By Phillip C. Thrailkill
Hope and Michael were lead characters in the once-popular TV show Thirtysomething. She was a Christian and he a Jew. As I was reading Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew, I was reminded of an argument between the two characters during a December episode.
Hope is on the attack, “Why do you even bother with Hanukkah? Do you really believe a handful of Jews held off a huge army using a bunch of lamps that miraculously wouldn’t run out of oil?”
Michael explodes, “Oh, and Christmas makes more sense? Do you really believe an angel appeared to some teenage girl who then got pregnant without ever having had sex and traveled on horseback to Bethlehem, where she spent the night in a barn and had a baby who turned out to be the Savior of the world?”
The Christian story is an incredible one, hard to swallow for someone who doesn’t believe in an unseen reality, or that God might show up in the world. For such skeptics, the Christian story requires a major shift in worldview.
But even a person who believes the historical accounts of Jesus might still have a heart of stony unbelief. Faith is not something we produce by a combination of biblical knowledge, will power, and emotional zeal. Faith is not our doing; it’s a gift from God. It’s not just intelligent assent. It is experiential and experimental. Faith requires engaging God.
In our Christian lives we must do business with the Lord, just as Mary, the mother of Jesus, did. We must hear the Word of God, just as Mary did. We must receive the incredible news that God desires to implant Christ within us, just as Mary did. And we must surrender to an uncertain future in which God draws us out into his work in the world, just as Mary did.
In our Christian journey, which requires the whole person—our mind, our emotions, and our will—Mary can be a mentor and spiritual guide.
Mary, the magnificent insignificant.
What can we say of Mary but that she was a village girl, likely unable to read, with the whole of her life pre-programmed. As property to be traded between her father and husband-to-be with a dowry, she would have an arranged marriage, bear children one after another and be dead perhaps by age 30, having lived the religiously “insignificant” life of a female. Mary was young in a culture that valued age; female in a culture where men ruled; poor in a rural economy, with no children yet to give her status. She was among the powerless people in her society, and it is for this reason that so many poor around the world find in Mary such a friend. She is one of them. She understands oppression and the pressure of unmet needs.
God chose her when she had nothing but an empty, virginal womb to commend her—no priestly lineage, no long track record— just a simple Jewish village girl waiting for her wedding day.
But Mary’s faith was great, and to all who are poor she gives a new dignity. If God can use her, then why not me? If she can bear Christ physically, can I not bear him spiritually?
When God breaks in.
Then it happened. Into Mary’s world, likely her parents’ home, the angel Gabriel intrudes, unsheathes his presence and breaks the sound barrier: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). There is a play of words here between the words hail and favored, both of which draw from the root meaning grace (charis). Gabriel bears the grace of God, which is not a thing but the gracious presence of God, to Mary. In essence, Gabriel is saying, “Good morning, Mary. You are chosen of the Lord whose presence and presents I bring to you.”
Mary’s reaction is worth notice. She responds on both emotional and intellectual levels. The Scripture says, “But she was greatly troubled at this saying [emotion], and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be [intellect]” (vs. 29). Mary is frightened and curious at the same time. The numinous is near.
When God comes near, all human capacities are put on high alert. For me, a clue that God is near is a shift of consciousness and an unusual focus of attention. An internal switch turns on. I am aware that the Holy Spirit is active in and around me; God is speaking, and it is time to listen. Perhaps an angel is present.
Encounters with spiritual reality always have multiple dimensions. Feelings are touched; the mind is set spinning. In religious experience, God claims the whole person. He may start with a part—a stirring in the heart or an illumination of the mind—but the goal is to focus all the powers of the person on the Lord. Therefore, we should not be discouraged by our own (or put off by others’) honest displays of emotion, by intellectual doubts, or deep wrestlings of the will. As with Mary, God may come to us through one of these avenues, but the goal is to align them all in obedience.
For me, the pattern is most often first the head, then the will, and finally the feelings follow afterwards. Yours may be a different order. For Mary, emotions were kindled first, then the mind was illumined. But still she had to make a decision, an act of the will that would reveal her heart. What did God want of her? And did she want what God wanted?
Notice Gabriel’s word of reassurance to Mary: “Do not be afraid” (vs. 30). Why does he say this? Because that is what she likely was, terrified! An angel intrudes into the world of a peasant girl whose life script has been laid out by her parents, her husband-to-be, and the social expectations of Nazareth. When one of God’s emissaries interrupts us when we’re going about our life, this is not just for entertainment. Such encounters are storm surges down the ravines of our lives that push us into the deep flow of God’s river.
Mary, the God-bearer.
God is messin’ with Mary’s life. She is afraid, and rightly so. Gabriel then delivers the invitation, as if it were already a done deal, “And behold [angelic slang for ‘Getta load of this!’], you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (vs. 31).
