The Self-emptying of the Mother of God

In my Protestant days, I had no problem with anyone talking about Mary—so long as it was Christmas.  On Boxing Day, that was it.  Over.  No more talking about Mary.  What are we anyway, Catholics?  It was understood that when we packed away the Nativity set, all talk of Mary got packed up along with it.  And my proof that Bible-believing Christians should not talk about Mary?  The New Testament never did.  Well, hardly ever did—just long enough to narrate the Christmas story.  Was she in the Acts of the Apostles?  Not really.  Was she in the Epistles?  No.  So there you go:  no talking about Mary or calling her blessed.

I read the New Testament with different eyes now, but I still think that Mary’s effective absence from most of the pages of the New Testament is significant.  Not that she is absent from those pages because she was unimportant.  It is something more than that:  she is absent from those pages because she was humble, and because she did her best to vanish from the public lime-light to melt away into the gathering with the other disciples of her Son.

For just look at the parts of the New Testament where Mary is mentioned.  The first chapters of Luke’s Gospel are basically her story.  It is not just that you can’t narrate a birth without mentioning the mother.  Luke goes out of his way to also narrate her tremendous holiness and her lasting importance.  The archangel doesn’t simply announce that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah.  Like someone stepping into the presence of his sovereign, Gabriel almost blurts out, “Rejoice, favoured one!  The Lord is with you!”  (Luke 1:28).  The Greek is notoriously hard to translate:  chaire, kecharitomene could also be translated, “Hail, graced one!”  The word chaire is the usual word used for a greeting.  Thus it is the word used for Christ’s greeting the myrrh-bearers in Matthew 28:9, where it is rendered by the RSV “Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!’”   The margin of the NASB renders it, “Jesus met them, saying hello”.  Literally chaire means “rejoice”; in the same way that Jews and Muslims greet one with a salutation of peace (“shalom”, “salaam”), Greeks greeted one another with a salutation of joy.  The greeting chaire is not extraordinary; but the assertion that Mary is graced, favoured, kecharitomene, is.

The theme of Mary’s purity and blessedness continues in the verses that follow.  When Mary greets Elizabeth, the baby within Elizabeth leaps in the womb at the sound of her voice.  Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit of God as Mary approaches and she cries out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Lk. 2:40-44).  Note that Elizabeth regards it as an amazing privilege that the Mother of the Lord Messiah should deign to visit her.  She then pronounces Mary blessed a second time:  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45).  Mary acknowledges that she will continue to be regarded as special and blessed.  In her Magnificat, she declares, “All generations will call me blessed” (v. 48).

So, after all this talk of how blessed Mary will be to all generations, it should be pretty clear that Luke regarded Mary as lastingly important.  That is, she should be regarded as a VIP among the disciples of Jesus and not just for one day at Christmas.  But what then are we to make of her effective absence, not only from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ public ministry, but also from the Acts of the Apostles?  We catch a last Lucan glimpse of Mary in Acts 1:14, where the church in the upper room is listed by Luke as consisting of the Twelve, “the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers”.  Mary does not even head up the list!  You can almost picture her squeezing into the back row with the Lord’s brothers and kinsmen.

That was how she wanted it.  As the Mother of the risen and ascended Christ, she could’ve had a prominent position in the Jerusalem church, insisting on special honours and functioning as a kind of power behind the apostolic throne.  But she refused such special adulation, and was content to find her place with the other women and with Christ’s brothers.  She treasured in her heart her Son’s words, “Every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).  Like her divine Son, who humbly emptied Himself of His heavenly glory and of the form of God and took on the form of a slave when He was born of her on earth (Philippians 2:6f), so Mary also emptied herself and renounced all entitlement and privilege.

That is why we cannot find her in the pages of the New Testament.  She did not insist on a place of honour in the church.  She left this to God.  And God responded as Christ promised He would, exalting her when she humbled herself.  Now she has her place of honour, and is lauded with hymns of praise.  The earthly church in Jerusalem acceded to her wish, and allowed her to shun the lime-light of this age.  But now that she stands in the church in the heavenly Jerusalem, she hears from her fellow-disciples the praise that is her due.  She succeeded in humbling herself, vanishing from the pages of the New Testament and hiding from the applause of men.  Now God has exalted her, and made her more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.  And not just at Christmas-time.  Christ’s promise to reward humility is for all time.  In her earthly humility and self-emptying, she blazes a path for us also.

5 comments:

  1. A good chunk of the New Testament may be silent concerning Mary, but the Old Testament is overflowing with Marian imagery. As an example, the Theotokion from Vespers (Tone 5):

    The sign of the virgin bride who knew not wedlock was at one time revealed in the Red Sea; for
    there Moses did cleave the waters, and there Gabriel was the minister of a miracle. At that time
    Israel crossed the deep and their feet were not wet, and now the Virgin hath given birth to Christ
    without seed. The sea remained uncrossed after the passing of Israel, and the blameless one
    remained incorruptible after giving birth to Emmanuel. Therefore, O eternal God, Who wast before
    eternity, and Who didst appear as man, have mercy upon us.

    Not to mention Mary as the new Eve (Irenaeus), the burning bush (Exodus), the East Gate (Ezekiel), etc. Now that I’ve seen all of these instances of her in the OT, I cannot unsee them whenever I read them or hear them read in the Church.

  2. Greetings Fr. Lawrence,
    Thank you for sharing the humility and humbleness of Mary.
    I would say these days there seems to be a segment of Anglican Clergy offering an emphasis on things Orthodox, including honourin g more Orthodox Saints are also finding more Feast Days for Mary in the Liturgical Calendar.

  3. What is your opinion of the Church’s traditions about Mary which did not make it into the Biblical canon? For example, the stories about her girlhood, and that the Church celebrated the Annunciation as a feast on March 25th very early on. To me they reveal how deeply Mary was beloved by the earliest Christians. And that what she treasured up in her heart was mystically made accessible to those who loved her.

    1. The stories contained in the (so-called) Proto-evangelium are more valuable for what they reveal about Christian attitudes to Mary in the second century than they are about Mary herself. At the risk of self-promotion, may I refer you to my book on the Mother of God which deals with all these questions. It is available from Sebastian Press at: https://sebastianpress.org/re-discovering-mary-the-orthodox-understanding-of-the-mother-of-god/

      1. Thank you very much for mentioning your book. From the Table of Contents it looks like it precisely addresses my question and I actually just ordered it from Sebastian Press! It seems the more we learn about Mary the more we want to learn. It’s also good reading for the Nativity Fast.

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