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Mary's Story in Scripture and Evangelical Theology

By Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament

In the painfully violent opening of Benítez’ The Weight of All Things, Nicolás’ mother prays these words in the moment before her death: “Santa Maria, Madre de Dios” (3). She invokes the name of Mary and addresses her by the title with which all orthodox Christian traditions agree: she is the Mother of God.

Many Protestant readers might be able to think through the phrase and affirm its correctness, but it is certainly not a familiar one. A title so closely related to divinity might stir up just the sort of worries that color our perception of believers in the other branches of the church. Don’t they elevate Mary too much? The novel continues to provoke those concerns. Nicolás’ mother is, after all, praying to Mary. In her final moments, Mary’s presence with them is the reason she can urge her son not to fear (2-3). The statue of La Virgen that Nicolás rescues from his destroyed church (32) becomes a focal point of the narrative, an entity who makes meaning for Nicolás by offering direction, comfort, protection, healing, and, ultimately, the truth of his own identity. Are these not the roles that God and God alone should fill?

I resonate with the questions and even the hesitancy that such narrative moves elicit. In various times and places, Mary has been elevated too high, even over the rightful place of God.  The move in the opposite direction, however—to ignore her—brings its own egregious theological errors. This year readers will have to decide—and discuss and debate—if Nicolás’ devotion to Mary is rightly ordered. 

In various times and places, Mary has been elevated too high, even over the rightful place of God. The move in the opposite direction, however—to ignore her—brings its own egregious theological errors. — Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament

As a student of Mary’s story in Scripture and in theology, I can, however, lay some groundwork for that discussion. God-breathed Scripture does honor her. It affirms the comforting tangibility of her unique relationship to God. It sets her as an unparalleled but replicable example of faith. Protestants will not be compelled to take up the same devotional practices as Nicolás, but I hope we might more graciously understand why he does so. Because our God—as scandalous and provocative as it might be—does indeed have a mother.  

The Elevation of Mary

Luke 2

The evangelist Luke gives the most thorough presentation of Mary in all the New Testament. He shows with great clarity and art the ways that God honors this young woman. Luke begins his gospel with the story of John the Baptist, but interpreters agree that he does so to compare the beginnings of this great prophet with the even greater beginnings of Jesus, the Son of God. Both parents receive a visit from an angelic visitor, but the distinctions made clear in light of this comparison reveals the greater honor of Mary.

The distinctions begin with the location. Zechariah, who is a priest of Israel, has gone to serve in the temple (1:5, 8). One shouldn’t be terribly surprised to encounter an angel in such a holy place. To have the meeting with Mary, however, she need not approach God; instead, God sends his messenger directly to her. The angel Gabriel is given all the specifics: her region, her city, her family, her marital status. The divine messenger comes to meet her in her mundane space. This is an act of honoring her.

So too are the words he speaks: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.” God knows who she is because God has already been with her. This is true for her people, her family—she is of the house of David—but it is also true for her specifically. She is one to whom God has already been gracious. That is the meaning of the term by which Gabriel addresses her, kekaritwmenh. It designates her as one who has already received and continues to possess God’s favor. Protestants may not embrace the specific commitments that arise out of this greeting in the Orthodox and Catholic Church, but all can affirm that God has chosen her and in so doing has already blessed her with his grace.

Finally, I note that God honors her by awaiting her response. Gabriel certainly makes some bold proclamations to her about bearing the Messiah, carrying in her own body the Son of God. These statements, however, are less declarations than they are invitations. Everything the angel says to her he communicates in the future tense. These are events that will happen. The futurity of the statements leaves a space for fulfillment. These things will happen if she allows them. Gabriel works for her agreement by comforting her, telling her this good news, and answering her questions about it. The messenger recounts the miracle that happened to her kinswoman Elizabeth seemingly to aid her ability to trust God’s miraculous power. Finally, and most importantly, the angel does not leave, the conversation is not over, the encounter is not finished, until Gabriel hears Mary’s response. With it, she assents to God’s call.