What happens next is important. In the form of a five-line prophecy (which may have been sung), Gabriel gives Mary a glimpse of the future of this child. “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (vs. 32). This is a messianic promise. Mary is invited to bear the long-awaited Messiah, one whose reign will never end. With these lyrics, we see the focus of the story is not on Mary, the bearer; it’s on Jesus, the born. Jesus will be the one who fulfills all the promises of God. Mary’s role is always secondary to his.
When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the sixteenth century, he brought samples of art to illustrate the story for people who had never heard it. The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when Ricci produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God.
The temptation is perpetual. But Jesus came in the incarnation to die in the crucifixion, and then to rule by resurrection and ultimate return. Mary is to be honored for her part in the incarnation, but not worshiped. The central figure is Jesus.
Mary, the Trinitarian theologian.
Notice that Mary talks back. Hear her juvenile voice tremble. She engages Gabriel in dialogue. A pubescent girl carrying on a conversation with the greatest power this side of heaven! Pretty bold on her part. But God is not put off by questions that are genuine. “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (vs. 34). Mary was not ignorant of how and why babies come. Village life was earthy; Palestinian homes had little privacy.
Gabriel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Here, the Trinitarian dimension of God’s coming is made explicit, and Mary becomes the first Trinitarian theologian. Theology will be written, so to speak, in her very flesh. God the Father (the transcendent one) sends a mediator so that God the Holy Spirit (the immanent one) can carry out actions, as God the Son (the incarnate one) is planted in Mary’s womb. Think of it. Mary, a worldly nobody, was caught up in the life of the Trinity. The word of the Father to her, the power of the Spirit upon her, the presence of the Son within her.
We, like Mary, are made for God. Hearing the Father’s voice, knowing the Spirit’s power, having Christ formed within us. This is our true dignity and our final destiny as redeemed human beings. Mary is our model and her son’s first follower. She is the first to know the revelation of God as a Triune communion of love.
This was, when you think of it, the fittest means of God’s coming. Since only women bear children, and since the incarnation should honor both sexes, it was necessary that the Savior be male. And the child thus formed would be without sin, fully human and fully God in one person. Emmanuel. God with us. The great God would come, and be little among us. “The God who roared, who could order armies and our empires around like pawns on a chessboard,” writes Philip Yancey, “this God emerged in Palestine as a baby who could not speak or eat solid food, or control his bladder, who depended on a teenager for shelter, food and love.”
Mary, the spiritual director.
But what will Mary’s answer be? If yes, the process and the prophesies thus outlined will unfold. If no, then the God who gives and respects freedom must search again. It is important that Mary’s decision be honored. Will she loan her body to God as his earthly mother? And so the angel, who has come with God’s offer, waits for Mary to come to the altar of surrender and the risk of faith. You decide for yourself how long the pause was between verses 37 and 38. Was it immediate, or did Gabriel have to twiddle his thumbs for a while?
There is a prayer I highly recommend. It is a summation of Mary’s prayer in only two words, “Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord.” When my heart is cold or stubborn or rebellious, I sometimes repeat it over and over till I begin to sense the smile of God upon me. Mary is my spiritual director; she teaches me how to pray, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord;” she says, “let it be to me according to your word.” Mine is often less elegant, “Here I am, Lord; do it in me, do it through me, do it in spite of me!”
An Eastern Church father, Cabasilas, summed up the transaction, “It was only after having instructed her and persuaded her that God took her for his Mother and borrowed from her the flesh that she so greatly wished to lend him.” With Mary’s yes the mission was ended, the conception completed, and Gabriel departed. And the revolution that flowed from Mary’s yes continues to shake the world.
The novelist Frederick Buechner has written: “Whether he was born in 4 B.C. or A.D. 6, in Bethlehem or Nazareth, whether there were multitudes of heavenly host to hymn the glory of it or just Mary and her husband when the child was born, the whole course of human history was changed.…Art, music, literature, Western culture itself with all its institutions and our Western man’s whole understanding of himself and his world—it is impossible to conceive how differently things would have turned out if that birth had not happened whenever and wherever and however it did. And there is a truth beyond that: for millions of people who have lived since, the birth of Jesus made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.”
What is your answer? How many signs do you need to trust? How is God calling you to bear Christ to the world? Will you say yes and leave the rest to God?
Phillip C. Thrailkill is the pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Hartsville, South Carolina. He is the former chair of the board of The Mission Society and the current chair of the Theology Commission for The Confessing Movement. You can receive Pastor Thrailkill’s weekly sermon via email by contacting him at PThrailkil@aol.com. This article was adapted from his book Mary: Lessons in Discipleship from Jesus’ Earthly Family © Phillip C. Thrailkill. Published by Bristol House, Ltd. Reprinted with permission.