Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Bible & The Virgin- Part 1

Why Bible-believing Christians should honour Mary

When Christians from the communities inspired by the 16th Century Reformation (traditionally called Protestants) debate the subject of the Virgin Mary with Catholics they usually say something like "Well, of course we honour Mary but these things Catholics do just aren't Scriptural." Which always makes me think two things. Firstly, in all the flood of books and blogs, sermons and songs produced by these Christians Mary is hardly ever mentioned. It is a curious way of honouring someone to ignore them assiduously. Protestants only ever seem to talk about Mary when arguing with Catholics so what do they mean by saying "of course we honour Mary?" Secondly, granted that some Catholic Marian (Marian means about Mary) beliefs are only implicit in Scripture even if you ignore those the explicit New Testament allusions to her clearly demonstrate that of all the merely human creatures in the Bible no one is more highly deserving of praise and honour than the Blessed Virgin. Don't believe me? Let me walk you through the verses.

The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.  Luke 1:28 NIV At this point the only things that we know about Mary are that she is a virgin and that she is engaged to be married. The Archangel Gabriel describes her as "highly favoured" the Greek word in the text, kecharitomene, can be variously translated. The Vulgate renders it as "gratia plena" that is 'full of grace'. The Geneva Bible, a good Protestant translation, has Hail thou that art freely beloved. So we have this young woman who is highly favoured by God or filled with grace by God or freely beloved by God. Note that these things are said of her before she becomes the mother of Jesus or even consents to do so. That is, Mary is already an extraordinary woman in some way. Why else would Gabriel apply this word to her? He adds "the Lord is with you" This same phrase is found in 2 Chronicles 15:2 The Lord is with you when you are with him. So why is Mary freely beloved and why is the Lord with her? The evidence from Scripture would be that she must be a devout and virtuous woman to a phenomenal degree. Her virtue and devotion are so great that God responds to her love in a phenomenal fashion also.

 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. Luke 1:30 NIV Gabriel here tells Mary that she has found favour. It might perhaps have been argued that Mary was a passive recipient of God's bounty. Many Protestants seem to argue that any Jewish virgin would have been up to the task that Gabriel is about to unfold. Here, however an active not a passive term is used. Mary has done something which has caused God to look with favour upon her. No heroic act of our Lady is recorded prior to this so the plain, literal sense of Scripture would lead us to suppose that it is the entire way that Mary has lived her life up to this point that has caused God to look so positively upon her.

  You will conceive and give birth to a son Luke 1:31 NIV Sometimes we become so familiar with an idea that we take it for granted and stop noticing how mind-blowingly amazing it actually is. Mary is a virgin. As a virgin she is going to have a child. And not just any old child the unique Son of God. This young woman whom we now know to be virtuous, devout and loved by God to an extraordinary degree is going to become the mother of One who will be the Saviour of the world. There is a story (or myth) that the painter Picasso was requested to sketch a woman's portrait. He quickly did so and then offered it to the woman for $6000. "But it only took you 5 minutes" she said. "Only 5 minutes and also my entire life" said Picasso. The salvation worked for us by Jesus in a sense only took the few hours between His betrayal by Judas and His death on Calvary. In another sense it took His entire life. And for about 30 years Mary was to be the central figure in that life.

 ‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin? Luke 1:34 NIV This is not the first time in Biblical history that an Angel has promised a child to a woman. In the Old Testament there are the examples of Sarah, mother of Isaac, and Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel. In the Gospel there is St Elizabeth, mother of St John the Baptist. This, however, is the first time that a woman who is a virgin receives such a promise so again we see something unparalleled elsewhere in the Bible concerning Mary. It is also worth wondering why Mary would ask this question since St Luke has already introduced her to us as betrothed to St Joseph. Unless she was pledged to a life of virginity then she would expect conception to follow the normal course of her imminent married life. And if she was pledged to virginity then this too was a new thing in Israel for there is no record in the Old Testament of young women making this offering of themselves to God.

The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God  Luke 1:35 NIV This crucially reveals the relationship that the Blessed Virgin has with the Holy Trinity. We already know that she is highly favoured by God the Father, now we learn that God the Holy Spirit is to become fruitful by her, she becomes in a sense the spouse of the Spirit, and that God the Son is also to become Son of Mary. In all human history, in all salvation history, no one, not Abraham, not Moses, not David, not Solomon not any of the prophets enjoys such an intimate and special relationship with each person of the Trinity. Search the Scriptures and you will see that it is so.

