Petrus Christus’ c.1450 depiction of the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to the virgin Mary places her at the threshold of a gothic church building guarding the door as a protective mother and teacher with the right of veto over any who would enter to instruct God’s people. This elevated perspective of Mary represents a widely held view of her importance and sanctity in Christian history. Whilst there are strong differences between Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainstream protestants about the extent of veneration or honour Mary ought to receive, she still occupies a unique place in redemptive history as the earthly mother of Jesus. So much so that the chronicler Luke, gives her a significant emphasis in the introduction of his narrative about the things Jesus did and taught before the day he was taken up to heaven.
As a protestant Christian I don’t venerate, worship or pray to Mary. Much that has been written and believed about Mary in tradition and depicted in western history’s greatest artwork is not from the Bible. However, I also don’t go to the opposite extreme of ignoring her completely. Mary is an exemplar in how she responds to the news about the arrival of Jesus. Luke invites us to compare her story and reaction to Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. Where Zechariah was disbelieving and doubtful of God’s intention and ability, Mary is receptive and embraces the news. When Mary is mentioned in the Bible, the emphasis of the scripture is always on Jesus the Son of God, not Mary his earthly mother. By God’s grace, let us aspire to be like her in how she responds to this good news of God’s Son.
Mary is blessed among, not above, women. She is the beneficiary of grace not the bestower. God’s purpose with her is to fulfil his promise that a woman would have a child who will save sinners. Gabriel explained that Jesus will be born by a creative act of the Holy Spirit, not via a physical sexual encounter and not through virgin veneration. Gabriel also explains that Jesus is the Son of the Most High and Son of God, not, by title, office or status, the Son of Mary.
Mary responds magnificently confessing her trust in God as the greatest promise keeper in all generations. This is a God who does the opposite of what is expected, scatters the proud thinkers, brings down rulers (like the evil Herod), lifts up the humble and fills the hungry.
God is the starring actor in this story. All the other players mentioned, Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John and Mary serve as a supporting cast to emphasise the central role Jesus will play as the Saviour who will inaugurate the kingdom of all of God’s promises.
This is a God whose agenda is to reveal himself in his glory of fulfilling his promise to bring salvation to sinners and fulfil his covenant promise. To rest in God as Mary does is to know him as holy, merciful, mighty and a reverser of fortune. One who is the absolutely reliable sovereign.
Mary has much to teach us about God’s character, on this Petrus Christus was right. When we read her story in Luke’s Gospel we are both introduced and reminded of a God who mercifully saves and that is worthy of a “hail,” a “hello” and maybe even a “hooray”.
You can read the story of Mary in Luke 1:26-56.