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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Pondering Mary

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her." (Luke 1:26-38)

Mary represents a multitude of meanings to people. As Protestants we are wary of spending too much time pondering her lest we be accused of being “too” Roman. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers don’t hide their veneration of Mary. Some of us Lutherans feel tension and, perhaps, a bit of confusion around the meaning of Mary—knowing that Martin Luther had a deeply expressed love and devotion for the mother of our Lord.

To give Mary an even more complex spiritual identity, there is the consternation of her virginity. What does her virginity mean and can it have any helpful meaning for postmodern believers?

I’m most drawn to the Orthodox interpretation of Mary: Theotokos or God Bearer. I’m drawn to it because, of course, that is what we are all called to do. In our baptism we are children of God and clothed in Christ. Our vocation is to “bear God” in a world that is dark and broken, manipulated by “powers and principalities” that don’t love creation—including humanity—but use it for their own selfish and destructive purposes and ends. These powers and principalities are represented in biblical terms as empire. And in the empire in Luke’s story are the proud, powerful and the rich of Mary’s song.

How do we—you, I or any child of God—have the courage to be, as Mary was, Theotokos: a God Bearer in the face of the pride, power and wealth of the empire?

One way to understand virginity is to think of it as a spiritual possibility, rather than as a physical condition: there is a place in each of us that the pride, power and wealth of the empire cannot touch. It’s that place, call it soul as Mary did, or spirit or heart, that remains “virgin”—untouchable and pure. And it’s from this place that God speaks to us and calls us to new possibilities.

It’s this “virginity” that enables Mary to say, “Here I am” and so face off against all the powers that said she was nobody, the lowest of the low—a young, peasant woman, expendable and of no account. It’s from this “virginity’ that she dares sing the words of the hymn of praise we know and love as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)

The song is so powerful it has been forbidden in some countries as an incitement of oppressed people to overthrow a corrupt government. When we read and repeat the witness and good news of Mary’s song we, too, open ourselves to God’s call and possibility in our lives.


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