God blesses her in a way consistent with how God blesses others by inviting them into a relationship enveloped in God’s grace. Yet, the Lord was with her in a way that the Lord has never been nor will ever be with anyone else. If even an angel of the Most High God deigns to show her the respect of approach and of honest listening conversation, we humans can follow suit and give her respect as well.

Revelation 12

If Luke presents Mary with clarity and art, Revelation’s presentation lacks the clarity. The Apocalypse of John, standing as the last book of the Christian canon, may feel quite unique and frustratingly fantastic to Christian readers, but it falls comfortably into a common genre of its time. The human author is granted some sort of vision or experience of the heavenly realms and the future. The author then communicates that inarticulable journey through symbols and numbers. Although all the elements do not line up perfectly, it is no surprise that readers have seen a depiction of Mary in Revelation 12. The woman does give birth to a son who is described in Messianic and divine terms (Rev 12:5).

The evocation of her in that verse then draws in associations of her honor from the rest of the chapter. It is from this text that Christian tradition, in text and art, has warrant to describe her as the Queen of Heaven. She is illuminated by the light of the sun. She ascends over the moon, and a crown of twelve stars adorns her head (Rev 12:1). She is a cosmic Queen. Readers will recognize descriptions of the statue that Nicolás carries in this text. In addition to adorning her with the celestial lights, God honors her with protection. Another symbol, that of the dragon who represents Satan, seeks to destroy her beauty and, most distressingly, devour the child with whom she is in labor (12:4). God protects them both. The son is caught up to the throne of God, and the woman is protected and fed in a wilderness place God has prepared for her (12:6). When the enemy attacks again, God grants the wings of an eagle to the woman so that she can escape his grasp (12:14) and God’s creation the earth swallows up the water with which he seeks to drown her (12:15–16). God has deemed this woman worth of beauty and constant and costly care. Nicolás’ treatment of the statue seems to follow suit.

The Tangibility of Mary

But that moves us to a second concern. Is the veneration of Mary in The Weight of All Things a little too tangible? Why a statue? Doesn’t that smack of idolatry? It might, but such an error is not a necessity. Nicolás might be connecting, in his own way, with a reality the Bible boldly proclaims: the God who we serve deals in and with material stuff.

We could go all the way back to the beginning to affirm that God created all things and called the creation good. Our focus, however, drives us to the center of the story, the Incarnation. God Himself took on flesh. Ultimately, this is why Mary holds any place in the Christian narrative at all. She was the first who heard, saw, and handled the word of life (1 John 1:1). She nurtured his flesh. In fact, she was the one who provided it. 

God Himself took on flesh. Ultimately, this is why Mary holds any place in the Christian narrative at all. She was the first who heard, saw, and handled the word of life (1 John 1:1). She nurtured his flesh. In fact, she was the one who provided it. — Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament

This world changing affirmation appears in the earliest writings of the New Testament. In what very well could be his first letter, Paul says to the Galatians: “God sent forth his son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). It is affirmed on the first page of the canonical New Testament as well, in the genealogy of Matthew. The evangelist directs readers with a rubric for reading the possibly mind-numbing list of names. They fall into groups of fourteen, a number that might point to the sum of the letters of the name of David or a doublet of seven, a number of completion. The problem is that Matthew’s math seems off. The last group of men (and I do mean men. Four other women are mentioned in the genealogy but they do not contribute to the numerical count) has only 13. One way to fix the problem would be to include Mary. Some commentators have suggested that both she and Joseph would not count as distinct generations. I disagree. While Joseph provides a link to the family of David in a patriarchal culture, Mary provides Jesus’ link to everything. Without her he would have no generation at all. Hence she stands as a necessary element in his genealogy.

It is little surprise, then, that ancient interpreters of the Bible believed that Mary herself was also of the tribe of David. If God’s promise of a Messiah came to a descendent of David, and Jesus came from her and not from Joseph, then she would have had to provide the link to the Davidic line. She provided what was necessary for him to become human; she provided what was necessary for him to become the Messiah: Jewish, even Davidic, flesh.

Paul, John, Hebrews, Peter and the rest may state or assume this theological truth, namely that Jesus was fully human and that meant he had a human mother, but it is only Matthew and Luke who narrate that truth.

