those in which people say, how can there be anything divine about this man, he belongs to an ordinary family and we know his father and mother and brothers and sisters -- It was evident especially when he visited his home town after his reputation had begun to spread.

They used the obvious and ordinary humanity of Mary to deny the special claims of her son. We who have faith in Jesus as the Christ believe in his pre-existence with God and his being of the same nature as God, so we say he came from heaven, as the word of God became flesh and lived among us; but when he spoke of such things even indirectly, they thought of his humanity as seen in his family:

So Mary remains a representative of humanity, and it is because of that closeness to us that many Christians, not of our traditions, feel that they can more easily pray to God through her. I hope we can appreciate a little of what it signifies in Christian experience. Properly understood it does not make Mary, falsely, into a semi-divine being, but emphasises her humanity. Indeed it was her humanity that Christ himself inherited.

Witness to Christ's passion and death (John 19:25-27);

Christian and art and tradition have made much of the presence of Mary at the crucifixion, and her being there must be a sign of love and faithfulness. She was a witness to his passion and death, and one of the few who did not run away.

Among the apostles at the birth of the church (Acts 1:14).

Mary is a good example in her faithfulness at the end; and she was amongst the first gathering of the faithful on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit, the same Holy Spirit in whose power she had conceived Jesus, was then poured out with great power at the founding of the church. That is the last we hear of her in the Bible, but it is enough to number her among the saints.

The Biblical record gives us a picture of Mary as a significant figure, worthy to be taken as an example. She was a strong and hopeful, if sometimes puzzled, carer and later a follower of Jesus. In it all her humble humanity is paramount. That she should have been so greatly blessed in her humanity is a cause of hope and joy for all humanity. Therefore we rejoice with her at the good news of the birth of her son.

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