Tuesday 10 June 2014

The Bible & The Virgin- Part 4

Why Bible-believing Christians should honour Mary

In this series I look at what the New Testament says about the Mother of Jesus, nothing more than that. There is an idea about which suggests that very little is said about Mary in the Bible and that therefore those Christian traditions which give her great honour, Catholic and Orthodox, are being unscriptural. We need to consider the questions of quality and quantity.

As far as quantity goes our Lady is far and away the most referred to woman in the New Testament. You don't have to be a feminist of course to think that that doesn't amount to very much but nonetheless it is the fact and worth considering. Also, you cannot construct a hierarchy of importance based on the frequency of Gospel references alone. For example all four Gospels give an account of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman whereas only a couple refer to Him being born but you would not deduce from that that the anointing was the more important event of the two. As for quality I hope that I have shown and will yet show that if we unpack the references to the Virgin we will discover them to be much fuller of significance than you might suppose if you only read them casually.

Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside the house and sent in a message, asking for him. A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.”
 Jesus answered, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”  He looked at the people sitting around him and said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”
Mark 3:31-35 (GNB)

Some Christians of the Reformation traditions (also known as Protestants) habitually use this passage to suggest that Jesus and Mary were at loggerheads during this part of His mission so that He rejected her in favour of His disciples. But this Gospel, and the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke, say nothing of the kind. The inference that Jesus did not respond to the call to go and see His mother is not backed up by the texts. The account in Matthew 12 is followed by this verse That same day Jesus left the house and went to the lakeside (Matthew 13:1 GNB) and it is more than incredible to suppose that on leaving the house He did not speak to His mother, particularly since not doing so would have involved Him in breaking one of the Ten Commandments Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12 NRSV)      

Jesus was a natural teacher and He took advantage of many everyday events turning them into occasions for teaching some important truth. Here, clearly, He used this message uttered in the hearing of all His audience to tell them that in the Kingdom of God all were born into a new kind of family, a new kind of relationship. This does not do away with existing ties of love but puts them on a new footing. Genuinely loving relationships cannot be an impediment to the God who is Love Himself, only those in which love is distorted and possessive or selfish need to be discarded or reformed in the light of the Gospel. There is no suggestion, no suggestion at all, from the texts that any such reformation was required in the relationship between Jesus and Mary. Our Lord is saying that His family is united primarily in and through the Holy Spirit, what He is not saying is that our Lady is excluded from that family or that she is one who does not do what God wants. How could He say that about one who proclaimed "behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word"? (Luke 1:38)

As He was saying these things, a woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “The womb that bore You and the one who nursed You are blessed!” He said, “Even more, those who hear the word of God and keep it are blessed!” 
Luke 11:27-28 (HCSB)

There is a school of biblical interpretation which suggests that the dialogue should be understood like this-
Woman- Blessed is the woman who bore you
Jesus- No she isn't.
But, once again, the text does not suggest the interpretation of it in this fashion. Jesus is as usual deploying His teaching skills. When the woman suggests that Mary is blessed she is repeating what St Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit said (Luke 1:42 and 45) and what the equally inspired Virgin herself said (Luke 1:48). Unless we assume that Jesus is in disagreement with the Holy Spirit, an assumption which is inadmissible for Christians, then He cannot be disputing the Gospel truth that Mary is Blessed.

What our Lord is correcting is the idea that the woman in the crowd has that mere blood kinship with Jesus is enough to warrant being Blessed. Remember at this time the dominant idea among the Jews was that the Messiah would be a descendant in the bloodline of King David who would establish a new kingdom in Israel which would drive out the Romans. One of the titles addressed to Him in His lifetime was Son of David because it was considered that this family relationship was the most important fact about Him. Now, Jesus really was related to David through Mary and He really was fulfilling prophecy but He was also inaugurating a new understanding of kingdom and kingship which was based not upon physical descent from Abraham or Jacob or David but upon faith and the Holy Spirit. In this dialogue then our Lord was saying essentially, 'yes it is true that my mother is blessed simply because she is my mother but more than that she is blessed with a blessing that you too can share if you, like her, hear the word of God and keep it.'

Standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
John 19:25 (HCSB)

That Mary stood by the Cross of her Son shows us that she has an heroic love for Him. Heroic in at least two senses. Firstly, because Jesus was a condemned traitor in the eyes of both the Jewish and Roman authorities and standing openly by Him at this time was an act of defiance. Secondly, because to stand by and see your own Son die a slow and agonising death would torment any mother beyond the normal powers of endurance. We know that as crucifixions go the death of Jesus was a relatively swift one, a matter of some three hours or so, but Mary could not have known that. She was prepared to endure by His side all that He endured for the length that He endured it and nothing less and in that she was a hero. Some Protestants, however, argue that 'of course' she stood by His Cross, that is the kind of thing mothers do. I'm not sure about the 'of course', it is certainly the kind of thing some mothers do. The point though is that this mother did it and that she certainly deserves to be honoured by all Christians for having done so. And she did it because she loved Jesus with a love greater than anyone else could possibly have for Him and for that she should also be honoured.

There are some other points about this that we should also bear in mind. As I mentioned in the earlier parts of this series Mary was present at a number of crucial points in salvation history and the Holy Spirit, as it were, goes out of His way to inform us of the fact. He must have a reason for doing so, this is not the first occasion nor the last, and Christians would do well to consider what that reason may be. A further point is that in the figure of Mary at the foot of the Cross we see a fulfilment of the prophecy of Simeon a sword will pierce your own soul (Luke 2:35) If the agony of our Lady on Calvary was no more and no less than you would expect from any mother in such circumstances then why does the Gospel draw our attention to it in this twofold manner as prophecy and fulfilment? And if it is significant what is its significance?

When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple He loved standing there, He said to His mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.    
John 19:26-27 (HCSB)

This is one of those compact Gospel passages which pack masses of information into only a few words. It tells us, for example, that far from rejecting Mary as some have suggested from the earlier passages Jesus retained the deepest possible love for her. Consider the circumstances, He has been hanging upon the Cross in agony for hours, His death is near at hand, He is thirsty, His vision is clouded with the sweat and blood which roll down from His tortured, thorn crowned scalp. And yet He has the energy and the inclination to take thought for the needs of His mother and make provision for her.

It is the consensus among Christians of pretty much all traditions that the Apostle John is responsible for the content of the Gospel that bears his name. And from that Gospel we deduce that he is the 'beloved disciple' referred to in this text. Now, of all the four Evangelists (authors of the Gospel accounts) St John is perhaps the one who is most precise and careful in his choice of words and in the events he chooses to record. Every word, every event, fits into a structure which he, inspired by the Holy Spirit, considers necessary for him to write and us to read. There are places where he refers to himself by his own name but here he prefers the designation "the disciple He loved." Why might that be? Well, every Christian reading this is a disciple whom Jesus loves so if Mary is given as mother to one then perhaps St John intends us to realise that she is given as a mother to all. We also learn from this that the author of the Gospel (and of several Letters in the New Testament) was an adopted son of Mary. They were intimate companions for a time after the events recorded in the Gospels and, at least, the first part of the Acts of the Apostles. Of course they would have talked about Jesus. St John passes on to us what he has learned both from Jesus and from Mary. If his Scripture writings have, as they do have, a very well developed theological understanding of Christ as the Incarnate Son of God and all that flows from that in a way which is more complex and rich than that of the other three Gospel accounts (the Synoptics) then part of that reason surely results from the input of Mary.

As an aside it is worth mentioning that if Mary had had other children there would be no need for Jesus to make provision for her in this way. I have encountered some Protestants who argue that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were hostile to the Gospel so that it would not be appropriate to place our Lady with them. We know, however, that James "the Brother of the Lord" was accredited as an Apostle (Galatians 1:19). Now either Jesus didn't know that this was going to happen, in which case He wasn't God, or the expression "Brother of the Lord" has a meaning different from "Son of Mary."

After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now accomplished
John 19:28 (HCSB)

The "this" after which everything was accomplished was the giving over of mother and beloved disciple into each others care. This suggests, and remember St John uses words with great care, that this giving over was an essential part of the mission of Jesus. Until He had done this He could not surrender to death. Mary was in a sense His gift to His beloved disciples and His beloved disciples were a gift to Mary. If there is one thing about which we can be certain it is that God does not revoke His gifts. If Mary was given to an earlier generation of Christians then she is given to every generation of Christians. For which we should thank God from the bottom of our hearts.

End of Part 4

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