In Matthew, Joseph takes the limelight of the drama. He received the angelic message. He makes the decisions. He protects Mary and her child. Mary doesn’t do much of anything. That is, save one thing. She is Jesus’ mother. Matthew says it six times in his opening chapters. While the threats of death swirl around her, she bears Jesus, births Jesus, cares for Jesus. As is so often the case, the simple yet profound act of parenting, mothering specifically, necessary but not dramatic, takes place in the background. Without this mundane tangible act, the dramatic story of Jesus could not unfold at all.

Luke shows the real mothering of Mary as Jesus continues to grow. It is she who swaddles him and puts him in a makeshift crib (2:7). She and Joseph follow the practices of Israel by having him circumcised (2:21), and she follows the laws of purification after childbirth (2:22). Their trip to the temple is one of the most poignant moments of his young life. After they go three days without knowing his whereabouts, she lets him know that he has grieved her and Joseph by not sharing his plans. She has given birth to the Messiah, the One who is God, and he is also human, an infant, a toddler, a preteen. Mary’s story presents the tangibility of the Christian God, a God who can be touched. Many Christian traditions have sought to honor that mode of revelation by creating art that celebrates, reminds, and expresses the creative and tangible God. To see an image of Mary should be to remind one of the image of God, the One who took her flesh.

The Example of Mary

Appropriate Mariology directs to appropriate Christology. The primary reason that Mary is elevated is, of course, because she served God in the uniquely embodied way of bearing God’s Son. But she was not only a body, an inert vessel whose identity and meaning are exhausted in her biological motherhood. She became his mother because she had faith. Her role in God’s plan is unrepeatable, but the mode in which she fulfilled God’s plan is open to all. Frequently in Scripture she is held up as an exemplar of faith.

The Synoptics present this status in a provocative way, when on at least two different occasions Jesus seems to dishonor his own mother. Early in his ministry, when his popularity is on the ascent, the dense crowds make him aware that his mother and brothers have come to visit him. Instead of inviting them in or going out to meet them, he makes their visit a teaching moment. Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters? Those who hear the word of God and do it. (Mark 3:31) Some have interpreted this statement as either Jesus’ rejection of Mary or evidence of Mary’s rejection of Jesus. But neither need be the case. Mary is not disqualified from the family of God by this statement. In fact, Matthew and Luke have, by that point in their narratives, already clearly shown her to be one who heard the word of God and obeyed it. But neither is she automatically in the family of God simply by virtue of her maternity. She is one among many who have faith in God. Later as he nears his salvific moment in Jerusalem, a woman from the crowd cries out in praise of his mother. He turns the conversation again from her alone to her along with others who “hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28).

In Mary’s last appearance in the New Testament, she is again included along with others who are trusting God. As the curtain opens on the book of Acts, Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father and his followers obey him by going to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Many others join the twelve in prayer, including–as the only named woman—Mary (Acts 1:14). Centuries before, Joel had prophesied that God would pour out his spirit upon his sons and daughters (Acts 2:17). She is present when the flames alight upon their heads and they begin to speak in dialects previously unknown to them. Her presence in that place gives evidence of her faithfulness not only through the earthly life of her son but also at the beginning of the life of his church. Many other daughters and sons can follow her in opening themselves up to the bold acts the Spirit will empower them to perform.

Conclusion

The Weight of All Things invites us to consider Mary again in a space wrenched from the comforting and often anesthetizing familiarity of Christmas, and therefore it invites us to consider her anew. We study her origin story in the authoritative documents of Scripture to better understand our brothers and sisters in the faith. In most places and times, Christians have given much more attention to Mary than do present day Protestants. We have something to learn from them, and if we want to work toward the unity for which her Son prayed (John 17), graciously understanding their practices with regard to her is a necessary step.

The Weight of All Things invites us to consider Mary again in a space wrenched from the comforting and often anesthetizing familiarity of Christmas, and therefore it invites us to consider her anew. — Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler, Associate Professor of New Testament

We also study Mary to better understand our God. Because God is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, God could have achieved salvation in any way that God desired. God chose to become human; God chose to be born of a woman. Our God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, so when we study her—her faith, her embodied service, her honor—we better understand, and ultimately can better love, our God.

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