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word Luke 1:38 KJV We do not know how old Mary was at this time but it is reasonable to infer that she was a young woman, probably in her teens. In any event having been told the most awesome, incredible, mind boggling thing in the world see what her response is. She might have been forgiven for asking more questions, or expressing some doubts or point blank refusing. Our Lady did none of these things. Her faith is as perfect as a human's could be, her response is prompt and whole hearted, cheerful even. At the very least she is a role model for all Christians. A faith which does not have Mary as the poster child for faith and joyful acceptance of the gifts of the Spirit is surely missing a trick and, arguably, not reading their Bibles very attentively.

 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea Luke 1:39 NIV Hearing that her elderly cousin St Elizabeth was pregnant Mary did not take time to digest her own remarkable situation. She went with haste across some rough country to support her cousin. Having displayed perfect faith Mary now displays perfect, self-forgetful, love.

 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke 1:41 NIV It is important to note the sequence of events. Mary on arrival immediately calls out a greeting. On hearing the sound of Mary's voice, and as a result of hearing Mary's voice, St John the Baptist leaps in the womb and St Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. I am being fairly insistent on this point because I have heard Protestants argue that it was the presence of the unborn Jesus that prompted these things. The clear and unequivocal words of Scripture do not say any such thing. It is the sound of Mary's voice that has these effects. That this is so because Mary is the Theotokos, the God Bearer, is certainly true but it does not lessen the glory of God to accept the clear sense of Scripture here that Mary was the chosen vehicle through which His Spirit flowed.

In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! Luke 1:42 NIV Now, rememeber that St Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit while she utters these words. What she is saying is what God wants her to say. And what she says is that Mary and her unborn child share the title of Blessed. Note also she does not say "blessed because of the child you will bear." The Virgin is certainly blessed for that reason but recall that she was also blessed because she had found favour with God, because the Lord was with her even before the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel.

But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Luke 1:43 NIV Again notice that, still filled with the Holy Spirit, St Elizabeth explicitly states that to be visited by Mary is a favour which she has received. Clearly Jesus and Mary are inseparable at this stage in the life of our Saviour so you cannot have the one without the other. What St Elizabeth is experiencing is that Jesus, as it were, shines through Mary. Or, to put it the other way round, Mary is transparent to Jesus. Even if this was only the case during the nine months of her pregnancy, and there is no reason in Scripture to assume that her openness to her Son was of such short duration, it still follows of necessity that Mary has a special closeness to God and a special gift of sharing that closeness that no other person, male or female, in the Bible could claim to have.                            

 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her! Luke 1:45 NIV  Here the inspired St Elizabeth reveals another reason to consider Mary blessed. She believed fully and firmly in the promises of God conveyed to her by Gabriel. Which is to say that before she conceived Jesus in the flesh she had conceived Him in her heart. Belief preceded conception it did not follow it. We can say additionally that our Lady is blessed because at that moment she became the first Christian, she believed in Jesus before there was a Jesus to believe in. Her contemporaries believed in the Messiah who was to come, she in the Messiah who had already come and who dwelt, in the flesh within her own body and in the Spirit within her own heart.

And Mary said:‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour Luke 1:46-47 NIV So, in her first response to all this praise heaped upon her the Blessed Virgin immediately praises the source of all her blessings and joy. She is in this a model of humility, an example of one to whom praise and thanksgiving arises spontaneously to her lips. I have seen Protestants argue from this frank acknowledgement by Mary that God is her Saviour that she must have been a sinner since otherwise she would not need salvation. I do not think that this follows. We believe, do we not, that children who die in the womb through abortion or miscarriage might go to heaven. If they do then this is because the merits of Jesus are imputed to them, since this is necessary for salvation, but we do not assume that unborn children are guilty of actual sin. The only way to heaven is through the blood of Christ and the Catholic Church is happy, along with Mary herself, to acknowledge that her salvation like ours was wrought by her Son Jesus.

From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me  Luke 1:48-49 NIV Our Lady prophetically foretells that until the end of time all generations will call her blessed. Those who do not do so are clearly resisting the Spirit and paying little heed to the plain sense of Scripture. She also tells us why all generations will do this, because the Mighty One has done great things for her. That is, we cannot think of the blessedness of Mary without thinking of the Divine One who blessed her. Those Reformation Christians who fear that giving praise to Mary means robbing praise from God have turned a both/and gift from God's bounty in an either/or choice which smacks of over scrupulousness on their part. Catholics do not fear to praise those to whom praise is due because we know that this praise is only due and can only be due because they have been richly gifted by God who is the source of all good in heaven and on earth.

End of Part One

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1 comment:

  1. Bible book should be read and believed. Avoid reading too many versions for it may end you up confused. Read line by line and try to understand every word of it. You can ask your teachers, masters, elders about something which you don't understand. But don't take anything for granted. A message understood wrong can be dangerous.