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So What Did Mary Know?

December 23, 2014

I read recently that the song “Mary, Did You Know” (That link goes to the coolest rendition of that song, done by Pentatonix) has done more to resolve tensions between Catholics and Protestants over the Virgin Mary than any theological discussions have ever done.  After all, since we evangelicals want to sing it too, we have to acknowledge that she actually existed and is worthy of some degree of honor.

It has led me to consider just what it is that Mary actually did know.  She was clearly much more than an artless dunce who had no clue how pregnancy came about but it is doubtful that she knew that her son “would one day walk on water.”  She was a woman, or more accurately a teenage girl, so she would never have been included in the theological discussions of the rabbis.  After all, most of them would have thought, she would never be able to follow their deep thinking.

However, it is probable that a devout young women steeped in the Jewish culture of the day would be aware of and longing for the Messiah.  She, like others, would have been looking for a military Messiah; someone who would kick out the despised Herod and, even more, the Romans.   She would also have an awareness of her Davidic ancestry so it probably did not shock her to hear her future son being a descendent of “his father David.”

Right at the beginning of the Luke 1 story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary we see the first clue as to what Mary was like.  The angel Gabriel materializes or flies down or whatever and greets her.  She seems to get over her fear a lot faster than I would have and set her mind to trying “to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”  This girl was a thinker and sharp as a tack.

Taking the cultural military Messiah everyone was hungry for and Gabriel’s announcement together she now thought she knew that this baby was going to kick Herod’s butt.  Perhaps it was because the sweet little Mary we thought we knew was more than a bit feisty that she was willing to deal with the humiliation of unwed motherhood.  I’ve always wondered how anyone who has actually read that portion of the Bible we call The Magnificat can consider her demure and mild.  This confident anthem of a just God setting things right, so confident it was worded in the past tense, doesn’t sound even slightly meek.

If Mary did think she was carrying the military Messiah this would have been affirmed when the shepherds arrived with their report of the angelic message.  The visit of the wise men, gentiles no less, would have made her even more confident.  I’ve always thought that the passage “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart “ did not describe the gentile musing of a quiet young women but was rather further evidence that Mary was a deep thinker; she was trying to understand what God was doing with a passion that would make an evangelical Bible study seem shallow.

Days later, when Mary and Joseph went to the temple she probably felt she had yet another confirmation of the military Messiah from Simeon.  He takes the baby Jesus in his arms and gives praise:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 

Sounds good, right?  But then Mary’s building certainty comes crashing down.  Simeon turns to her and gives part B of his message:

“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Suddenly the kick-butt Jesus she thought she knew was not quite clear.  He was going to be “opposed” and Simeon was not talking about victories but rather “fall and rising of many in Israel” and “hearts being revealed.”  More chilling yet was the prediction that “a sword will pierce through your soul also.”

I think it is here that whip-smart Mary begins the process of rethinking who Jesus is.  She will get another clue in the dissing she gets from the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple.  Yet another at a wedding in Cana.  Still another when Jesus doesn’t feel the need to interrupt his teaching to go out and greet his mother and brothers.  And she finally feels the sword piercing her heart at the cross.

Mary is one of the most admirable figures of the Bible, way more admirable than the serene character we see in most Christian renditions of her.  In most of those depictions she looks like she is on Prozac.  But in reality she is smart, feisty, courageous and steadfast.  She stayed to the end.  But understanding Jesus was a task that took her whole life and was still not done.

At Christmas we modern evangelicals can learn a lesson from her.  We haven’t got Jesus down pat either.  We’ve probably put him in a box of our own understanding every bit as wrong as the military Messiah.  Maybe this Christmas is a good time to admit that, like Mary, we have a long way to go on our learning curve.


From → Christianity

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